Most couples heading to Shanghai focus on the tactical and practical aspects of their relocation. They hire movers, engage real estate agents, and identify schools. Once here, they find grocery stores, and hire ayis to help them. While many couples know that moving to China will add stresses and strains to their lives, most do not think to seek adequate support where they may need it most – in their own relationships.
According to Community Center Shanghai (CCS) counselor, Ai-Ching Liu, the distress that most couples feel in coming to Shanghai doesn’t come from culture shock as much from the way the new situation shakes up their personal dynamic. “Many people think they have very strong marriages and that’s why they can move to China together,” she explains. “They come here and realize their relationship is not as stable as it was in their home country.”
She believes many couples too quickly place the blame on China. They attribute their weakening connection to the chaos of moving here. They plan to talk and reconnect more once they’re settled in, or intend to be more intimate when work and home schedules are more manageable. But in reality, life anywhere is full of stresses. Unless couples make time to address their problems, they will only compound beyond the challenges of life in Shanghai.
To stop the problem before it starts, a growing number of expats are beginning to add a relationship counselor to their relocation team. They are using counseling as a preparatory tool to ensure a smooth transition. Sometimes known as “expat proofing” a relationship, preventative counseling helps couples address their issues and maintain their connection before their new lives in Shanghai push problems to the surface.
This type of counseling can be influential enough to determine the difference between a difficult and successful China experience. According to CCS counselor Azin Nasseri, “The better you can create harmony and unity in your relationship, the more successful you will be in China. The greater the conflict, the more you will suffer and have a quicker exit from China.”
Bolster your bond Preventative counseling helps couples deal with the stresses that can send a relationship into a crisis period. It is especially useful at times of transition. During large life changes, most couples don’t have the time to focus on strengthening their relationships, but these are the very times that intimate connections are most at risk.
Preventative counseling can bolster a couple’s bond, provided both partners are receptive. “It’s very important for couples to be focused on values and habits they had before arriving in Shanghai. But at the same time it’s quite important to also be open minded and tolerant concerning the new culture they will face,” said Simona Renzoni, another CCS counselor.
Within these sessions, couples start by examining their reasons for coming to Shanghai (usually as a result of one of the partner’s work). They compare and share their feelings and expectations about the change. They work together with a counselor to create an awareness of each person’s perspective, develop skills to communicate effectively, and understand what’s necessary to maintain a healthy relationship.
The counseling sessions also allow families to work out the more practical details of daily life – schools, where to shop, how to handle the pollution, where to seek good medical care. The sessions are dedicated times to talk. Within these discussions, couples can explore the pros and cons of life in Shanghai and evaluate how these factors affect each other’s commitment to the experience. This can keep partners working together.
Finally, preventative counseling can give couples tools to recognize common stresses of life in Shanghai: culture shock, burn out for the working spouse, a breakdown in intimacy, and feelings of anxiety, depression, loneliness, boredom, and resentment. Counselors recommend at least five sessions to adequately “expat-proof” a relationship.
The sooner the better While it may seem counterintuitive, the benefits of preventative counseling are most potent when a couple first arrives in Shanghai. This is a time when most couples are most jointly invested in the adventure of the relocation, and receptive to confronting issues in a relationship.
However, there is also no bad time to seek preventative counseling. According to Ai-Ching, the greatest mistake couples make is waiting too long to get help. “If couples feel that they are easily angered, or impatient, or easy to get exhausted, it’s a sign for them to think they should talk to somebody about their situation.” Other warning signs include: one person feeling they are sacrificing more than the other, one or both partners feeling depressed, lonely, disconnected frustrated, and distant.
Many couples wait to seek help for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they don’t want to look like they have a problem. Or, because the problem isn’t clear enough to them, they don’t feel the need to seek the help of a health care professional. In other cases, couples try to rely on the help of family and friends back home. But often these people don’t provide the necessary support because, from their outside perch, they view the China experience differently – exciting, and a treasure trove of help, time and opportunity. Meanwhile, the other expats can be equally as unsupportive. Within the small and tight-knit nature of some communities, where everyone seems to know everyone else’s business, many people don’t feel comfortable sharing their personal issues. Finally, many couples believe they can fix their problems themselves, and wait too long to acknowledge that they can’t.
The result is that unresolved tension and conflict build, and can manifest themselves in toxic ways. Sometimes people begin to exhibit addictive behavior. “Women will say I have to buy certain things. Afterwards, they feel better but it’s because they are using this to calm themselves. They are so frustrated by their life here,” Ai-Ching says. For men, the behavior can be different. “Sometimes they say I just want to play this video game. I just want to surf the internet. It’s kind of a ritual. They have to do certain things, otherwise they can’t calm themselves down. Otherwise they get angry.”
In all cases, Ai-Ching points out that the need to repeat certain activities to handle emotions is a form of addiction. This behavior enables people to avoid their fears and unhappiness. The longer these habits continue, the harder it is for couples to break them down and find their true feelings.
As these conflicts penetrate a relationship, couples can grow more distant. The forces of work, materialism, boredom, and loneliness can lead to tangible pain. “Pain of one of the family members translates to pain of all,” says Azin. “Stress, when not handled properly can turn ugly.”
It’s at this point that relationships break down and true crisis – infidelity, discussions of divorce – enter. Counseling goes from a relationship management tool to crises enter prevention tool, one with a lower chance of success.
Beyond the beginning Once a couple feels well equipped for life in China, the key to sustaining the benefits of preventative counseling is to remain open, flexible, engaged, and willing to listen. “We don’t need to be in such a hurry to say our opinion,” says AiChing. “Just listen.” She also reminds couples to pause and take the time to acknowledge each other’s feelings. “Repeat and rephrase what your partner has communicated to you. For many couples, they just hope their spouse can listen to the words they have said.” Rephrasing can really help create the feeling of being understood.
Ai-Ching also recommends that people don’t only focus on their own lives. She believes people need to work as much on themselves as on their relationships. “I suggest my clients read a lot of different things. I tell them to broaden their views and perspectives about life. Know the people around you better. Don’t worry only about superficial things.”
Azin reminds couples to not let life in Shanghai make them lopsided. “True inner happiness comes when life is balanced,” he explains. Too often, he sees people bend towards achievement and money. But people also need to maintain their health, spirituality and family relationships to feel complete.
And, if a relationship feels near a tipping point, couples should come back to counseling.
Finally, just as couples developed their China entry plan, they also need to create a China exit plan. Creating a future goal together helps remind people why they are in Shanghai, and what they are aiming to get out of the experience. Couples need to maintain a vision throughout their expat experience. If they see a good picture, then no matter how difficult life is, they will still feel they are working together towards the future.
This article first appeared in the CARE magazine published by Community Center Shanghai, and permission was given to ShanghaiMamas to reprint.