General challenges for expat marriages
It is probably no secret that expat marriages face special challenges with usually one spouse giving up their own career and following the other spouse to distant locations.
The working spouse (usually the husband) is busy and excited, surrounded by new colleagues during long work hours. The trailing spouse (usually the wife) on the other hand is often left without a purpose or network, forced to build new friendships from scratch and navigate a foreign culture and language without the help of the Chinese admin or HR girl that is helping her husband.
While the working spouse is happy, the trailing one may be miserable. China Daily ran an article about desperate expat housewives a few years ago, but in general you find few resources on that topic.
Well, this imbalance between working and trailing spouse is not all that can threaten an expat marriage. Beijing, or Asia in general, has added dangers.
As I spend more time in Beijing and meet more expats I learn about the impact of “yellow fever”, the sudden infatuation of Western men with Chinese women. There seem to be few marriages or long term relationships immune from that disease. I see middle aged man parading around with Chinese girls on their arm at least 15 years younger than them. I meet expat women who portray on the outside that everything is fine but once you scratch the surface a bit, a different picture emerges.
A European male friend of mine, who has been living in Beijing for many years, told me he doesn’t know of one Western guy who came to Beijing and did not cheat on his wife or girlfriend. While that may be an overly broad generalization (or reflection on his circle of friends), it certainly conveys a point.
A relocation consultant has told me she has seen it many times. On the visit to scout out the new location, the couple seems happy and in love, excited about the move. Often he relocates first for his job, while she comes a bit later with the kids. By the time she comes over, even if it is only a month later, he often already has a Chinese girlfriend.
So how does that happen? Well, as a woman I cannot really understand the allure of Chinese girls on Western men. But I see some of them swarming around the guys like moths around the light. At expat evening events you will see many local attendees hoping to make foreign friends. I’m not saying every Chinese woman at these events is looking for a boyfriend. Many are there to meet interesting people and practice their English. But there are certainly some girls flirting heavily with the Western guys. And some guys truly, and understandably, enjoy the attention and admiration they are getting. (To be fair, there are also sometimes a few Chinese guys talking up Western women.)
In addition, the attitude of most Chinese girls is that if he is married, that is his problem, not hers. She doesn’t care, even if he has kids. In Chinese society, it is common for powerful men to have a xiǎo sān, a mistress (literally: little three). The wife is expected to look the other way.
How to keep your relationship healthy
I don’t want to scare future Beijing expat wives. But I want to raise awareness so you can take steps to protect your relationship. The first thing is to be aware of the risk and to talk about it with your partner. Don’t think that it could never happen to you – I have seen it happen to couples who thought the same. If at all possible, you should come here together, at the same time, no matter how stressful the accelerated move schedule may be.
As a trailing spouse, it is also important to build your own life and to be happy. Being miserable, needy and clingy is a sure attraction killer. Don’t make it more appealing for your partner to look for fun interactions outside his home because the atmosphere at home is difficult. And talk about risks and challenges to your marriage or relationship before you move. Even if you think your marriage is strong and happy!
Please share your experience and recommendations to keep an expat marriage happy in the comments.