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  • Couples Must Read by Janet Phelps 2010

    So, you're in a relationship, and you're thinking of coming to Thailand with your significant other, right? You may be wondering how moving abroad will affect your relationship. And if you're not wondering that, maybe you should be. I mean, at least give it some thought, right?

    John and I have had a great experience at Super English and in Surat Thani, and I really want the same for you. So what follows is some unsolicited advice that will hopefully make things easier on you and your boyfriend, girlfriend, partner, spouse or other significant other.

    Moving to Thailand: It's not easy, but it's not difficult. There will be times when one person loves it and the other hates it, and then that will switch. People go through lots of changes and mental swings as they adjust to living abroad. Thai culture can be really frustrating for us farang. Unfortunately, mutual dislike builds into cynicism that can deepen until it overshadows all the good things that are happening.

    The fact that John and I have loved it here isn't because we're more awesome than any other couple or better at life or anything like that.

    We had been together for five years when we joined Super English.  Moving here was really, really good for us as a couple. We've gotten to spend way more time together and had so much fun traveling and trying new things. We've also made a lot of amazing new friends.

    John and I both grew up overseas and moving around a lot so it's something we had been planning on doing since we started dating. We joined Super English after a really intense and difficult year of living in a commune with our good friends (yeah—long story). I mention that because it really put things in perspective for us when we got here. We were so grateful to have our own space that we didn't care about the heat, not having consistent running water or sharing a semi-furnished house with 4 strangers.

    Even though being with someone who knows you can help so much with homesickness and loneliness when you move abroad, I've seen many couples break apart in my nearly three years in Surat Thani.  

    Of course, when you take two people's thoughts into consideration, you are doubling the chances that someone won't be happy with the new job, apartment, boss, lifestyle, food, etc. It's also pretty common that a couple will love it here, but not fit in well with the staff team or the school. And then there is the most painful scenario in which the trauma of such a dramatic change exposes underlying rifts in the relationship. In that situation, some couples tough it out and grow and others give up and go home.

    I know that's painful because it's happened to my good friends here. One particular couple I know had
    been together for five years before coming to Surat. They split up after deciding to sign on for a second year because their interests had diverged deeply in the year since they arrived. Another friend's significant other decided they had other interests just two weeks after they arrived and returned home.

    I've noticed that successful couples tend to have some things in common. They've usually been together for a significant amount of time before coming here, have discussed their expectations in advance; they like being together, have fun together, are adventurous, communicate well and are comfortable discussing their problems with each other. They're willing to hang out a lot with other people but know how to make time for each other. They take their jobs seriously and have moved or lived abroad before.

    On the other hand, I've noticed that couples who hate it here or end up splitting up do a lot of these things: They tend to withdraw into their relationship when things get hard instead of reaching out and making friends with other teachers, use their increased influence as a couple to make things harder or difficult on others, don't know how to have fun together or expect their partner to stay the same.

    So make sure and have the 'expectation discussion' before you get here. Ask each other what you're expecting when you get here. Talk about what you'll do if what you hope for doesn't happen. What if one of you gets repeatedly sick every other week for the first six months? What if one of you gets really homesick and depressed? What if one of you becomes an alcoholic? (Yeah—that happens more than you might expect, actually).  

    Let me explain that part up there about withdrawal being destructive. Thailand is all about being open—open to new experiences, new foods, new people, new adventures. I've seen lots of couples who become really insular the longer they're here. They stop hanging out with other people or trying new things. That's obviously OK, but you need to have a support network of people around you who can help you. Living here is really what you make of it. You both have to be willing to say, 'We will have a good experience here. We will both do our best to make this good experience.'

    For couples who get stuck in a negative space, their cynicism can really affect other people on the team. Super English teachers tend to see each other a lot. If a couple has decided that the food in Thailand is inedible, they'll share those thoughts with other people, who may not agree, but will certainly feel the angry bias against life in Thailand in that thought. That's really easy to do because we all hate something about living here—even if it's just being far from our family and friends. The reality is we need each other to make it through the all of the inevitable difficult times here. We need each other's encouragement and enjoyment to remind us that it's not all bad at times when that's all we can see. It goes without saying that couples tend to share mean gossip with each other a lot—something else that can really rub off on others and cause a lot of hurt.

    This is something else that's hard for couples to take: Your partner will change. Sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, a lot of times for the better, many times for the worse. It's inevitable. This  experience changes people. Don't expect him or her to stay exactly the same. I came here with a sociologist and a workaholic social worker. I'm now married to a Muay Thai fighter and a poet. Not bad, right?