Expat relationships are fun, exciting, and a new kind of adventure. But like all relationships, they come with their own set of challenges. There are, of course, language and cultural barriers, which can affect expat couples. Two people coming from vastly different lives need to be able to communicate well with each other to make their relationship a success.
However, there’s one other factor that influences intimate expat relationships—it’s the attachment style of the individuals in a relationship. Let’s find out together about attachment styles on expat couples.
Understanding the Attachment Theory
Attachment theory was first formulated by John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst and psychiatrist. His work began when he worked with hospitalized and delinquent children. He observed that these children’s symptoms were linked to their histories of maternal deprivation and separation.
In 1951, Bowlby wrote, to grow up mentally healthy “the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment.”
The attachment theory posits that the emotional bond we form with our primary caregiver during our childhood influences the relationships we form in adulthood.
Our romantic relationships, particularly, are affected by the attachment style we develop as children.
Building upon Bowlby’s work, Mary Ainsworth came up with two styles of attachment: secure and insecure. Insecure attachment is further divided into three types: avoidant, anxious, and disorganized.
Why Is It Important to Know About Attachment Styles on Expat Couples?
When we grow up, we evolve and change. However, an attachment style is one of those things that usually stays the same. Your attachment style as an adult will typically mirror the one you developed in childhood and have a major impact on your intimate relationships. This is true for you and your partner both.
You may have observed behaviors in your partner that seem strange to you. Maybe they become distant during conflict, or need constant reassurance from you. It could also be that they seem to be moody, one moment they seem to trust you fully, the next they’re reconsidering the relationship.
Maybe you recognize these behaviors in yourself.
Learning about your and your partner’s attachment style can help you strengthen your bond as you figure out the expat life together. You’ll be able to understand each other better and also provide the support the other needs.
Lastly, it will give you insights into your own behaviors, help you recognize patterns, and enable you to respond to situations in your life abroad in a healthier way.
The 4 Attachment Styles on Expat Couples
We’re going to dive into each of the four attachment styles. As you read through them, you may realize that you are insecurely attached. Research suggests that roughly 50% of the population has a secure attachment style and the rest 50% has an insecure attachment style. There is no right or wrong when it comes to attachment style. None of us had any control in the way we were raised and our attachment style is simply how we learned to cope.
However, what is in our control is to learn more about our attachment style and focus on our growth and improve relationships.
Secure Attachment Style
Children who had emotionally available caregivers—who made them feel safe, protected, and accepted—grow up to be securely attached. As adults, they find it easy to trust others and form intimate relationships. There’s natural warmth. Having a high self-esteem and confidence, they don’t take things personally.
Expats living abroad with this style of attachment find it easier to adjust to the new life and are secure in knowing that their relationships at home are unimpaired. As partners, they are supportive and loving, in times of both conflict and success.
When a problem comes up, they communicate with their partner and are optimistic about solutions. As a result, securely attached individuals often feel satisfaction in their relationships.
Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment Style
Children who experienced inconsistent treatment from their primary caretaker are likely to develop an anxious attachment style. Their caretaker may have been sometimes attentive to their needs while other times not. This results in a deep fear of abandonment in adulthood. They are constantly worried that their partner may leave them and thus seek frequent reassurance and validation. Living abroad may prove to be difficult for people with anxious attachment. They can become overly worried about their relationships back home and struggle to form new ones. The feelings of insecurity and lack of self-confidence can prevent them from forming new relationships.
Avoidant Attachment Style
Being neglected or abandoned in childhood can lead to an avoidant attachment style. When children’s needs are not met, they may eventually stop expressing them to their primary caretaker, resorting to self-reliance. As adults, avoidant individuals try to maintain their independence and express feelings rarely.
As partners, while they do enjoy closeness, it can take them a long while to open up. During disagreements, they may distance themselves and engage in stonewalling. Avoidant people also find it hard to commit to a relationship because they worry it may threaten their autonomy.
When living abroad, they may enjoy the freedom of being away from home and express little yearning for life back home. When it comes to socializing, they are not very concerned about meeting new people and usually keep to themselves.
Disorganized Attachment Style
Disorganized attachment style, also referred to as fearful-avoidant, has its roots in abuse, rejection, or neglect in childhood. It is characterized by a mix of both the anxious and avoidant attachment styles. Due to inconsistent parenting, the caregiver acts both as a source of fear and comfort for the child. This leaves the child feeling confused and disoriented.
Adults with a disorganized attachment style want intimacy but also greatly fear it. They may first jump into a relationship because of the need for affection, but when it starts to get serious, they begin to panic.
Expats who are fearfully-avoidant can like living away from loved ones while still fearing if they’ll be able to keep relationships at home intact. Additionally, they suffer when forging new friendships because of a fear of rejection.
The good news is, your attachment style isn’t permanent.
The not-so-good-news is, it often takes a lot of time and effort to develop a secure attachment style on expat couples. But it is possible and can do wonders for your expat relationship.
Here are some tips to move past your attachment insecurity and improve your relationship abroad:
- Assess your needs
When you’re unaware of your needs, you’re bound to feel unfulfilled and unhappy. Recognize your needs and desires so that you can begin to understand what makes you feel secure in a relationship.
- Communicate with your partner
Open communication is key to a successful relationship. For expat couples, this is especially important as they navigate a new life abroad. Talk to your partner about your feelings and ask them to share theirs. Pay attention to what they tell you and don’t judge.
- Seek therapy
Gaining awareness about your attachment style is just the start. Therapy can bring your blindspots to light and show you how to move toward secure attachment.
Would you like to learn more about attachment styles on expat couples and how to have a better expat relationship? I will teach you all the techniques of effective communication in a relationship and how to cope with your attachment style. Book your free consultation today!
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By your side,
If you are an expat woman who wants to live a joyful, successful and fulfilled international life, Gabriela is the Licensed Psychologist and Mentor you need.
She helps you reclaim your self-confidence back and design your expat life in your own terms. Gabriela has more than 20 years of professional experience, speaks 3 languages (sometimes in one sentence, like you!) and has supported more than 350 expats overcome anxiety and burnout, build meaningful relationships and enjoy their international lives, wherever they are, wherever they are heading.
Gabriela offers counseling to expat women in Spanish, English and German.