Hong Kong is an amazing city. One full of vibrant, interesting, and exciting people, places, and opportunities. Expats often find themselves living a life quite different than the one they left behind – faster, busier, more affluent, and with all new people. While living and working in Hong Kong is truly amazing, it can be a minefield for marriages, especially for those in the most common Expat age bracket, the ‘Growth Set’, couples in their late 20s to early 40s.
As if importing yourself and your family to Asia weren’t enough, the Growth Set have a unique cacophony of stressors unrivalled by any other stage of life. Career focus, finding the right partner, and starting a family are challenging, but factor in Hong Kong’s long working hours, nightlife, heavy travel, and universal drive to get ahead in a world where everyone else appears to ‘have more’, expats can lose themselves and their relationships in the process. So, how can you find the silver lining of all this stress while you chase that brass ring?
Let’s start by understanding the Four Stages of Love. Hong Kong can thrust couples headlong into Stage 3, and this is where we find the greatest peril, but also the greatest opportunity.
STAGE 1: INFATUATION / FALLING IN LOVE
New. Exciting. Fresh. Every day is an adventure. It’s literal chemistry hard at work. Oxytocin, Cortisol, and Testosterone rush through our bodies creating the euphoric excitement and giddiness when people are first falling in love. Sexual desire, longing, and attaining gratification are the drives specific to this stage.
STAGE 2: ROMANTIC LOVE AND ATTACHMENT
Stage 1 can’t last forever, and if it did, we might actually die from pure exhaustion. Hormone levels normalise after 12- 28 months; things get comfortable and we form routines. Acceptance, commitment, and better communication are indicative of Stage 2. This stage is exciting in its own right – deep emotional and sexual recognition is being developed, life plans and goals start to align, and thinking shifts from ‘me’ to ‘us’ and major decisions include moving in, marriage, and having children.
STAGE 3: DEALING WITH CONFLICT OR CRISIS
It can murder or elevate your relationship, and moving to Hong Kong (for even the most amazing couples) epitomizes Stage 3 and throws you right in to the thick of it. This is a difficult phase where your mettle as a couple is tested.
While Stage 3 is compulsory to building a solid relationship, you can’t plan for it or schedule it, and by definition it will happen at ‘the worst possible time’.
This stage is critical – as a couple, you start building final patterns and confidence in each other, and learning each other’s coping mechanisms. We learn when we need to prioritise our own needs, when we need to dig deep for our partner, and most importantly – how our actions and reactions break down or build up walls in our relationship.
See if this story of Sam and Alex sounds familiar: Alex, the trailing spouse has wilfully chosen to follow spouse Sam, the primary working spouse, to a land far away following an opportunity that was simply too good to refuse. Unwittingly, Alex has lost his/her professional identity in the responsibilities and challenges of moving abroad, and might begin to subconsciously resent the successes of Sam. While Alex works hard to assimilate in a new environment and manage all things home front-related, he/she begins to feel isolated, relying heavily on Sam for emotional and financial support. However, Sam, in a new job, feeling a new sense of responsibility having dragged his/her family halfway across the globe for his/her own advancement, is stressed and exhausted from the pressure cooker known as Hong Kong and arriving home at the end of a long day – the tank is empty. Home becomes a place of isolation and loneliness for Alex, while becoming a growing source of stress and work for Sam, who sometimes just finds it easier to be at the office or on a trip. No one is happy. No one’s needs are being met. Rifts develop and the relationship cracks under the pressure.
But, it doesn’t have to be this way! Stage 3 will happen. It’s important for it to happen. So, as you start that uphill climb, stop everything, and take just a moment to check in with your partner and get on the same page. If you can rise to meet this challenge head on and work to maintain intimacy and care for each other’s needs – mastering conflict and crisis – you are well on your way to the long-awaited Stage 4!
Here are some Safety Checks you can put in place as you encounter conflict. Answer these questions, together. You aren’t done until you share the same answer.
- What’s our end game? Why are we doing what we are doing and what are we hoping to get out of it? Does it benefit all of us or just one/some of us?
- If the benefits are unequal, how can we work to build a valuable sense of equality into the situation? (Example: If a spouse enjoys the recognition and achievement of work, not working post-arrival may actually seem more punishment than luxury. Don’t assume easy is best or that what would fulfil you, will fulfil your spouse.)
- Define limitations for how much one partner will have to bend to accommodate the other through this challenge or crisis. As you near this breaking point, how will you alert the other so you can work through it together instead of letting it all blow up?
- If it all goes pear-shaped, what’s your exit strategy? Just having a clear plan for exit will lower the perceived stress of every other step and decision.
OFTEN, SITUATIONS IN STAGE 3 ARE UNCHARTED TERRITORY. THIS LAST TIP MAY BE THE MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL: CHECK IN.
Set a date in the reasonable future to re-evaluate the questions above within this context.
- Have your answers changed?
- Have your needs changed?
- Are there new factors of which you were naïve or unaware, and which should be considered at this time?
As you can see, proceed with caution and thoughtfulness through Stage 3, block by block you will actually build an amazing fortress of a relationship – you may come under attack, but together, you can never be knocked down! This is the Silver lining – only through the trials and tribulations of Stage 3 will you have the opportunity for deep growth and fortification.
It’s OK to ask for help. Especially if you find you are going around in circles – call a professional and learn great tools and insights to help you push through and grow successfully as a couple.
STAGE 4: THE BEGINNING OF A STABLE LONG TERM RELATIONSHIP
Some may call it the Holy Grail, where relationships are an art – a beautiful medley of shared goals and priorities, core values, work ethic, trust, and intimacy. But remember, Stage 4 will (hopefully) last the rest of your life so it won’t all be wine and roses!
Work, kids, professional development… Life gets busy. Left unchecked, relationships can become as exciting as dry toast. The biggest risk in Stage 4? The proverbial ‘spark is gone’, and you feel more like ‘mates’ than mates.
I like to give my clients a little ‘game’ to play for #5 that can help as a starting point when things get stale. You can actually use these at any stage in a relationship to build intimacy and vision.
Write each question on an index card and shuffle them. Set a “reconnection date” each month with your spouse where you have at least 90 minutes uninterrupted. Select one question at random each month and explore it thoroughly, for each of you, together. 12 months, 12 questions – rinse and repeat. Because life changes and we change with it.
- How would you like your life to be different three years from now?
- Do you see your work changing in the future? How?
- How are you feeling about your jobs these days?
- What is the most exciting thing happening in your life right now?
- Have any of your life goals recently changed?
- What are some of your life dreams now?
- What are your goals for us as a family?
- What goals do you have just for yourself right now?
- What have been the highlights and low points of the last year for you?
- What adventures would you like to have in your life right now?
- If you could have a superpower, what would it be and how would you use it?
- How do you want to be remembered? For what accomplishments or characteristics?
Dr. Quratulain Zaidi (BSc. Hons, MSc, MSc, PhD) is a mother and a member of the British Psychological Society and British Association Counselling & Psychotherapy and abides by the Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling and Psychology. She has lived in Hong Kong and Singapore for 12 years. She specialises in assisting families with issues including parenting, teen issues, Cybersafety, marriage guidance, post natal depression, stress and anxiety disorders, depression, bullying, eating disorders, OCD and self-harm. She is an expert in educational assessments and learning challenges in children, for example ADHD, ADD, Dyslexia and ASD.
For more related articles, read our series on “Love and Relationships in Hong Kong”