How do you get the connection you need in an often disconnected and isolating world, compounded by the added pressures of a mobile and global lifestyle? Partners/family living in Switzerland together or those in a long-distance relationship may face acculturation and adaptation challenges beyond what is typically spoken about in relationship research. Whether in a long-term relationship or just starting anew with someone, we all seek more knowledge on what builds a healthy relationship and how we can foster connection at home or abroad.
You may have a visceral reaction to the term “the Four Horsemenof the Apocalypse” by the world-renowned psychologists, Drs. John and Julie Gottman. This refers to the communication styles of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, and their presence indicating a potential impending end to a relationship. Perhaps this powerful metaphor is meant to draw our attention to a critical factor that we know impacts the quality and longevity of our relationships most: communication strategies.
If you recognize any of these communication styles in your relationship or are unsure if your relationship can withstand the added pressures and opportunities of international life, remember that these skills are learned, not innate. Going further, flipping the Four Horsemen notion on its head, what would it look like if you were to replace some of these behaviors and connect in a meaningful way without the distractions and hurt of these communication habits?
Research suggests that the same skills that will benefit your relationship will also bring more meaning and connection to your experience in Switzerland. Creating an international story together sets the foundation for how you see the world. The way you communicate with each other and to yourself becomes your shared meaning.
According to the Gottmans, there are four ways to create shared meaning and build a stronger, healthier relationship as a couple:
1. DREAM TOGETHER – By sharing a common dream or vision for life, you can accept ups and downs as a couple with a greater sense of perspective. Having a “big picture” perspective helps to avoid getting caught up in the small stuff. As internationals it is helpful personally and within the relationship to draw meaning from the experiences you have abroad, both pleasant and unpleasant.
2. ATTUNEMENT – Speak aloud your shared hopes. Expressing your aspirations honestly and openly allows you both to feel seen and heard, which is deeply valuable in any relationship. Research from the Gottman Institute suggests that couples that attune are happier and struggle less in their relationship. By validating the hopes and challenges your partner faces, you open up for the story of “us” verses “I.”
3. RITUALS – Living outside of our country of origin can mean a significant change in schedules and priorities, especially in the life of a relationship. Make a point to discuss the rituals you value most in your daily routine – be it morning goodbyes or reconnecting after the day ends. Furthermore, explore the activities Switzerland has to offer that bring you both pleasure. Committing to this time together fosters strength in your bond that is an investment, so-called “social collateral”, which can ease pressure when conflict does arise.
4. LIVE IT – As important as our values are, most of us spend little time clarifying and gauging if we are living them. Bringing your bond into action strengthens your shared story and beliefs, as a couple or as a family. According to the Gottmans’ Sound Relationship House model, the highest level is intentionally contributing to a sense of purpose together through shared meaning.
Living outside of your country and culture brings rich benefits and calls for a prioritization of time and resources to support healthy acculturation and adjustment. When making this journey as part of a relationship this process lays the foundation for resilience and joy in your partnership. If you recognize criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling keeping you from a greater connection, consider letting meaningful connection guide a new path on your international journey together.
Dr. Brandi Eijsermans, Psychologist FSP, supports individuals, couples and families to thrive in their international lifestyle and relationships.