Examining the factors contributing to affairs among expats is more of an art than a science. I’m not aware of any current statistics on the incidence of infidelity among couples abroad, most likely because trying to conduct research on expats is a bit like herding cats: it would be almost impossible to get any kind of representative sample. But I can say that in my clinical experience as an expat counselor, infidelity is by far the most common presenting issue among the couples that I work with. It seems to be an unfortunately common part of the life in the international community here.
There’s all sorts of theories about why infidelity is so common for people living abroad, including some unfortunate and possibly unfair stereotypes about Western men with Asian women. In Shanghai there is no doubt increased opportunity for infidelity than in most expats hometowns or cities, but to dismiss the issue as being one of opportunity is entirely too short-sighted. Certainly people in the US, just like in Asia, have the opportunity to be unfaithful, so it can’t be opportunity alone that sets the stage for couples to have affairs in Shanghai.
According to Shirley Glass, in her bestselling book “Not Just Friends,” which is about how to understand and cope with an affair, there are both individual and relationship vulnerabilities that can leave a marriage open to an affair. She uses the word “vulnerabilities” rather than “causes” because all of these factors could be present and still someone might choose not to have an affair, likewise very few of them may be present and an affair might still occur. Nonetheless examining vulnerabilities can help us to understand the “how” in what’s happening and therefore a way to protect the relationship in the future. Adding the variable of expatriation to the equation of these vulnerabilities can further complicate things, both on the individual and the relationship levels.
In terms of relationship vulnerability, one factor that seems to affect expats is whether or not the couple has differing levels of commitment or enthusiasm about the overseas assignment. When one partner is very excited about the opportunity and adventure while the other really does not want to be there or perhaps even stays in the home country for long periods, the enthusiastic partner may make decision to “find someone to share the experience with.” Not being on the same page with one’s partner about such a major life decision as expatriation can lead to the other partner feeling alone and unsupported or unable to influence his or her spouse, which are additional vulnerabilities when it comes to affairs.
As I mentioned before, similarly to the vulnerabilities described by Glass, this difference does not have to guarantee infidelity. In fact there are certainly couples who would make an effort to help their partner adjust and might become closer for it or there are also those for whom environmental discomfort of one partner would not cause rifts in the relationship.
Another factor that can make expat couples more open to affairs is the amount of business travel one of them may have to do. I’ve worked with couples based in Shanghai where one of the partners travels to different Asian cities almost every week, Monday-Friday. Of course this pattern exists in the US but it seems to be much more pervasive in the expat community. This makes it easy for couples to become disconnected from one another’s daily lives and thoughts. The partner who is at home may feel lonely or abandoned in an unfamiliar place and the one traveling may also feel lonely but may spend a lot of time at business dinners or social events. Since in China these typically involve copious amounts of alcohol, we’re again brought back to the complication of increased opportunity.
On an individual level, mental justifications and excuses can play a large role in the occurrence infidelity among expats, just as Glass points out that they often do for couples in the US. Nonetheless, a major contributor to this while living overseas can be a shift in the working identity of one of the members of the couple. It’s not uncommon that when one partner (in most expat families it would be the husband, but of course not always) is offered an expat assignment, the wife would have to give up her work in order to go with him. More often than not it is difficult or impossible for her to find similar work in the country of expatriation and so she ends up becoming a stay-at-home mom or housewife. For many women this is a welcome change, but for others they may find themselves at loose ends with the sudden shift in identity. This can become an excuse for her to make new “friends” that end up becoming more than friends. It can also happen that the man takes the new shift in power as a justification for why he “deserves” to have an affair - he may feel he carries the burden of provision in the family.
It’s important to keep in mind that the factors explored here are by no means an exhaustive list, myriad other ways exist that can contribute to infidelity among expats, including all of the “standard” ones that would affect a couple living in their home country. As we attempt to deepen our understanding of this situation in relationships, it’s important to keep in mind that goal that it is through understanding the roots of the struggle that can help us to empower our clients to find healthy ways forward.
________________________________________________________________________Christine Forte is a counselor to the international population in Shanghai, China. You can learn more about her work here: www.balancedheartcounseling.com