Wiebke Anton is a relationship coach for people living abroad. In this episode, we talk about being a couple who moves and how we can prioritise our relationship.
Wiebke's questions: for returning home:
Welcome to Holding the Fort Abroad, the podcast for expats with travelling partners. My name is Rhoda Bangerter, I am a certified coach and the author of the book Holding the Fort Abroad. In this podcast, I interview men and women who live abroad and have travelling partners so that we can all benefit from their wisdom and experience. I also invite relationship experts to apply their expertise to this topic. Today my guest is Wiebke Anton. She is a certified relationship coach for people living abroad. This means that she helps future and current expat couples to understand, navigate and master their relationship challenges so that they can fully enjoy their couple life abroad. Her focus is on understanding and analyzing patterns of behavior and replacing them with alternatives through hands-on exercises. She and I are also the co-founders of the Expat Couples Summit. Wiebke welcome!!Wiebke Anton (:
Hi Rhoda. Thanks so much for inviting me.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Yes, a pleasure. And I'm so happy that you are here. You and I have had many, many conversations about couples, relationships, relationship caretaking, and also specifically about couples who move. Which was the whole point of starting the Expat Couple Summit, when you had the idea. And then we started talking about what is it about couples when they move abroad to other countries, and then maybe you could be on your sixth move and you still find challenges or opportunities that you wouldn't have if you weren't moving. So today we're gonna talk a little bit about relationship caretaking.
First, I want to ask you about what kind of things you've seen in relationships, particularly those that are abroad and with couples who move. Then we can talk about how some of the exercises that you do for relationship care, thinking how that can apply to couples who are geographically separated. And then we'll move into a third part, which is when we reconnect, because that's often a space where sometimes there can be tensions or frustrations. And I'd love to hear your input into some of the things that couples can do or say, or conversations that we can have when our partner comes home. So can we start maybe a little bit with how you work with couples, what you've seen, what kind of challenges you've seen for couples abroad?Wiebke Anton (:
So I usually work online with couples or individuals. And the typical scenario would be that a couple comes to me, or sometimes one person reaches out to me of the couple, and they are telling me that they have either a specific issue they want to discuss or they want to be guided through by a mediator or a coach just to support them staying on track during their conversation. And sometimes you have couples who have the feeling they are kind of stuck or stagnated, or they have this disconnect creeping in, and they just want to analyze their relationship a little bit and really get to the bottom of ‘Okay, why are we feeling drained from our relationship because it should be our safe haven?’
But sometimes life happens, a move happens and a culture shock happens, and so on. And then people realize, ‘Oh, we are now in a worse place than we were a year ago.’ And then couples come to me and they say, ‘Okay, we don't really know what's going on, but maybe someone, you
That's pretty courageous, isn't it? It's pretty courageous to be able to say, ‘Well, okay we’re in a worse place potentially, let's speak to someone’ but I'm assuming then things kind of get unraveled, right? So things come to the forefront. You're able to see what the dynamic is.Wiebke Anton (:
So a very typical pattern is that a couple comes and is like, ‘Oh, we are…It's really, everything is fine. It's just this one thing that is bothering us.’ And then throughout the conversation it becomes obvious that they have several other challenges. And I then try to reflect this to them and show them a little bit ‘Okay, I think that maybe you should look into this more.’ So yeah, this is always why it's so good to talk to a coach even when it doesn't feel like your relationship is already in a super depressed, just to have someone to have this checkup from time to time. And yes, it is scary because it could also reveal some more construction sites than you would have thought before.Rhoda Bangerter (:
So typically, do you find both are willing to do the work, or can you do like, if just one…
I've talked about this a lot, and you and I have talked about it a lot where it can also be where one of the partner says, ‘Something's not right, something's disconnected with my partner. Can we talk about it?’ And it also works to go as one, but I always just feel like saying well done to couples who actually go together, because that is such a commitment to the couple I find, huh?Wiebke Anton (:
So of course it's ideal if both partners come and both are willing. But in any case, any coaching is skill building. So if one person says, ‘I think I want to work on my communication skills, I want to understand my own patterns’, then please be my guest. It's great, because if you start working on yourself, it will also spill over into not just your romantic relationship, but also to your other relationships.
So, well, in my case, I had it once that a couple started, and then the husband said, I don't want to do this anymore. But the female part continued and this was good. She felt she had like this container where she could reflect on herself and the things she needed to work on more, and that's fine. Maybe at a later point, the husband would have returned. So it's always better to just get started and then see how the journey unfolds and how it influences your relationship.Rhoda Bangerter (:
So today we're gonna get a little bit of insight about what kind of things you can advise couples in terms of their relationship care. So what kind of things would you work with a couple in terms of… what kind of exercises, what kind of elements to work on?Wiebke Anton (:
I mean, it's a very broad question, but in general I focus on how people interact, how they would improve their communication and supporting them in managing their perpetual problems. Perpetual problems are issues or topics that just keep occurring and people like, ‘Oh, but we discussed this already half a year ago. Why do we discuss it again? Why are we having an argument about it again?’ So trying to understand why is this problem unsolvable and how can we, you know how can we stay in a conversation about these perpetual problems and really getting to the bottom of why a relationship feels stressful and energy draining. I would say this stands at the core and with a focus on expats.
My two passions basically are helping them to really use this momentum of moving to a new place, to a new destination. And really thinking about their relationship and investigating how do we want to reinvent ourselves? What do we do want to do differently next time when we move? And analyzing yourselves. What are the things that are really important to us as a couple? And how are we going to live our vision we have for ourselves in the next assignment after we have moved and after all this stress has settled, what are we going to do with us as a couple? How can we seize this as a new beginning?Rhoda Bangerter (:
Okay. I love that. There’s two bits there that I want to explore with you. The first one is perpetual problems, which I'd like to come back to later, but this one that you're saying about living the opportunity, if we are thinking about, okay, a couple has start has agreed to launch into being geographically separated, I mean, firstly you could, you could be preparing for that in terms of all the things that you've already said. So before the geographical separation, saying how do we want to be as a couple?Wiebke Anton (:
Mm-hmm.Rhoda Bangerter (:
What kind of opportunity is this gonna give us as a couple, but also individually. I don't know, what other things could, and then as they go, seeing it as an opportunity for their couple, what would you say in that specific circumstance connecting it with what you've said before?Wiebke Anton (:
I think you phrased it so nicely yourself when you said long distance relationships do not have to be a negative thing, right? It creates so much room for yourself where you have time to develop your own projects, where you build your own social network that not just consists of what you and your partner have together. So you can create your own life. You can create spaces where you really take care of yourself and you start learning things or developing new hobbies. You can have so much time with your children where you build, if you have very special bond that sometimes if we are totally honest, gets lost when parents are together all the time. They probably do not work on their friendships, they have a different relationship with their children when they're together all the time.
So I think that it's really about how you basically construct, or your narrative about what a long distance relationship entails. And I think what I would do is sitting down with this couple and really starting with this positive idea. Okay, what is in there for you? What can you do? And how can you make more of your time when you see each other again as a team, as a couple? And how can you create these really connective moments when you call or have a video call and not just talk about organizational things, but how can you seize this into this connection moment. I don’t know how you could rephrase it. So not just this ‘Oh, we are always together, so we just live and we can be very disconnected, but we can also be in different places and we can be much more connected than a couple that spends every day together and just lives by the day and just talks about upbringing of children and who does the shopping and who does the cleaning, and when will we see the in-laws and this everyday life…’Wiebke Anton (:
Yes.Wiebke Anton (:
So I think this is one of the big chances that you have when you live separately.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Yes. And also, what I do say though is that it does take extra time, so just to factor that in. People can end up living as roommates where basically you kind of… and it's happened to us in stressful times, you know, we are both really busy and the kids are busy and everything's busy, and we are just trying to stay above water. Then we are just going through the motions and it's like we see each other you know ‘entre deux portes’ as we say in French, one going out, one coming in, and we are just kind of just trying to keep things rolling, but to be in separate locations, we've had deeper talks because we were geographically separated.
We've had opportunities where we've broached subjects where maybe it might end up with one of us walking out of the room, but because we're already in separate rooms, we're just like, okay, let's take a break. Let's talk tomorrow or after tomorrow about this. And it did deepen our relationship. I always say like you know, use the distance, use the distance to enrich friendship, to be more intentional. A lot of couples have said that as well, and to develop your own selves than when we came back together again, we were two people who had grown during that time as well. But it does take more time, I think, and to say, ‘Okay, you are gonna be spending more time on the phone. You're gonna be spending more time, maybe intentionally, you know, writing letters to each other or something like that, even developing the friendship, I think in terms of what would you do if a friend was living far.Wiebke Anton (:
Yes. And I think that especially when you have two people that are interested in developing and growing as individuals when they're not in the same place, it's even more important to have a schedule or some kind of regular appointment where you keep updating each other about all these mental processes that you have so that when you see each other again you are not like, ‘Oh, who is this person?’ Or, you have made so many changes for yourself, what's going on? So maybe even seeing this self-development and talking to the other person about it as a project that you have together. So really involving the other person in what you're doing, what you're experiencing, what you're learning. And this is what I said in Kate podcast, this idea that your partner is standing next to you and you are both looking in one direction, you are looking in into the horizon basically, and you are showing the other person what you are seeing.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Ah, I like that. You could even journal and then let the other person read it. You know, it doesn't necessarily have to be, what is it? Asynchronous, means that you're not at the same time, it could be something that could be done not necessarily over a phone call, it could be done through letters or journaling, and then the other person gets to read it, and then vice versa. So for people who are living with time differences or you know, where the work is incredibly intense then they could do it, you know, in their downtime or read it. And I think then it carries on with the connection. Are there other, any other like exercises? Like I know there's caretaking or what is it called? Marriage enrichment or relationship enrichment exercises that exist?Wiebke Anton (:
So this is one of the basic things that are very suited for long distance relationships. It's called the stress reducing conversation. It comes from the Gottman Institute therapy, couples therapy. And the idea is that you have a conversation about a stressor that is outside the relationship. And the purpose of this conversation is that one partner shares a thing that is really stressful or that keeps him or her busy emotionally and the other person is there just to support the other person in venting without being like, you should really do this and this, or why are you not doing this and that? It's without finding a solution for the problem, but actually being like a tiny coach for your partner and just being there for him or her just being this, emotional hangman where the others…Rhoda Bangerter (:
Yeah, they say it's a space holder, right? I've heard that term used where you just be there in the space and just hold it for them, I love that. So one of them could just say, you could even have a code for it or something where you just say like, ‘Okay, I need a stress reducing conversation.’ And then you just say, ‘okay, I just need to vent’, and you just go for it. And the other person is just listening and going, ‘Yes. Ah, that must be difficult.’Wiebke Anton (:
But of course the ideal version of it would be that the other person really emphasizes what the other one is saying, so that you eventually deepen this bond between you, that your partner is your ally and really has your back when you feel at rock bottom.Rhoda Bangerter (:
So how would you emphasize?Wiebke Anton (:
So usually the partner that has the urge to talk about a stressor starts talking about it and the other person has the task to really understand what's going on and helping the other person to understand why am I so upset? Is it really about this? Or is it about something else? And maybe what, what trigger is, or what button is pushed right now? Why does this stress me so much? Or why am I so sad about it? Or why does it keep me so busy? Okay, so the other person is not just like this active listening thing where everyone's like, ‘Oh, I'm really good at active listening’, ‘Oh yeah, that must be really hard, all the time.’ It's really about two people creating connection by emphasizing, empathy.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Emphasizing, okay.Wiebke Anton (:
Empathizing with what the other one is experiencing. And this really has this effect of, oh, I'm so glad I talked about this to you because I have really feel that you know what I'm going through right now. And the other person will be like ‘I'm so glad that you shared this with me, because now I understand a part of your world.’Rhoda Bangerter (:
Okay. So for the person empathizing - sorry, I’m pushing this cuz I'm trying to understand - it's about trying to understand what the other person is going through and asking questions about what's making them so upset about it. And not trying to find the reason like a therapist or something, but just saying, ‘Well, what's going on? And how did it make you feel? And why is it so awful?’ But asking questions. Okay, I get it. But I still think you need to be both on the same page that this is gonna happen, that somehow you need to kind of set it up so the other person knows that you're about to vent and that they’re to support you.
Actually it's so funny cause yesterday my husband said something and I made a comment back and I think all he wanted to do was vent. And I kind of stepped in and tried to say a comment that I thought was helpful. But actually I think all he needed was somebody to listen. So I think this is a brilliant one. And this can be so used in long distance.Wiebke Anton (:
And this connects to a second like general tip. I can’t stress this enough,
Very good.Wiebke Anton (:
Because your conversation will be so much better if the other person is in a good place, in a good state of mind, is open, not tired, not hungry,
Yes. Right. And is warned that the subject is coming up and it might last a little bit of time, it might not be a two second conversation,Wiebke Anton (:
Exactly. When you think this conversation will be longer than 20 minutes, you should probably suggest Can we talk about this soon?
Very nice. I like this. Okay. Do you want to add anything to this or should we move on to the uniting part?Wiebke Anton (:
Just one last thing. Because when your partner is away or travels a lot in general, you should make sure that you don’t always talk about problems and things that need to be discussed, like parenting issues or financial issues. So I think this was also one of the first things we discussed. Like a year ago you asked me what do you think is the biggest issue with long distance couples? And I said making, keeping the romance, keeping it easy and creating space where you are just like teenagers or really romantic, in a romantic mindset. So I would suggest that couples try to find one time slot in a week at least, where they just spend time together in a romantic setting and just do something that both of you like doing. You could just watch a Netflix movie together or you could listen to music together or you could just talk. So just try to find something that suits your couple, that takes the burden out of being separated. So probably something you would do on a Friday night together to relax yourselves. So, I mean, there are many options.Rhoda Bangerter (:
That's a very good point to make. And at one point, what we had when we were living separately was just we would just open Zoom and have it open. So on a Friday night, one of you is reading a book, the other one’s maybe baking something, but you're hanging out in the same space. That's what we ended up doing. Just to kind of open up the Zoom and I would do my own stuff. He would do his own stuff, but you still felt that we were in the same day, you know? And I'm still on the lookout for a fun game to do as a couple, but something like long term, something that goes from one day to the next or something that doesn't take a lot of time, that would be like a treasure hunt or something. Anyway, I'm still thinking about that! If you come across anything, let me know.Wiebke Anton (:
Actually I have a couple of ideas for that. So an app, I found it only because my friend, she told me about it, that she's doing this with her sisters. It's called Be Real. It’s on Apple and Android. And the idea is that each day you have two minutes where this app makes a photo of you, your front camera and your back camera. And you connect with your friends or your family. So you could do it with your children, with your husband or wife. You could all this together and you see the snapshot of the life of this person. And then you just write a very short description where you are sitting and what you're doing right now.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Nice.Wiebke Anton (:
Because this app is reminding you, you have this kind of pressure where you just have to do it right now, so you can be like, ‘Oh, I'm brushing my teeth right now and this app is, you know, forcing me to take a picture. So it makes it really natural and less public than on Instagram, for instance.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Oh, I like that.Wiebke Anton (:
Yes. It's all about being yeah, true to the situation. You are right and it collects this kind of portfolio where you see all your different snapshots. So it's really nice. I tried it yesterday, but kudos to my friend, I didn't find it.
And another thing would be to have an Instagram channel, a private one with your partner where you could make this challenge that you make a picture somewhere and the other person, depending on of course, resources of time and so on, tries to make a similar picture the next day. And then your swap those. It really depends on what you like doing. If you like doing creative things or you could start like some kind of sport course together. Me and my husband, we have this course where you learn a handstand and you could just say, okay, let's do these separate lessons apart from each other. And when we see each other, we do it together. So have this challenge for yourself to develop something like a couple hobby or couple activity and this idea I had yesterday if someone works in a very special or interesting post, you could say one partner brings an item from this place and then tells a story about it as a conversation starter. I mean, there was full of interesting items that you can bring.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Those are brilliant ideas. And you know, as you're talking, I'm thinking this is about bringing fun into relationships. Whether you are geographically together or apart, how often do we just get into everyday life and work and the kids, and then I actually don't spend a lot of time thinking about how can we have fun as a couple? How can we spend time on just being together? How many times honestly do we do that? So I think if anything, this is a reminder to just add a little bit of fun into our relationship, into this special connection that we have. Otherwise life will take over and it's the default mode.
So how about now talking about when we reconnect, because usually that's sometimes where it can get frustrating, we back in each other's space, the person has come back and… It's funny, somebody said, I can cope with them being away and me having to deal with the leaky roof, but when they're back and they put the fork in the wrong place, it's like, poor
So probably, because I had a long-distance relationship with my husband for three years, but we were without kids and it was much more carefree than having this household and then one is moving in and out all the time. So we lived separately, so it was a little bit different.
But I think there are some must-have conversations that you should have and these are really about the moment or the day, the first two days probably when you come back together. And probably this sounds trivial, but often when we see a person after a long period of time, like the first hours are really crucial if, you know, how, if we can relax and if we are get stressed or less stressed about it. So I would really encourage everyone to discuss if it has never been discussed or has been discussed a time ago to just update yourself with questions like, ‘When I come home or when you come home, what is your best way to unwind yourself from the journey and from the scenery change? And do you need some buffer time and do you need, for instance, the first evening for yourself?’ Maybe there is this feeling of, I really feel like I want to spend the first day for myself because I need to process this change of a non-family post, for instance, to Switzerland.Wiebke Anton (:
Right? Yes. And then like this tiny question, do I want to be picked up from the airport? Yes or no? Maybe it's even nicer to go home by myself because then I have this transition phase of seeing, I don't know, Switzerland and all it’s prosperity and getting used to the feeling of being there again without being overwhelmed by my family that is really like, ‘Oh, you're back and I'm so happy and I want to tell you everything and blah blah blah, blah.’ ‘Is it important for me that the house is cleaned? Yes or no? Just really talking through these things because if the expectations are clear and maybe some misunderstandings are out of the way, I think it will take a lot of pressure off. ‘Do you want to cook? Shall we cook together? Do you want to come home and everything is prepared?’ So like what makes everyone comfortable? And like yeah, what is behind that, right? Is how do I show the other person my appreciation and that I'm happy that the person is back or that I'm back. Right?Rhoda Bangerter (:
Yes. Very good points. Very good points. Because also I think the person who's home with the kids, how many times have I expected him to take over? Cuz I'm like, ‘Oh, finally he's home. Okay, you get the kids tonight.’ And I'm like, it doesn't work that way, they've just traveled, they're processing the change. They've gone from a non-family posting to a suddenly family posting. There have been changes. They're coming back into the unit. And yeah, those are really good questions. I have a series of set questions that we ended up asking each other, and I'll put them in the link and I'll add the ones that you've been mentioning, because I think it really does help if some of the misunderstanding or the expectation, you know, of ‘Well, I thought you were gonna come and get me at the airport.’ And I'm like, ‘Well, if only we'd spoken about it’ or, you know, ‘Johnny had a football match and so what do we do? Do we come and get you? Do we go to the football?’ Sometimes it can be a little bit awkward and just saying what our expectations are can be really helpful. So I'll add those and I'll add the same question and…Wiebke Anton (:
Also, I can't stress this enough, depending on how experienced you are as a, let's call it flexy pad couple, really set an appointment for, for instance, in three months, like a midterm time where you say, ‘Let's talk about this again and see if it still applies’, so that you don't come into this assuming this is fine, but in fact it's outdated. So that's good. ‘Let's talk about this again in a couple of weeks or so.’ Or like after two times returning, we can see if it still…Rhoda Bangerter (:
Applies to us. Brilliant. Is there anything else?Wiebke Anton (:
So I just think that the general recommendations for couples who spend a lot of time separated is that on the one end it's really reflecting and staying in this conversation about what you need from each other. But then also a big part of it is this reflecting for yourself, am I taking good care of myself? And do I take care of myself when my partner's not there? Do I have my own projects? Do I have my own life? and I mean, this also maybe sounds a bit like from these pretty calendars you can buy in the bookstores, but if your main purpose is waiting for your partner to come back, you are also not enjoying the life you could have where you live right now.
So for instance, when I lived in Munich and my husband lived in Brussels, I had my own job and I had my own hobbies. So I tried to not always think about, ‘Oh, in two weeks I will go there and I will see him again.’ Because then your mind is nowhere. It's not here, it's not there. You are wasting the opportunities your life here and now has for you. And just recently I read a book from Paula Hall, she is also a sex and relationship therapist and I really love this point. She said, if you have an issue with something, is your partner really the person you should talk to about it?Rhoda Bangerter (:
Hmm.Wiebke Anton (:
Maybe there's someone else who's better suited to discuss the specific topic with you.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Interesting. So you mean a topic in general or a topic with your partner? So… huh, that's a good point! So even you're like, I have an issue. It could be anything. It could not necessarily be with my partner.Wiebke Anton (:
Exactly. So it could be something with your children or something with your career, with your colleagues, some kind of social conflict.Rhoda Bangerter (:
That is an excellent point.Wiebke Anton (:
So really finding this, and probably you master this over time of course. But really thinking about this balance between involving your partner and burdening your partner with issues. He or she doesn't really have an influence or is like, okay, so of course you want to have a stress reducing conversation, but you shouldn't have it each time you talk to your partner.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Right.Wiebke Anton (:
So probably if you have some issue, you could also go to a life coach or to a friend to talk to, right? So that your relationship still has the status of being as carefree as possible, if that makes sense.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Okay. Okay. Yes, yes. That's an excellent point, an excellent point. Thank you so much Wiebke.
Do you want to add anything more?Wiebke Anton (:
Yeah, absolutely. I want to add two more things.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Yes, go for it.Wiebke Anton (:
And I said this to you also early in our conversations always thinking, am I using my partner's absence as an emotional blackmail or weapon in our arguments? And this is really a tough question because it is very natural. I think that especially when you have children and there are phases where it's difficult. Or that humor like, ‘Oh, this person is gone and it would be so much easier if I would not be alone’ and so on. But then just looking at yourself and being honest that you decided this together and that it's hopefully not a permanent forever situation and that you are both equals in this relationship.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Yeah, very good point. Also, I'm gonna put them down so that it's clear in the show notes because these are really important points you're making. And what's the next one?
And the last one, and I think it kind of feeds back into reconnection and caretaking of your relationship. Each person in a relationship, either if you're the traveling partner or the home-based partner, should learn or train or reflect on how do I address my negative feelings? We have negative feelings and I'm allowed to talk about negative feelings, but it will be so much better when it's done in a right way, and I will feel so much less clingy and annoying when I communicate my negative feelings in an appropriate manner. So I recommend to practice talking about yourself and your needs, like, for instance, with these famous ‘I statements’ because then it will be easier to address these to your partner, avoiding criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling and everything that deteriorates a conversation.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Okay. Okay. There are so many takeaways. Do you have like maybe a giveaway or a sheet or something like a cheat sheet or a checklist or something for these negative emotions or do you have some links that we could put up?Wiebke Anton (:
Um, not yet.
Okay. It's fine. But I can maybe put a few links on managing negative emotions, learning how to express them. But there are so many takeaways from our conversation from the stress reducing conversation, to including fun, to not relying entirely on your partner, to asking questions when they're coming back and, if you are the traveling partner, when you come back, learning how to express your own emotions and your own negative emotions.
There is just so much there. It's been such a rich episode. And normally I ask my guests like, do you have like a life tool that you would advise, like something just that you loved or that you used in your personal life?Wiebke Anton (:
Well what I did when me and my husband lived in separate places, we had this Spotify list where each time we had a song that we really loved, we shared it with the other person. And it was also the beginning of our relationship, so we were like, ‘Oh I thought about you because this reminds me of what we did.’ Or ‘Look, this wasn't the movie we saw, but I think that it can bring back these feelings from the early stages of the relationship.’ You just have to plan the right medium to do it.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Oh, that's brilliant. That's sweet. Well thank you so much. How can people reach you?Wiebke Anton (:
You can find me on LinkedIn or on Instagram and there you will find also a link in my bio to my services and my website and also other podcasts episodes I've been participating in.Rhoda Bangerter (:
Fantastic. Fantastic. And I'll also put all the links in the show notes. Thank you so much Wiebke for being here and for all the things that you've shared with us.Wiebke Anton (: