No weekend deck party or afternoon tea social would be complete without a fresh story of guess-who's marriage is on the rocks or whispers of so-and-so fooling around with his fashionable young secretary.
One can easily form the impression that marital infidelity is so common among the expatriate community that it is in fact the “norm”, that even the strongest, most stable marriage partnership is under constant siege by myriad temptations. The ubiquitous gossip can give rise to worries and suspicions that would never have been taken seriously back home. This is especially true when one partner travels frequently. This sort of mistrust can do as much harm to a marriage as an actual adulterous act. In such a climate, assertions of fidelity can even add fuel to the fire of suspicion.
“How can I reassure my wife that I don't sleep around during my business trips?” Nathan asked. “When I try to explain this, I actually feel guilty, as if saying it makes it sound like I'm trying to hide something.”
Nathan, a business executive, travels frequently on his job. He enjoys his work but feels the job is costing him the trust he once had with his wife. According to Nathan, he and Karen essentially have a good marriage and they have been very trusting and sensitive to each others' needs. However, he senses a barrier slowly growing between them and he is trying to deal with it.
When he returns from his frequent trips, Nathan tries to catch up with his wife and children. At times he feels frustrated at being deprived of a normal family life. Knowing that his wife has to care for the family by herself stirs up guilt in him. He tries to make up for his absences by being more sensitive to her needs and comments. But sometimes her remarks cause him discomfort.
“Her girlfriends joke that she should accompany me on my trips. They say she's too trusting. Then she half-kiddingly asks if she should worry.”
Comments like these started off as little jokes, but as Karen repeats them more and more often it is beginning to annoy him. He wonders how serious she is. On a good day he can let it slide, but if he is tired or busy, such remarks provoke unfriendly spats between them.
What Nathan is experiencing is not uncommon among frequent travelers. When a couple spends so much time apart it is reasonable to wonder what the other half is doing. Human beings can be quite imaginative in such situations. The more a partner imagines, the more wild and out of control the thoughts can become. With the spouse not there to clarify all the concerns, it isn't difficult for fleeting fantasy to turn into worried suspicion.
Social pressure can also cause unnecessary alarm. Many spouses are bombarded by stories of other unfaithful partners and what they supposedly do during their business trips. Seeds of doubt are sown in these uncertain home-based spouses. In their minds questions sprout, such as: “I trust my wife but what if...?” or, “I trust my husband but I just don't trust the women in some of those places..."
When jokes about suspicion or mistrust get out of hand, this is an alarm signal of potential marital discord. This needs attention right away. As Nathan realizes, it is not easy to open a discussion on “mistrust”. If he tries to bring it up to maintain his innocence, she might think he's trying to hide something. But if he says nothing, the suspicions remain. Either way he loses.
Situations like this make even the best marriage vulnerable. And when one spouse is frequently absent, chances to clarify concerns, to work out differences or resolve problems are limited by time. Misunderstanding or unnecessary suspicion on both sides is difficult to avoid. When these feelings accumulate it becomes even harder to share or discuss problems.
The one way to deal with this problem is to confront it. Both husband and wife need to be open and honest in expressing their concerns, annoyances, fears and thoughts. It might be helpful for both partners to quietly write down their thoughts and concerns before talking to one another. By doing so, each can clearly focus on the issue without being sidetracked by the other's reactions and then both can address the problem head-on.
After the issue of mistrust has been discussed, couples need to negotiate ways to reduce these feelings. For example: the traveling partner will allow the spouse to contact them at any time, or the home-based spouse will not pry into personal diaries, and both will limit the “cheating” jokes.
Trust and respect go hand in hand in a marriage. Trust can be built by exercising respect for one another. If trust is based only on promises it becomes merely an obligation rather than a mutual way of showing love and respect. When people are apart it requires more strength to trust. Trust, like love, is likely to stay alive, provided both are willing to work on it.
Dr. Cathy Tsang-Feign is a Hong Kong-based psychologist and author of the book Keep Your Life, Family and Career Intact While Living Abroad. She is the former columnist for the South China Morning Post and American in Britain on topics of psychology and adjustment for expatriates and their families.