The headlight beamed into our garage. It is after 9 p.m. and my husband, and I have been working on the front end of our cranky Volvo for at least two hours.
Successfully self-conducted car repairs would be considered a victory if we still lived in Atlanta, GA because I always enjoyed saving money but to do it in a foreign language gave me a boosted sense of accomplishment.
Boo ya! We solved a problem and didn’t damage our relationship in the process. Teamwork, baby!
Like so many issues we’ve experienced in our partnership together, I viewed this headlight repair as mini capstone project representative of our lives abroad.
The Warning Message
It all began after I noticed a warning message in Swedish on my dashboard after I picked up my kids from school.
Two words that I deduced meant that one of my lights was out, but which one?
Happily assigned with a task, my six-year-old son eagerly hopped out of the car to report back with which light was out.
“It’s this one right here, Mama,” he shouts over the grumble of the 2008 Volvo diesel engine.
We had just pulled into the driveway, and with our kids, it’s all about inertia. I knew that if we got out of the car and they took off all of their snowsuits and boots, they would never want to get back into the car to search down the right headlight.
“Let’s head to the store to fix it!” I offered with more enthusiasm than I felt.
I know nothing about cars except that the manual often holds the answers. Our car manual is in Swedish, and you know what they don’t cover in Swedish Lessons 101? Car part vocabulary.
That’s ok, I thought, I know the message said lampfel halfljus, so let me check out the halfljus section.
Fortunately for me, the Volvo manual also has pictures showing me how to carry out this repair. But first, I know I need a new lightbulb.
Flipping back to the appendix, I find the section on lightbulbs and believe I have found the correct wattage and voltage necessary for this repair.
We set off right away to the car parts store in town and I locate the headlamp lightbulb aisle—surprisingly specific but exactly what I needed—and discover there are only two brands of bulb that match my voltage and wattage needs. One bulb is 87 SEK, and the other is 399 SEK. Why the price difference? Is one guaranteed to last forever and the other emitting horrible gases?
Not knowing better or having any brand preference, I buy two of the 87 SEK bulbs because I’ve done enough of these things to know that sometimes they break upon opening or are dropped by freezing cold fingers.
Satisfied that I’m killing it at this foreign car repair thing, we all head back home.
Do It Myself
I have the replacement bulb and the right page in the manual to do this car repair. I can totally do this myself.
Full of false confidence and optimism, I dig into my reserve expertise of following pictures from my years of putting together IKEA furniture. I will replace this bulb before my husband gets home. He’ll be so proud of me.
After 45 minutes of nearly slicing my fingers off inside the guts of the engine, I concede to wait. We’ll have to try together after the kids go to bed.
Kids Are in Bed—Time to Work Together
It’s rain/snowing outside, and it’s ink black.
“Let’s pull the front of the car into the garage so we can use the garage light and work out of the rain/snow,” I wisely suggest.
We move the bags of recycling that pile up each week, the kids’ sleds, and a few bikes out of the way to make room for the nose of our car. It’s a tight fit but is probably the decision that made it a successful project.
In retrospect, had we tried to combat the freezing rain, darkness, and cold, I know that our patience levels would’ve dissipated faster than the project required and we would be snapping at one another unnecessarily.
This one decision set us up for maximum success.
Together, we worked through the manual and felt around inside the engine.
My pre-work research of buying the lamp, watching YouTube tutorials, and figuring out all of the Swedish really helped my husband navigate his jammed hands inside the metal face of our car.
Plugs, wires, and latches were pulled out of the way, the lightbulb was replaced, and everything was put back in reverse order.
The moment of truth came when I turned on the car, and the lampfel message disappeared on the dash. The headlight beamed into our garage.
High fives, and hugs and kisses on a job well done, I knew this rather simple car repair represented how we work together as a team.
Pressure on Every Partnership
Our relationship has changed while we have lived in Sweden. We rely on each other in a near-dangerous co-dependent way. We have perfected the art of the “long-arm selfie” (as Sundae Schneider-Bean says) because we are used to taking our own photos with the fuzzy forward-facing camera on our phones.
Perhaps unwisely, we do not ask others for help all that often. We are used to turning inward—toward one another for support.
“It’s here, engulfed in heavy murk, that we lean onto each other, pressing. There is a symbiotic, synergistic friction that generates heat and not only keeps us on track and moving forward, but holds us up. When you and your partner are pressing inward, toward each other, the isometric pressure not only propels you forward but actually gives you energy and helps you to stay standing.” – Melissa Dalton-Bradford
This project was most certainly a team effort—neither of us could’ve done it without the work of the other—and yet, I’m sure there are people who don’t see their partnership in the same way.
From my perspective, I know that every decision we have made regarding our lives abroad has been joint, but from the outside perspective, it may look like I’ve “given up” my career to follow my husband’s.
I know this because my family members have said this of other relationships who have lived around the world.
“It’s too bad that she gave up everything to follow him. He makes all of the decisions for their lives.“
But I know this isn’t true (and I hope you realize that too).
“It’s of little consequence, by the way, who’s driving, who’s navigating; both functions are equally necessary and of course interchangeable, because, in my dream, we are both licensed, alert, and invested in the trip, our individual contributions therefore essential for the voyage.” —Melissa Dalton-Bradford
No Successful Relationship is Ever One-Sided
The truth is that none of us know what happens in other people’s relationships but I know that partnerships abroad don’t last if they are one-sided.
The pressure of living outside of your home culture without support is too great to last for long. Both partners have to be in it together, or it will never work.
Pondering the paths not taken is tempting, and I often wonder if our marriage would be as durable if we didn’t need to rely on one another for a common language, a common culture, and a shared history. If we still lived in Atlanta, GA and had our own sets of friends, would our relationship be what it is today?
I’d like to think our relationship would be just as reliable regardless of where we live. Our stress tests would be different. Instead of navigating a foreign language and culture together, it would be something else. Instead, it might’ve been financial, professional, or personal relationships that stressed our bonds. Who really knows and does it even matter?
None of this life would’ve happened if it weren’t for both of us contributing our best efforts.
If we weren’t in 110% support of one another’s careers, understanding of each other’s frustrations, and forgiving of our mistakes.
During our first year of marriage, my husband was working long hours—something I had forgotten about because he doesn’t do that anymore.
Our son found the first Valentine’s Day card my husband ever wrote (pack rats rejoice!) and it said, “Thank you for putting up with my late nights working in the office until 3 a.m.”
It’s easy to forget the reasons why we moved to Sweden in the first place. It’s easy to forget that the challenges in front of us now are remarkably different from what they used to be back then.
Less than one year after our wedding, I remember calling my Nana and explaining the stress his job was placing on our marriage. The economy was in flux, and everyone in his company had taken a 15% reduction in pay to avoid layoffs. Our future felt uncertain.
“You two can do anything because you’ll always work together as a team.”
Isn’t it funny how when someone makes an assessment of your situation as a fact, that it indeed becomes true?
She planted the concept of unquestionable teamwork into my mind, and it became my default belief in our partnership.
Of course we can weather this storm. We are a team.
Whether it be something as simple as a car repair or as life-changing as moving abroad, we were, and always have been, a team first and foremost.
An amazingly profound personal essay by Melissa Dalton-Bradford who interprets her dream to reflect on the concessions, strength, and challenges she experienced in her marriage that I excerpted above. You can read it here.
All of the psychologist and specialists below provide services worldwide but I know how important it is to connect with someone who understands your cultural background and situation, which is why I provided their nationalities and current locations.
If you need help dealing with the stressors of life and work in your current relationship, please reach out to someone.
Dana Nelson, intercultural psychologist, American living in France.
Daniela Tomer, Global Nomads World, Israeli clinical psychologist living in the US.
Sundae Schneider-Bean, intercultural specialist and strategist, American living in South Africa.