Originally published on July 8th, 2014.
So you’ve decided to take the plunge and volunteering abroad -- as a couple. It’s an exciting challenge, a chance to learn and grow, and hopefully do some good with your better half.
Living and working abroad can cement a couple’s love and devotion, but it can also stress a relationship to the max.
However, there's a lot to plan and consider before heading off on a great journey abroad as a couple. After all, living and working abroad can cement a couple’s love and devotion, but it can also stress a relationship to the max. With these tips, you can avoid pitfalls and make your volunteer experience the adventure of a lifetime.
1. Choose a Destination and Job You're Both Interested In
You love the outdoors and want to volunteer with tracking elephants on a rustic game reserve, but your significant other can’t live without a hair dryer. You love teaching but your significant other isn’t so great with kids. You love Thai food but the smell of green curry makes your significant other feel ill.
It may seem obvious, but just because you have a dream to go overseas and volunteer doesn’t mean it’s your partner’s dream as well.
So start by making sure you both really want to go and then consider all of your options. Ask each other:
- Do you want to volunteer for two weeks or two years?
- Do you want to rough it or have access to modern comforts?
- Do you want to be far from civilization or be home after a quick plane ride?
- What type of work do you want to do?
- What skills do you have?
- Are you willing to work on different projects?
- If so, what programs / destinations have opportunities for both of your interests?
- How will you create personal space if you both are living and working together 24/7?
There are hundreds, if not thousands of possibilities. Work hard to find the right opportunity for both of you and remember that this has to make your partner happy or it might just make you both miserable.
2. If You Have Different Skills and Passions, Consider an Urban Destination
If you, for example, want to spend your time overseas Volunteer teaching but your significant other would rather put their killer web design skills to use at an NGO, consider focusing your search on urban areas.
Work hard to find the right opportunity for both of you and remember that this has to make your partner happy or it might just make you both miserable.
This way, there are more opportunities and both of you have a better chance of finding something fulfilling. Depending on where you go, you don't necessarily both have to do the same project. Just be sure that you both love what you’re doing.
3. Let Your Program Provider Know You're Volunteering Together
Okay, so you've agreed on a destination, project(s), and likely even a program provider to go overseas with. It may have taken some compromises, but congrats! You got there.
Before you sign up for or apply for a program, make sure the organization(s) you're working for know you're coming as a couple. Most are happy to accommodate you -- so long as they're aware!
Also keep in mind that some organizations will even prefer signing on a couple, since couples are more likely to combat homesickness and loneliness in remote locations, and they'll get two sets of hands instead of one.
4. Be Aware of Couple-Specific Visa Stipulations
If you’re lucky, you’ve found a program that will walk you through any paperwork you might need to complete, such as visa applications. Most volunteers, however, have to do it on their own. Some volunteerships don’t require a specific visa, but be sure to check. Contact the embassy (especially since information on websites can be out of date) and find out what paperwork needs to be completed and what vaccinations are required.
Also be aware that some countries have very specific views when it comes to gender roles. For example, a husband might have a hard time traveling on his wife’s visa because they will refuse to believe that a husband would relocate for his wife’s work.
In strict religious cultures, it may not be possible for an unmarried couple to live together. It can be obnoxious to say the least, but it’s sometimes the reality. So be sure to know (and follow!) the rules and complete that paperwork properly.
5. Communicate Your Goals and Problems While Abroad
You know it’s important to talk things out and be on the same page, but it’s all the more crucial as you take on a volunteer opportunity overseas. Be sure that you have shared your hopes and worries and that you know what you want to get out of your experience.
Communicating at home while you’re munching popcorn and watching The Mindy Project is relatively easy. Communicating while you’re living in a village with no electricity or running water, navigating a whole new culture, is infinitely more challenging.
Remember that people react to being outside of their comfort zone in different ways and to keep this in mind if you ever hit a rough patch. Prioritizing communication and understanding each other are the keys to supporting one another while volunteering abroad.
6. Plan Your Finances Together
Volunteering abroad can be full of hidden costs. While many programs have clearly stated fees and provide transportation, housing, and meals, others may give very little guidance. Do your research, contact people who’ve gone before you, and find out as best you can what the actual costs are going to be. Use sites that help analyze cost of living and exchange rates. Factor in immunizations, visas, flights, taxis, internet, tips, hotel, rent, food, etc.
Most couples argue about finances from time to time. With all of the excitement and challenges of volunteering overseas, you don’t want to fight about money right when you get off the plane. Plan ahead and agree on a budget before you leave.
7. Make Sure You're Both Comfortable in Your New Home
Be sure you’re on the same page about what's needed to make each other comfortable. Maybe one of you is OK to rough it in the wilderness or fly on a less-than reputable airline, but you both need to be OK with that. Sometimes it’s worth spending a little more in one area, such as rent, to make sure you both feel comfortable and safe.
It might be tempting to stay in and cook meals for the two of you, but go out and meet people!
Now that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t push yourself to be outside of your comfort zone, just be sure you’re both honest about what you need, expect, and can handle on a day to day basis.
8. Work Hard to Make Your Own Friends
As a couple, you’re less approachable than a single person at a bar or local café. That means you have to put in more of an effort to make friends. Work hard to get to know people in the community and your experience will be richer for it.
It might be tempting to stay in and cook meals for the two of you, but go out and meet people! You may even want to make friends as individuals, not as a couple. You both likely had your own set of friends you'd see independently while at home -- don't loose this while overseas!
Plan trips, go out dancing, try the restaurants that the locals love, and enjoy being in a new corner of the world with wonderful people and endless opportunities.
9. Keep a Journal or a Blog
You might think that between the two of you you’ll remember everything, but give it two months after you’re back and you’ll be looking at each other blankly when trying to remember the name of your favorite locals-only restaurant.
You promised you’ll remember every detail of your experience and every person you meet, but it fades once you’re back at home.
So write it down, whether for all the world to see in a blog or in a worn leather journal the way David Livingstone used to do. You’ll both be glad you did!
10. Support Each Other When You Return Home
Whether you’re going abroad for a short time or a few years, your experience will change you. You will grow and learn and have unforgettable experiences. You will have seen things in the world that need changing, whether it’s an end to extreme poverty, better access to healthcare and education, stronger conservation of endangered species, or improved quality of life.
Volunteering abroad as a couple presents its own unique challenges and opportunities.
Coming back to a comfortable lifestyle can sometimes be as much of a shock as landing in a remote village as a volunteer in Tanzania. Often called reverse culture shock, it can be hard to navigate the world you once knew so well.
As a couple, you can support each other through the transition. Continue to relive the amazing moments you had overseas and be proud of your accomplishments. Look for ways to remain connected to your volunteer projects while at home. Slowly, you’ll feel normal again and you and your partner will be stronger for it.
Enjoy Your Volunteer Experience, Love Birds!
This has the potential to be the most meaningful trip of your life. And you’re doing it together. Relish this time and enjoy it. Things might go wrong, bags might get lost, electricity might not be available, you might get your passport stolen, you might get food poisoning, or get mad at each other when things go wrong, but chances are, all of the good will outweigh the bad.
By stepping out of your comfort zone, you are pushing yourself and your loved one to be the best you can be, to give back, and to contribute something to the world. You will meet wonderful friends, have unique experiences, and have a chance to do something many people only dream of.
Best of all, you have someone to bear the punches with, someone who will listen to you reminisce when you both return home, and someone who just "gets it".