Leading authority on expat living, Yvonne McNulty, says that adapting to expat life is both harder and different for the expat spouse. She is a wise woman.
Granted, picking up your life and moving it to a different country, culture and often language is hard on everyone. The working spouse needs to adjust to a new job and stark cultural differences, possibly also dealing with guilt for moving a family that's having trouble adjusting. For children it can be overwhelming to leave a warm safe home and the only friends they ever knew behind to start over again in a completely new environment. In both cases, however, they're starting over in a structured environment, have clear objectives and routines, and have easy access to social interactions to build friendships.
For us expat spouses, once the boxes are unpacked and school/work has started, we're left with a void. We need to build routines, actively seek out social interaction, and completely rebuild an identity of our own that stretches past parent and partner.
So here are 10 realities of expat life as the spouse and some insights into how you can handle them.
1. IT’S HARD AT TIMES
I think it is fair to say that we ALL underestimated how much moving to a new country would affect the fabric of our being. That doesn’t mean we change completely, it just means that aspects of ourselves and our lives that we had never even consciously considered before get put into question and it makes us take pause.
We’re all different, so how it presents itself in our lives will be different and at different times. That's normal. So when it hits you and you look around to see everyone else smiling and loving life, I urge you to remember that they will have faced their own dilemmas and challenges in their own unique way.
Give yourself a break.
This is hard. If you’re having a bad day or week and need a day off, take one. Go to the spa, crawl under the covers, watch TV all day or start kick-boxing. You're allowed to have a bad day and when you do, pamper yourself, go a little crazy, try something new, or just hide out for a day… all are acceptable options.
2. YOUR PARTNER WON’T UNDERSTAND
You and your partner will experience this change from different perspectives. The working partner walks into a job, new colleagues and new challenges to navigate. You, on the other hand, have to figure everything out. Just as you couldn’t have understood how deeply this would eat into your identity, your spouse will only be able to understand what it's like to experience a loss of identity on a superficial level.
Having no support network in place in your new home and friends back home not able to understand, we turn to our partner far more than we otherwise would. This makes perfect sense. We married them because they were our best friend and confidante. Together you're tackling the new adventure and some of the initial challenges overlap. After a while however, if your partner is the only person you have to talk to it can get taxing, and the longer it lasts, the less they will truly understand what you are going through.
Find expat spouse friends that will.
I cannot emphasise enough how your first priority should be finding new friends and building a support network of your own. Expat moves are cyclical and generally tend to overlap with the start of school terms. At that time there will normally be a host of welcome activities available to you. GO.
Each country will have a different format for this, but crack the code and join some of the activities (even if you dread the idea). You'll meet a host of people who completely understand what you're going through, ready to help, and willing to offer support however you may need it. Expat friendships are some of the most generous and rewarding ones you'll ever have.
3. IT WON’T GO TO PLAN
It’s human nature to make a plan when you’re stepping into major change. It’s also likely that the plan is flawed. There were just too many unknown variables that you couldn’t have possibly imagined before you moved that made it impossible to build a reasonable vision. The most common plan is the idea that you’ll move, unpack your home, start language lessons and be fluent in 3 to 6 months. From there you'll look for a job, volunteer locally or integrate yourself in the local community in a meaningful way. Sound familiar? Looking back you can see how crazy that was.
Make a new plan.
You might simply revise the initial plan by changing the time frame, or you might realise that your intentions are just not how you want to spend this precious time as an expat. Either way, make sure about 6 months in you ask yourself what you really want and start again.
4. OPTIMISTS HAVE BAD DAYS TOO
As the spouse we are generally the cheerleaders of the family. The ones that stay positive, encourage our kids to keep trying and are understanding when the working partner comes home exhausted. When little Johnny complains he doesn’t like his new teacher, we lovingly coax him and relentlessly stay optimistic. When we have a bad day, we bury it, telling ourselves to see the glass half full.
You don’t have to be the perpetual cheerleader.
Having a bad day is part of it and allowing it in occasionally will help it blow over more quickly. Commiserating with little Johnnie and allowing him to feel sad one day is ok...and it's ok for you too.
5. YOU NEED TO REBUILD YOUR IDENTITY
A common mistake that expat spouses make is they believe by replicating what they did in their previous country they will be able to rebuild their identity and fill the void. More often than not, it’s just not the case. Doing what you did before is unlikely to give you the same sense of satisfaction or fulfilment. The reason is that you’re in a different environment with different people, and the context of your activity will shift.
Look to replicate how you felt about life, not what you did.
If you’d like to rebuild the confident person you were before, look for what you got out of what you did. Did you go to the gym simply to get fit? Or did you go to get social interaction, a feeling of belonging and/or vent your frustrations? If that's the case, going to a 24-hour gym at midnight when no one is there probably won’t fit the bill. My advice, don’t get stuck with a particular image in your head. Think about how you felt about what you did and look for activities to create a new vision that suits the new context.
6. THIS IS A GRIEVING PROCESS
People think mourning is only for the loss of a loved one, but the grieving process starts anytime a meaningful connection is lost. The loss of a special necklace, a job, a loved one, and yes, when you lose the life you had and have to rebuild somewhere else. Even if you were glad to leave it all behind, the process of accepting what you lost, navigating the change, and rebuilding your life involves a grieving process.
Allow yourself to grieve, it’s part of the process.
The Kubler-Ross model says there are five stages of grief - Denial, Anger, Depression, Bargaining and Acceptance - and each stage can raise its ugly head at any time. The top tip here is that when you’re having overwhelming feelings of anger or sadness, allow them to pass through you without too much thought. You’re grieving, that’s all. The trap is that you try to come up with reasons for your feelings and if you start that guessing game, it spirals out of control. We can always come up with reasons to be sad and if we focus on them, they get worse. The same holds true for happiness!
7. THINGS IN YOUR NEW CULTURE WILL FRUSTRATE YOU
Don’t be fooled, no matter how much you love or value the culture you’re moving to, there will be things that bother you. Things that, before you left, you didn’t even know were important to you. Nor did you think any one in their right mind would do it differently. The thing is, logic is subjective and habits form subconsciously.
When confronted with frustration ask yourself, is what’s happening wrong or just different?
If you can understand that your frustration is mostly because you expected something else, you can back away from the expectation which will make it much easier to accept, and most importantly, life will be a lot less frustrating.
8. YOUR KIDS WILL HAVE HARD TIMES
Moving to a new country is challenging for every child and each of them will cope in their own way and own time. They’ll go through a phase or two before they feel at home and have friends in their new country. As parents, when we hear about their heartache, we’re tempted to imagine a world where we never moved to a foreign country and see them idyllically happy and well-adjusted ‘back home’. The problem then arises that we let our best parenting judgment get over-shadowed by the pangs of guilt we feel. I mean, they wouldn’t be unhappy had we not moved, right? Kids go through ups and downs no matter where they are in the world.
Don’t let ‘moving guilt’ over shadow your parenting skills.
Growing up is a roller coaster. As parents it’s our job both to empathise and impose boundaries. It’s precisely those boundaries that will help them grow into the amazing adults we know they can be. If you let guilt cloud your judgement you’re not serving your child.
9. YOUR PARTNER WILL TRAVEL A LOT
(Ok, so in the time of Covid-19 maybe not so much, but still worth adding here)
Part of the expat deal seems to be that the working partner will travel a lot. This puts extra strain on the spouse to keep the kids and family a solid unit and it sometimes gives the folks back home just another reason to tell you to come ‘home’ where you won’t have to handle it alone. I’ll admit, it takes a special kinda person to be an expat spouse, but you can handle this and in the end it will make you and your family stronger.
It’s part of the deal, expat friends will understand.
If you’re struggling with all the travel, by all means make sure you are communicating clearly with your partner, but also, talk to other expat spouses and ask how they deal with it. More often than not, when we simply talk to someone who can empathise with our challenges, solutions present themselves and it feels easier to cope with.
10. YOU ARE NOT ALONE
This is the most important one of all.
It’s so easy to look around and think that you’re the only one feeling alone and the only one who isn’t coping well. You’re not. We’re all confronted with challenges and aspects of ourselves that we otherwise never would have experienced. It’s easy to fall into the trap that you start believing you're just not as resilient as other spouses which will lead you into a downward spiral.
Now, I can’t say with all certainty that it isn’t true, but just the fact that you agreed to move tells me you’re one tough cookie, aren’t afraid of an adventure, and want to broaden your horizons. By definition that means you’ll be stretching yourself.
I cannot express enough how important it is to talk to other expat spouses. Whether they are newbies like yourself or have been around the block once or twice, they'll all be able to share in your story and have stories of their own. What I find is that expat spouses are an incredibly generous group. None of us have our family and support network at hand so we know we need to count on each other. If you ask, you will be surprised at how overwhelmingly people will be ready to offer help.
Expat friendships rock!
I can tell you, when you look back on this time you'll remember it as some of the best times of your life and you'll have friends dotting the globe that would jump on a plane in a heartbeat to help you… because they understand.
Tanya - a happy expat
PS. If you resonate with any of these realities and are having a hard time overcoming them, please reach out! I am happy to help how I can. These are some of the realities of being an expat spouse, but that doesn't the benefits aren't plentiful, they ARE! I am a seasoned expat spouse myself, specialising in Mindset Coaching and I love my life! I know that with time and the right perspective, you can love your life too! Even if you just have a quick question you want insight on, just PM me on Facebook. I am happy to help.
Tanya Arler is the author of the book UNPACK - a guide to life as an expat spouse and founder of A Happy Expat. A HAPPY EXPAT offers expat spouses practical tools, mindset coaching, and advice on how to navigate the staggering change they are going through, all the while remaining the rock their family so desperately needs.
So they too can become...
A HAPPY EXPAT
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