“An emotional bootcamp…” – that’s how one expat described her divorce. Of course, break ups are hard in general and for many reasons – financial, emotional, practical – and the challenges multiply when children are involved. But expat divorce is even tougher, writes Katia Vlachos, who takes an honest look at the dynamics of expat divorce and suggests some survival strategies.
What makes expat break ups different?
Many of the challenges that expats face when a relationship breaks down abroad are shared by non-expats: emotional suffering, financial hardship…
But expats experience the usual challenges more intensely, mainly because they don’t have the same support system. As an expat, you may not have developed deep friendships (yet) in your location, your main friends might be your colleagues, or your social circle may have revolved around you as a couple or family. Long distances and time zones can also make it challenging to communicate with loved ones back home.
Break ups are tougher for expats because they need to reconstruct home in a foreign environment, away from family, friends, and familiar social and cultural structures.
Unfortunately there is also a real need for better legal resources to help divorcing expatriates. When expats don’t speak the local language, it becomes even more difficult to understand the practical and legal implications of divorce in the expat location.
Some tough decisions…
Amidst the hurt and shock, expats also have to take immediate, very hard decisions. Most pressing is: do you stay in your current location or go “home”? And if you and your partner have kids and different nationalities, whose “home” do you relocate to? And do you need permission to move?
In most cases a break up implies you will need to get back into the job market (if you’re not already working), which can seem frightening if you don’t feel employable or have taken a long break.
Another practical difficulty includes what happens to residence and work permits. Accompanying spouses may be classified as “dependents” and not be allowed to work; or your residence and work permits may be linked to your partner’s.
Given the severity of the consequences, many expats choose to stay in unhappy, unhealthy marriages because leaving them is so much tougher – or they wait until they return to their home countries before starting the process.
However, if you’ve decided to take the step, here are some strategies to help you cope…
Stage 1: Dealing with the shock
It’s essential to get through the initial stages of pure survival (when it is common to feel depressed, lost and overwhelmed) in order to start thinking about new beginnings. As one expat put it, this stage is like dealing with an injury: you need to apply pressure to stop the bleeding before you can start moving.
Find your “emotional anchors”
Identify a couple of close friends or family with whom you can connect a lot early on. Make it clear that you want and appreciate their support – be it practical or emotional.
Get expert help
A trained professional can unpack the initial shock and guide you through it. You can also read widely about divorce to remind yourself that you are not alone and that there is a light at the end of this tunnel.
As much as you may want to cocoon, do your best to get involved in activities that interest you. Join an expat organisation, book club, parent-teacher association (PTA). Exercise, even if it’s just a daily 20-minute walk outdoors, is important for mood too.
Stage 2: Recreating home
Once you’ve begun to recover your footing, focus your energy on rebuilding home, however you define that.
- If home is place (the traditional definition of home, where geography is the defining aspect), give your physical home a priority.
- If home is people (your core relationships), find or build your new tribe.
- If home is a feeling (belonging, safety, comfort, familiarity, authenticity, love), focus your efforts on reviving rituals or creating new ones to inspire those feelings.
Rebuild your social network
Many people go into isolation mode during or after a break up, but the importance of social connection can’t be underestimated. Talk to a friend, neighbour, colleague or another parent at your children’s school. Get on Skype more often and chat to your friends and family back home.
Navigating the legal process
Get a good local lawyer who speaks your language; find a friend or acquaintance who can help translate the local information on divorce; and spend some time reading online articles written by attorneys on expat-related issues.
Stage 3: Use those expat skills…
Many expat divorcees speak of how the experience helped them find home within themselves. When you go through divorce, especially when you are away from the people you love, you are practically forced to find home within.
And despite the many disadvantages of expat break ups, you have this excellent advantage:
Expat life equips us with a level of endurance and a mindset of adaptability that can be applied in any situation.
As an expat, you are used to reinventing yourself and adapting – skills that will help you cope with your divorce and emerge feeling whole again.
Have you ever experienced a break up abroad? Which of the above strategies resonate with you? We’d love to hear your thoughts.
Adapted with permission from a series of articles by Katia Vlachos. Find the original articles at www.diary-of-a-move.com.
Katia Vlachos researches and writes on cross-cultural adaptation and expatriate life. A Greek by birth and a perpetual foreigner by choice, she has lived in eight cities and seven countries in the past 20 years. In her blog posts (www.diary-of-a-move.com and http://www.huffingtonpost.com/katia-vlachos/) and in a forthcoming book, she explores the challenges of finding and sustaining home amidst the chaos of nomadic life. Katia is a public policy analyst by training. She lives in Zurich with her family.
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© Vivian Chiona
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