The Challenges of Developing and Maintaining Friendships as an Expat
o give full meaning to our life, we all need to connect with other people. Certain relationships accompany us through life; others enter and exit as each chapter opens and closes. No matter the type of friendship and who it involves – childhood, school, college, work or other friends – a friendship is a magical tool that can bring out the positive energy in your life when everything else feels difficult or negative. I believe that friendship is truly one of the most precious things in life. So how do expats, who often have to say goodbye to old friends and practise making new friends, deal with friendship?
Friends, the family we choose
As an expat, I have always built a family from my friends and they remain a top priority for me. Maintaining a friendship takes work and commitment, flexibility and understanding – but the payoff is huge. My good friends are as close to my heart as my own family, regardless of the geographical distance between us.
Building friendships as an expat
Making new friends and maintaining an established friendship is one of the biggest challenges for expats. But remember: there are other people looking for friends like you! Others who are also new to your location, hoping to make indelible impressions that will translate into long-lasting friendships; friendships that will evolve into late evenings, trying out new restaurants together, and sharing brunch on Saturday mornings.
Forming long-lasting bonds
Some people are lucky to form lasting bonds. Given that most expats are almost always in transit, though, friendship in the form of seeing the other often lasts only a short while. Some stay friends on social media while others find that certain friendships fizzle out, having served their purpose.
And then there are those who are brave enough to start a new friendship all over again with another friend or couple. They are in it to win. They believe that, somewhere out there, is the friend (or group of friends) that will be just the match they are looking for! They will go on long weekend trips together and sit around a bonfire while their children play together. They will share many memories and milestones. That is the goal after all, to create a “new family” abroad, and this is what real friends are.
The challenge for long-term expats
I think we can all agree that one of the worst parts of being an expat is having to regularly say goodbye to friends. Either they are leaving, or you’re leaving, or both!
I have experienced (and heard about from other long-term expats like me) the pain of saying goodbye over and over again. This is difficult and sometimes makes you wonder what the point is of investing in friendships when you know that one of you will move in a couple of years. This creates a sense of the temporary, of less stability. Friends come, you invest in them, then they leave and you may feel lonely in a host country which seems so familiar but is without real friends to enjoy it. I have heard long-term expats admit that they will always ask how long the other person will stay and, if the answer is a year or less, they distance themselves. They get detached to protect themselves from another painful goodbye.
Don’t let fear rule
But I wonder, can you really limit who you like and want to spend time with? How can you stop yourself when you are attracted to a person’s friendship? Why lose an opportunity for friendship because of fear or a past experience? Perhaps it can help to approach this from a different perspective: because your time together may be limited, you know to enjoy the friendship to the fullest and make the most out of it.
What about the locals?
Here is another solution for having meaningful friendships as long-term expats: make friends with locals. Mingle with them, learn about the local culture and the language. Moreover, there is a bigger chance that the friendship will last longer as they are less likely to move away. Of course, nobody can guarantee that that your time together will be infinite.
Real friendships last a lifetime
Friends do not always have to be together to remain friends. Good friends may be separated for years, but when they meet again, they feel as close to each other as they used to. Real friendships last forever. And even though your friends might get busy with their own families, love life or work, all it will take is a little message or a reunion to rekindle all the happy memories and make new ones in the process.
For the long-term expats out there who have said goodbye countless times to their friends or who feel lonely because some of their best friends are a continent away, remember your friends in other places and know that the friendship and love are not gone! They are still there, perhaps in different times zones, but waiting for you to (re)connect or plan your next meet-up.
Remember: having to say goodbye to your friends is one of the worst things of being an expat, but saying hello to them again is just about the best thing!
Don’t let yourself be discouraged
Having a strong friendship is one of most beautiful parts of life and aspects of us being human: laughing out loud, going out for movies, singing songs, making crazy plans about marriage, career and life…
To all the expats out there sitting at home waiting for that Skype call, shorten the conversation on Skype, and get out.
Don’t be discouraged if your first evening at a social event doesn’t yield a Saturday spent at the beach with your newly found friends. Attend the next meeting, and the next one. Eventually, bonds will form, and you will have your coveted long weekends or day at the beach with friends.
It takes time to build long-lasting friendships, and common experiences and values will lead you to this gift!
To our friendship!
By the way, as a tribute to my long-standing friendship with the team at IamExpat.nl, this article will also appear on their new website. A big huge thanks IamExpat.nl for the amazing collaboration and keep up the fantastic work!
As an expat, how have you dealt with the difficulties of making new friends in a foreign country and/or keeping old ones? Let us know in the comments!
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