When Your Relationship Collapses… and You’re Abroad! - Expat Nest e-counselling


When Your Relationship Collapses… and You’re Abroad!

“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.

Stay active

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.


If you like this article, subscribe to our newsletter and share these tips with a friend who is dealing with a relationship break up.

© Vivian Chiona

FEEL FREE TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR BLOG OR NEWSLETTER. We ask only that you attribute Expat Nest and include the following: Expat Nest (www.expatnest.com) is a professional online counselling service for expats.

Photo: Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash



  1. Kirsten says:

    Thanks for the relevant article. I myself am a third culture kid, having relocated often while growing up (and therefore having no ‘home’ to go to). After 20 years with a husband of a different nationality and having moved all over the world as expats, and having borne 3 children in 2 different countries, I found myself having to choose where to go after he walked out on us. We were living in Latin America at the time and I truly had nowhere to go – staying was not an option for many reasons. It was the most difficult period of my life as I had no family and certainly no support group. So I cannot stress enough the importance of accepting help from those willing to assist, in any form. Finding home within has been my saving grace; it doesn’t matter where we are, as long as the kids are happy and thriving and I am moving onwards and upwards.

    1. Vivian Chiona says:

      Dear Kirsten,

      Thanks so much for your comment and I am glad that you found this article valuable.

      I understand how hard it must have been for you back then; I admire your strength and courage to move forward!

      Finding home within and with the people you love regardless of where you are, is indeed priceless.

      Many readers visit our site every week for insights and inspiration and I am sure your comment is of help to them.

      You may also enjoy reading:

      a) 10 things you might not have known for TCKS (http://www.expatnest.com/10-things-you-might-not-have-known-about-third-culture-kids-tcks/)

      b) How I became my home (http://www.expatnest.com/how-i-became-my-home/)

      c) You are perfect to be loved (http://www.expatnest.com/you-are-perfect-to-be-loved/)

      Once again many thanks! Great having you here!

      Best wishes,


  2. Matilda says:

    My husband and I have been married for 22 plus years and have 3 kids 20,18, and 12 years old. we are on shaky terms in our marriage He has cheated I forgave but it did not end there, he wants a divorce and we have been separated for about 5 months. I love my husband but he ran out of love for me. he loves me but he is not in love with me. i begged him but he was very determined to get the divorce. he didn’t give me a reason why, he just told me that he wanted to be honest and that he didn’t love me any more, I loved him so much but he does is to travel with different girls to unknown destination, I was all over the internet trying to find who could help me out with my situation but no results at all or little signs, I was about to give up, then luckily i found (dr_mack) in a relationship forum, when i contacted Him , he said he will help me and just as he said, I received a call from my husband begging to reunite with me again, i accepted him and things really changed he stopped his bad habit, We came back together

    1. Vivian Chiona says:

      Dear Matilda,

      Thank you so much for sharing and welcome to our community. It is great to have you here.

      It must have been very difficult to go through this period; it’s so important that you’ve managed to stay strong, regardless of the fact that you heart was broken. It must have really felt that your world collapsed…

      It is hard to talk about this via comments and I am sure there are lots of emotions involved.

      I hope that you are now happy in your personal life as it requires a lot of work to bring healing (personally and within the relationship) after some traumatic experiences.

      Should you feel the need to talk and/ or some support in the healing process after the ‘storm’ and how to enjoy your love life to the fullest, feel free to email me at info@expatnest.com and we could

      schedule a free intro call.

      It may give your the exact shift in the perspective you are looking for.

      Many thanks and all the best,


  3. Scott says:

    Thanks for this post. It is nice to hear that there are others going through this challenge and have found ways to navigate through it a little bit easier.

    A few things that you said really resonated with me. The bit about trying to stay together even when things are clearly not working is something I really identify with. On one hand, home life can be full of arguments and conflict, but on the other hand there are not many strong networks outside of work colleagues – plus we work together.

    An additional component that makes things hard is the idea that you’ve shared not only your life, but your *way* of life with another person. Friends and family back home don’t have the same understanding of what it is like to live and move abroad, so once this partnership dissolved, I have the feeling like a big part of my last several years are very much lost at sea. Phew. It’s tough, but good to know there are others feeling this way. Thanks.

    1. Vivian Chiona says:

      Dear Scott

      Thank you so much for sharing this. There is so much truth in what you say, and there are often many layers of loss to deal with when a relationship abroad is struggling or over. Please know that you are not alone in this situation and that you WILL come out the other side, at a time and in a way that is right for you.

      Best wishes,


  4. Tim says:

    This is a good article. I wasn’t sure if there were many others in a situation like mine. I’m actually living in my home country but my wife is a long way from home. We have children together and get on very well, but the spark has gone. I ask myself if it would be better to separate because I know she’s not happy, but if we did I have no idea what she’d do. She has no family of her own here, few friends and would want to go home but probably wouldn’t so as not to uproot the kids. So she’d stay here alone and would probably be very unhappy. I don’t think I can do that to her. Even if she did go back, I wouldn’t keep the kids from her so would need to move myself and then I’d be isolated. Not the end of the world as I’m pretty adaptable but not ideal either.

    1. Vivian Chiona says:

      Thank you for sharing your story and concerns with us. I hope you found this article helpful. Please know that this is a common challenge and there are many things you can do to make it better. Ideally these are things that need to be discussed with a couples’ counsellor. It’s hard to cover this complex issue by replying here. You are most welcome to connect with us on a free 15-minute call to explore further and so we can give you more specific tips. I hope the situation resolves itself soon.
      Warm regards

  5. Sam says:

    I greatly enjoyed your article. I am 77 years of age and have been moving around for 60 of them. I was struck by the section finding a home within ourselves. At the moment I am going through the pain and fear of a separation, so finding a home within myself is appealing.

    1. Vivian Chiona says:

      Dear Sam

      Thank you for your response. How incredible that you’ve been nomadic for 60 years – and how blessed we are to have you as a reader of the blog! (If you ever wish to write an article for Expat Nest, please reach out – we’d love to hear your story).

      I understand: it’s always hard to face pain and the fear of separation. I’m so glad you found this article helpful and that it has inspired you to shift the fear into something more productive for you. I’m so glad this concept of home resonated with you.

      Warm wishes

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