The modern world is changing: will expat life adapt?

On this blog I have tried to cover as many different “types” of expat partners as possible – male trailing spouses, same-sex partners, partners who work, partners who don’t…but the other day, reading a post in an expat Facebook group, I came across a new one to me: someone with TWO partners.

Apparently called polyamory, this is a consensual relationship between more than two people (here’s is Wikipedia’s explanation if you want more detail). Not a casual threesome, I understand that polyamory is considered by those who practise it be an important part of their identity – similar to being heterosexual or homosexual. In other words, it isn’t something you chose, it is something you are.

The woman in the Facebook post was trying to work out where the best place she and her two partners could move to. The problem was going to be, of course, that they were going to need more than one partner visa. And I am sure that in many parts of the world this really would be a big problem.

5294471472_1542d28e0a_o

I’m not sure what the outcome for this woman and her partners was but it struck me that with ever-changing attitudes towards things like relationships, careers, sexuality, gender and more, there was going to be a continual need for flexibility towards many types of  expats as they try and negotiate their way around the world. Sadly of course, attitudes to many of these newly recognised identities are not flexible at all in much of the world – making it very stressful for some expats who may be limited in their choices.

It’s not just about gender and sexuality though. Families are changing too – and the way families live. It is becoming more and more common for partners and their children not to accompany the worker when they are sent abroad, sometimes for reasons of security, sometimes schooling, sometimes career or sometimes just because it’s easier all round this way.

But are our posting organisations doing enough to keep up with these changes? Some decisions are of course are out of their hands – it’s not up to them whether they issue two partner visas or allow same-sex marriages to be recognised. But there is much they can be doing: welcoming everyone whatever their gender, identity or family situation; helping with things like supporting partners who stay at home; making sure people have the right information for their situation; setting up buddy systems; listening to what people’s needs actually are.

I have limited knowledge of the corporate world when it comes to expat life as have amost exclusively been overseas as part of a government organisation. From my point of view I think they could do a lot more in certain areas but realise they are constrained by lack of funds. However I would be really interested to hear what others think – what future challenges will expats be facing that perhaps we haven’t really acknowledged yet? Are current challenges being addressed? What more could be done?

Picture credit: Keoni Cabral

Advertisements

Interesting expat: relationship specialist Vivian Chiona

I first came across Vivian when she contacted me via LinkedIn. We had a chat on Skype – her in the Netherlands, me at my kitchen office desk – and I found her to be an incredibly warm and supportive person. An experienced expat herself, Vivian has founded her own counselling service – Expat Nest – to help others transitioning into expat life, with a special emphasis on relationships and a specialism in children and teenagers. The Expat Nest website introduces the service as a “warm, safe and confidential” counselling service and, having spoken in person to Vivian, I am quite sure this is what it would be. I thought it would be interesting to hear a bit more about Vivian, her own background and about the service she provides to help expats with parenting teens, expat life and relationships generally.

Vivian final square

Can you tell me a bit about yourself, how long you have been an expat, where you are from and where you have lived?

I am a bicultural, multilingual expat with family all over the world. I was born and grew up in Greece and have been living and working in the Netherlands for the past eight years. I love travelling, exploring new cultures, trying different food and collecting folktales from all over the world.

I’m also a qualified psychologist and the founder of http://www.ExpatNest.com. Expat Nest provides emotional support to expats and their families by offering telephonic and online counselling services (via Skype and Facetime).

What brought you down the expat road to start with? Was it planned or accidental?
Because of my multicultural background, I’m not really surprised to have expatriated! I feel it’s a big part of who I am. My relocation to the Netherlands to study was planned; however the length of my stay was not. The initial plan of staying for one year in Holland has since become almost a decade!

What has been the most positive thing for you about being an expat?

Celebrating diversity and getting to know people from all over the world… trying their food, listening to their music and just enjoying the blessing of being in a multicultural setting. I simply love it! I also feel at home when I’m around internationals.

And what about the least positive? If you could change one thing about your way of life, what would it be?

The most challenging part of being an expat is that the goodbyes accumulate as friends come and go. Saying goodbye to my family after a visit to Greece is also difficult. No matter how many years I’m away, I still feel the sadness of farewells.

As for what I would change… the weather in the Netherlands! I know it seems trivial, but as someone from a country with 10 months of sunshine a year, I have really struggled to adjust to the climate here.

Tell me about Expat Nest, the online-counselling service you started for expats. Why did you start it, why do you think it’s something that is needed? Who is it aimed at and how do you help them?

It all started with my vision to inspire love and joy in expats everywhere! Founding Expat Nest has therefore been a dream come true for me. I’ve always been really passionate about supporting expatriates and it didn’t take long for me to notice a significant need for counselling services devoted to them.

I know from both my personal and professional experience that expat life can be daunting and lonely at times. This spurred me on to create a comforting, empathetic environment (hence the name ‘Expat Nest’) in which expats could feel heard and understood and deal with the unique challenges they face (like saying all those goodbyes!).

In a mobile life, technology is often the only constant, so it made sense to offer online counselling so that I could truly serve expats. As a result, Expat Nest’s services are accessible, convenient and flexible for all expats, across all borders and all time zones – this is truly counselling without borders. What also makes us different is that we are expats/internationals and highly qualified – so expats are guaranteed a professional supportive service.

expat_nest_skype

In my book, the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, I talk about how hard the expat life can be on relationships. What can people do to try and protect their relationship? Would you recommend counselling even before they move?

I think it helps to understand that relationships exist within an emotional eco-system. When the external variables change – whether a new friend group, job or neighbourhood – the relationship often has to adapt. And of course, it’s also challenging when one partner follows their heart to a new country. Moving for love is one of today’s classic dilemmas and it’s important to recognize that the person moving is not weaker or less-than.

Fortunately there are a number of ways expats can protect and nurture their relationship, including:

• Keeping communication open and honest so that you avoid letting negative feelings build up
• Rediscovering your identity in the new place so that you feel empowered and whole in the relationship
• Setting realistic expectations of your partner so that you don’t expect all your happiness to come from one person
• Meeting other expats (both individually and as a couple) so that you have the space to discuss your unique challenges as an expat. For more pointers, check out this article I recently wrote on moving for love.

And yes, I would highly recommend counselling before moving abroad as it can make a significant difference to the whole relocation experience. (This could be a one-off session or a limited number of sessions – it needn’t be a lengthy process.) Pre-relocation counselling allows you to prepare emotionally and mentally for the move, but it also facilitates a safe space in which to talk about any thoughts and feelings that are not easy to discuss with our partner or children, or those we are leaving behind. That said, if you’re about to move and weren’t aware of the benefits of pre-relocation counselling, or just don’t feel ready for it, that’s okay too. Trust in your wisdom and do what feels right for you.

As well as adults, you also work with children – particularly teens – and in fact one of your specialisations is as a child and adolescent psychologist. I feel this is a hugely important subject and one that perhaps isn’t considered enough before families make the decision to move abroad. What sort of issues do you particularly find yourself dealing with in this area?

There are a number of common challenges faced by expat teens, including:

• Grief at having said many goodbyes
• Feeling disempowered due to lack of preparation or discussion by the parents before the move
• Being reluctant to invest in friendships/relationships as they know they will move again or have already experienced the pain of leaving people behind
• Shutting off emotions to avoid feeling the same pain again
• Feeling confused about their identity or uncertain where “home” is
• Feeling angry without knowing why
• Loneliness as they miss old friends and attempt to make new friends
• Struggles in adjusting to the new culture and way of being

If you’d like more info on helping expat teens and TCKs to thrive in their new country, feel free to read our blog articles, including “10 things you might not have known about TCKs”; “10 ways to improve communication with your child (teens too!)” and “How expat kids can use their difference to make a difference”.

What advice would you give to parents contemplating an overseas move with their children?

It’s essential that parents have in-depth discussions with their teens before moving, so that teens feel empowered (and even excited!) about the move.

After the move:
• Ask your teen to describe his expat experience in three words – this is a great way to lead into an honest discussion about his feelings/thoughts. Above all, listen to your teen… even if what he says is difficult to hear!
• Brainstorm ways to help reduce any painful feelings that have come up. Do this together – the idea is to avoid giving instant solutions and rather help your child to build up his own coping tools. Be sure also to convey the comforting message that any hurtful feelings will lessen in time.
• Focus on the positives of expat life, such as a fresh start, the chance to learn about another culture or learn a new language, and the opportunity to develop an expanded worldview.
• Remind your teen that friendship and love are not gone; all the important people in the previous country/school are still there. Encourage your teen to communicate with those left behind using online technology.
• Put up photos of your previous life to give a sense of stability and continuity (assuming that your teen is ok with this).
• If the painful feelings persist and are affecting your teen’s ability to function (e.g. disturbed sleep, poor academic performance, isolation, high levels of anxiety), seek out professional help.

Thank you Vivian for telling us about yourself and your counselling service. You might want to know that you can get free resources by signing up to Vivian’s website; but in the meantime I would be interested to hear what any expats think of specific counselling aimed at them – do you think it’s necessary? Do you wish you had known about services such as Expat Nest? Would you consider using a service such as this?

Expat Relationships

The other day I asked for some last-minute help with information about relationships to go into the Survival Guide. I thought I had actually finished the book, I’d read it and re-read it, had it edited and even sent it to the proof-reader for a final going over. I’m still hoping to meet my self-set deadline of April for publication. But out of the blue, whilst out running (which is when most of my revelations come to me) I realised it wasn’t done. I needed more on how couples cope when they move abroad together.

I hadn’t totally ignored this important aspect of expat life. Or at least of expat life for those of you going as a couple or a family. When I talk about relationships in this context, I am really talking about the relationship with your partner – although I do touch on the family dynamic as another feature of life that shifts when you take on an overseas move. The interaction between you and your partner is interwoven right through the book, including making sure it IS a partnership right from the start (eg it should be a joint decision that you go), what happens if you are so bored you want to leave, and how important it is to talk to your partner if you think you are descending into depression.

But there still felt like there was a gap. I think  the affect an overseas move has on your relationship with your partner  is something that doesn’t get discussed enough. Just like a post I did about depression and the expat, this is a topic that can get a bit swept under the carpet. Why? Perhaps because it’s hard to admit that the exciting new life we’re all leading or planning to lead isn’t all sweetness and light. Or maybe because it’s hard to know who to talk to about it. Or perhaps we don’t even want to admit there is a problem to ourselves.

Of course, relationship problems can happen anywhere, to anyone – you don’t have to move half way around the world to start arguing with your husband. But just like with depression, there are things that happen when you do take the leap into expat life that are more likely to put pressure on your partnership. Not least your own loss of identity (if you are the non-working partner), the possible drop in income of only having one wage, the lack of a support network, the new need to be overly-reliant on your partner and just the day-to-day pressures (finding the shops, security fears, worrying about the children etc) that come with moving to another country.

15868782713_3daa68f1a5_b

Luckily the very interesting responses to my survey showed me that it wasn’t by any means all bad news. In fact if anything there was a lot more positive responses than negative – and the clearest message that came out in the answers was that an expat move was likely to make your relationship stronger rather than push you apart. Sharing new experiences, spending more time together as a family, having to turn to each other because there is no-one else – many people told me these brought them closer and made their relationship a more robust one than the opposite. To directly quote one of my respondents: “All the moving around definitely brought us closer together. Even if there were occasional problems, by solving them we grew stronger. He’s my best friend now”. Another one even told me the move had saved her marriage – a planned split was put on hold when they found out he was being posted abroad and now they are not only still together but a lot happier than they had been.

But we can’t ignore the fact that whilst these positive stories are in the majority (or at least they were among those who responded to my request for your experiences), there are still others whose relationship does break down thanks to the particular pressures of moving and living in another place. I have seen first hand a number of couples split up for various reasons. Some I suspect wouldn’t have lasted wherever in the world they lived. But others were caused by bored partners whose spouses worked long hours in the office, affairs made easier due to the particular culture they were living in, the disparity between the two completely different lives being led or just simply an escalation in otherwise endurable problems caused by the massive changes.

So what happens in these circumstances? It’s always sad when a relationship breaks down, but being overseas can cause more complications than normal. What happens if one wants to return but the other doesn’t? Or if the working half of the partnership is tied into a contract which means they have to stay? What about if there are children involved? What are the legal considerations if you are not in your home jurisdiction? What about if one of the couple is from the country where you are living, but the other isn’t?

These are all issues that you might need to think through BEFORE you move, rather than when things start to go wrong. And if you think your relationship could be severely tested by the move, consider counselling either before you go or look for online help (Relate in the UK offers telephone, email and ‘live chat’ counselling) that you can carry on with from your new home.  I know it’s not a pleasant thing to have to plan for, but knowing what I do about the affect an overseas move can have on a couple I still think it’s worth at least considering what you would do if you and your partner did split up.  There is so much more I could say about this subject (and there’s now a whole chapter on it in the Survival Guide) but I don’t want to labour the point. Subjects like this are difficult to talk about and sometimes we just need to open it up as a discussion point just to make people aware of the issues. Hopefully this is not something you will ever need to worry about. But if you think it might be, or if you know it already is,do you know what you would do? It’s better to be prepared for something that may never happen than find yourself floundering when it’s too late.

How has moving abroad affected the relationship with your partner? What advice would you give to others, especially those that might be having problems?

 

photo credit: couple via photopin (license)

click here to buy

A Long Hill to Climb – my blog post on Expat Focus

I am delighted to be blogging at the expat website Expat Focus. This month, I decided to write about the coming months and what I know I have to get through before we’re settled into our new life in South Africa. Read it here and please let me know what you think – do you agree it’s usually at least a year from your first preparations  until the day you can finally say you feel settled in your new home? Or if you’re not an expat and have never been an expat reading this, does it surprise you how long it can take for someone to feel happy when they move abroad? Are we all just a load of moaning minnies? Or has this opened your eyes a bit?

 

expat-focus-expert-columnist-badge-small