There are many forces that drive the choice to live as an expat: adventure, affordable comfort, natural beauty, employment opportunities and for some a deep longing for a “new beginning”. Whatever the reason, more often than not those making this choice are joined by loved ones who are somewhere between joyfully accompanying and reluctantly in tow.
Life in an unfamiliar setting brings with it many relational opportunities and challenges. Typically this path results in expat families spending more time together and sensing far greater interdependence. Issues such as language competency, host culture, access to other Expats and personal security greatly impact a family’s experience and adjustment to a new culture.
When this adjustment plays out within relatively stable and secure relationships the challenges can be difficult, but ultimately workable and rewarding. However, if entering this process couples or families are not in a positive pattern of relating there can be very little “honeymoon” . If things are not good within one’s relationships the excitement of the adventure and the initial challenges of adjustment may provide a brief distraction from underlying issues. However, in time unresolved relationship issues tend to play out for Expats in what seems to be a “conflict accelerator”. This is in no way to suggest that the expat life can’t be a positive force for relationships, but it is to say if entered naively without thoughtful consideration and preparation the relationship wheels can come off quite quickly.
So what advice does this long married, aging, expat psychologist have to offer with regard to making the best of this opportunity?.
First, honestly and openly ask yourself and your fellow adventures these questions.
For the most part do we:
express appropriate levels of respect, kindness, trust and playfulness within our
have channels of communication that result in positive collaboration?
make decisions collaboratively and by consensus?
Second, ask the question, “How are we at forgiveness?”. The learning curve associated with life in a new setting will involve a number of missteps along the way. In these missteps there will be ample need to both seek and offer forgiveness, as we inadvertently hurt or disregard the other. Expat or not the quality of our relationships will be significantly tied to our capacities to seek and offer forgiveness, a connect –tear–repair process is at the core of any strong attachment.
A third and extremely important issue in assessing readiness for the challenges and opportunities of the expat life centers on the issue of substances, particularly alcohol. There is no question that the expat life increases the potential for the development or exacerbation of substance use problems. Issues such as social isolation; life within a resort-like setting where “everyday is a vacation” and the stress of adjustment all promote potential substance use issues. Each setting or culture has its own challenges and supports with respect to substances, but realizing the potential for the slow drift towards substance dependency while living as an expat is a significant part of managing it. For those entering the expat experience with an existing substance use issue I can not over state the need for caution and treatment prior to departure.
If your assessment of any of these factors suggests a need for realignment, do not ignore this fact in hope that the new setting will make things better. Get some help, make time for some honest focused discussion and share plans as to how you are going to manage potential relational problems in the new setting. Make it clear to yourself and your loved ones that this adventure is going to have some relational perils and that when they occur they need to be addressed as openly and as soon as possible.
One of the dilemmas associated with relationship and substance use issues while living as an Expat relates to finding good, competent professional help. For many it may be best to establish a relationship with a US based clinician for a “check-up” prior to departure, or at least to establish a relationship that might be accessible by phone or Skype if needed. If this is not possible or enough there are several excellent retreat based mental health programs that might be a good option, should things seem to become unglued. There are also a number of helpful texts that can be useful if read together by spouses or parents. Some that I recommend are “Hold Me Tight” by Sue Johnson, Ph.D. for couples and the “Whole Brain Child” and “Brainstorm”, for parents of children and adolescents respectively, both written by Dan Siegel, MD.
In approaching the exciting adventure of the expat life don’t allow yourself to be naïve, simply hoping and or pretending that relationship issues will not arise. Ask yourselves the tough questions, seek help when needed and do the work necessary to preserve the precious state of relational well being, a “state” not found on any map.