divorce, expat

Dealing With Expat Divorce – Part 4: Three Ways You Can Help


In the first and second post of this series, I looked at why relationship breakups are much harder for expats. One key reason is that expats find it much more difficult to reconstruct home. In my third post, I explored ways for expats to rebuild home after a breakup, mostly by using their internal resources. In this post, I highlight ways that the community can help divorcing expats get the practical and emotional support that they need in order to cope.

Unfortunately, there are not many resources out there for expats dealing with relationship breakdowns. This is what makes the role of the expat community even more critical.

If you are part of such a community, there are three things you do to help.
First, don’t stay away.

Separation and divorce are taboo subjects in expat circles.  Why? Because breakdowns are believed to be contagious. They highlight the reality that expat relationships can end and, it is feared, make those in fragile relationships more likely to consider the option. So best to isolate the virus before it can spread. The unfortunate result is that expats experiencing relationship breakdowns get isolated, in situations where their support networks already are tenuous.

If you are part of an expat network and see someone experiencing these challenges, fight the impulse to stay away. Offering help, even if it’s just listening to someone tell their story, can make all the difference. Friends, even new ones, can ask questions, try to understand the real challenges, and identify the kinds of support that will help the most. For instance, understanding a person’s concept of home and the loss of home that a relationship breakup implies for them could be very useful in determining the kinds of resources and support that they would need to cope.

Second, help them identify support resources.

As I discussed in the first post of this series, expats going through relationship breakups in a foreign country often face tremendous challenges operating in an unfamiliar language and navigating the local legal system. Whether you do it as an individual or by taking initiative in the context of a local expat support organization, you can help expats going through a breakup get access to relevant information and resources by:

·    Synthesizing, translating and providing information, ideally accessible online, in English (or in other languages) on local legal frameworks for family law.

·    Organizing access to legal advice in English (or other languages), for example, through the use of qualified volunteers.

·    Providing guidance on dealing with the financial implications of divorce. This would include matters linked to pension systems, insurance, local bureaucracy and others. This could also be done through networks of qualified professionals, ideally volunteers; and by making the relevant information and resources accessible to non-local language speakers.

·    Organizing access to counseling and/or therapy for expatriates going through a relationship breakdown, again through networks of qualified professionals, volunteer or not.

·    Bringing together and organizing communities, forums and support groups of expats going through such experiences.

Third and finally, if you’ve been through this experience yourself, consider offering to coach a fellow expat going through the same familiar challenges.

The idea of volunteer expat divorce coaches was perhaps the most interesting one I heard during my research. In the words of Nour, the expat divorcée I mentioned in my previous post, “The problem is that people don’t know what’s out there in terms of resources. People need divorce coaches.” A divorce coach offers both practical guidance and emotional support. Ideally, it is someone who understands the challenges, either from personal or professional experience, and helps people navigate the whole process – legal, logistical, emotional.

While divorce coaches have existed for at least a decade, there are no specialized divorce coaches for expats yet. These could be volunteers who have been through the experience and, irrespective of their professional background (legal, financial, coaching/ counseling etc.), are familiar with cross-cultural issues and have a solid understanding of both local legal systems and the international implications of expat relationship breakdown.

…expatriate life equips them with traits and skills that are invaluable in coping with relationship breakdown: resilience, endurance, adaptability, and an unmatched ability to create home wherever they are.

As I hope has become clear from this series, relationship breakdowns are particularly devastating for expats. In addition to the unavoidable feelings of grief, anger and disorientation, expats experience a particularly intense loss of home – along many dimensions – and they do so without the support systems they would have had at home. At the same time, however, expatriate life equips them with traits and skills that are invaluable in coping with relationship breakdown: resilience, endurance, adaptability, and an unmatched ability to create home wherever they are.

While, unfortunately, there are limited external resources for expats going through failed relationships, I hope I have communicated the importance of raising awareness about the challenges and the many different ways in which expats themselves can create appropriate resources and support each other through those difficult times. They don’t call it an “emotional boot camp” for nothing; it is painful and tough, but the reward is that one emerges from it stronger and, most times, even happier than before.

Below are some examples of resources that are available for expatriates going through relationship breakdown:

General information on expat divorce

Frances Robinson, “Divorce and the EU Expat: Here’s How to Go
About It,” Wall Street Journal Expat, April 21, 2015; http://blogs.wsj.com/expat/2015/04/21/divorce-and-the-eu-expat-heres-how-to-go-about-it/

Debra Bruno, “Divorce, Global Style: For Expat Marriages, Breaking Up is Harder to Do,” Wall Street Journal Expat, March 18, 2015; http://blogs.wsj.com/expat/2015/03/18/divorce-global-style-for-expat-marriages-breaking-up-is-harder-to-do/

Mark King, “Warring Across Waters,” The Guardian, September 19, 2009; http://www.theguardian.com/money/2009/sep/19/expat-finance-divorce

Henry Brookman, “The Difficulties of Divorcing Overseas,” The Telegraph, March 24, 2011; http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/expat-money/8356609/The-difficulties-of-divorcing-overseas.html

Articles written by legal professionals

“Divorce Abroad: 10 steps to protect your children;” http://www.expatica.com/ch/family-essentials/partners/Divorce-abroad-10-steps-to-protect-your-children_106043.html

Jeremy D. Morley, “Top Ten Tips for Expats;” http://www.international-divorce.com/Top-Ten-Tips-for-Expats.htm

Susan Harwood, “Expat Divorce: What You Need to Know and What Not to Worry About;” http://www.expatexchange.com/article/4238/Expat-Divorce-What-You-Need-to-Know-and-What-Not-to-Worry-About

Examples of expat divorce articles with a local focus

“Getting a divorce in Switzerland;” http://www.expatica.com/ch/family-essentials/Divorce-in-Switzerland_106669.html

“Expat divorce in the UAE – 10 frequently asked questions;” http://www.thenational.ae/blogs/your-money/expat-divorce-in-the-uae–10-frequently-asked-questions

“All You Need to Know About US Expats Overseas Divorce;” http://www.expats-moving-and-relocation-guide.com/overseas-divorce.html/- sthash.zKkrYTFI.dpbs

A comparison of national family law/divorce regulations among EU Countries


Divorce Coaches

There are many divorce coaches, unfortunately, not many specialize in working with expatriates. Some examples:




Articles about the benefits of divorce coaching





This series of posts is based on a presentation I gave at the Families in Global Transition conference (FIGT16) in Amsterdam on March 12, 2016.

divorce, expat

Dealing with Expat Divorce – Part 3: Surviving the Breakup

In my two previous posts, I looked at why relationship breakups are harder on expats than on non-expats.  One of the key reasons is that expats find it much more difficult to reconstruct “home.” In this post, I explore how expats can rebuild home after a breakup.

Imagine that you are living in a foreign country and your primary relationship has collapsed. You are heading for separation or divorce and desperately need support – both practical and emotional – but your family and friends are mostly far away. What do you do? Here are some survival strategies which help expats cope with the major challenges of relationship breakdown: coping with the initial shock, rebuilding home, and navigating the legal process in a foreign country.

Coping with the initial shock

While people differ widely in the pace and extent to which they recover from trauma, most experience the initial stages as a time of disbelief, dislocation and denial. Divorce – any divorce – is extremely hard. However, it is even more difficult and more dislocating in expat situations, for the reasons I mentioned previously. Nour, an inspiring Turkish divorcee I interviewed, described her experience as “an emotional boot camp.” Most expats going through divorce feel depressed, lost, overwhelmed. It is important to get through those initial stages of pure survival in order to start thinking about new beginnings. Another person I interviewed compared this stage to dealing with an injury: you need to apply pressure to stop the bleeding first, before you can start moving.

Identify a couple of “emotional anchors” – close friends or family – with whom you can connect a lot early on. Don’t hesitate to ask for help from them.  One of my interviewees, David, said, “There can be a strong tendency to want to hide; you need to fight it. People close to you want to help, but they also want to respect your privacy. So If you don’t ask for help, you surely won’t get it.” Most of the people I talked to would not have made it without their friends’ practical and emotional support – but they had to ask.

Get expert help if you can afford it. Nour spoke of coping with the initial shock “I saw a therapist and worked with a life coach, among others.” Even if you can’t afford this sort of help, there are still resources. Nour told me: “I read a lot about divorce because it gave me the feeling that I’m not the only one, that I have nothing to be ashamed of. A lot of people not only don’t know what is out there, but they also don’t look.”

Strive to stay active. For instance, exercise is very important for one’s mood. Nour, again: “I did sports, even though I’m not a sporty person. I went to book groups and expat meetups.”

Rebuilding home

Once you have begun to recover your footing, you need to focus your energy on recreating home, consistent with what home means for you. As hard as it is to see the big
picture when you’re in the midst of something that feels like a Category Five hurricane, understanding your concept of home is crucial; it helps you concentrate your efforts on rebuilding the home you lost with divorce. Think of what you need to find home again, the resources you’d like to have, and search for what’s available.

If home is place, give your physical home a priority. Even if you don’t have to move out
of your home post-divorce, but especially if you do, you will need to make adjustments to your living space. If feeling at home in your physical environment is crucial for you, don’t postpone making those adjustments “until things settle.” Start as soon as possible. The comfort you get from your home will soothe you and make you feel more supported through a challenging process.

If home is a feeling that comes through rituals, focus your efforts on reviving your rituals or creating new ones. For instance, many family rituals may have to change post-divorce. It helps if you anticipate that and try to find new ones to replace them. See it as an opportunity to do something new. If you can only have family movie nights at home every other Friday (when you have the children), then maybe the other two Fridays of the month you can treat yourself to something you love, but weren’t able to do before – like actually go to a movie.

If home is people, focus your energy on rebuilding your circle of friends and support network. Find or build your new tribe. The importance of rebuilding one’s social network was a constant refrain in my interviews. Many people go into isolation mode during or after a breakup. For expats, this distancing may also come from their environment. Don’t cut yourself off – as much as it may feel you want to hide. Join an expat organization, a book club, the PTA. Talk to a friend, a neighbor, a colleague or another parent at your children’s school. Get on Skype more often and talk to your friends and family back home.

Tell your story. People will want to hear it and it will help you find a community.

Finally, many of the people I interviewed spoke 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. Despite the many external disadvantages to dealing with divorce as an expat, there is an area where being an expat is an advantage: expat life equips us with a level of endurance and a mindset of adaptability that are invaluable in such situations. Michelle, an American expat divorcée told me, “Being an expat makes you incredibly resilient. Especially as partner, you are used to constantly reinventing and redefining yourself; and this is exactly what you have to do when your marriage breaks down. You have huge resources in you that can help you cope.”

Navigating the legal process

The biggest complaint I heard from the people I interviewed concerned the crippling lack of information on how the system works – the process of divorce, the parties’ legal rights, custody issues etc. – in any particular country. Language is a huge barrier: how do you get information on the legal framework that applies to your case and what your rights are if you don’t speak the local language?

The best option is to get a good local lawyer who speaks your language. However, hiring a lawyer can be incredibly expensive and, even in countries where there is state provided free legal information (in many European countries, for example, there are specialized websites or free legal consultation services), that information is usually in the local language. This can be a serious disadvantage and can also create an atmosphere of distrust if there’s an asymmetry in the parties’ access to information (i.e. if one party speaks the local language and the other does not).

If possible, find a friend or acquaintance who can help translate. Alternatively, there are
online articles, mostly in English and usually posted by attorneys, on family law in different countries or issues relevant to expatriates of specific nationalities (for instance, a lot for Brits divorcing outside the U.K.).

However the experience of the people I interviewed confirmed that none of that is enough. There is a real need for better resources to help divorcing expatriates cope with a life-changing process that will so profoundly shape their futures. In my next post, I will look at how such resources can be generated and ways for the community to help expats who go
through relationship breakdown get the practical and emotional support that they need.

This series of posts is based on a presentation I gave at the Families in Global Transition conference(FIGT16) in Amsterdam on March 12, 2016.

divorce, expat

Dealing with Expat Divorce – Part 2: Why Home Matters

In my previous post, I looked at the reasons why breakups, divorce in particular, are different for expats than for non-expats. In this post I focus on a less obvious, but critical factor in why expats struggle during relationship breakups: the concept of home.

Many of the challenges that expats face when their relationships or marriages break down are similar to those that non-expats face: financial hardship, loss of relationships, emotional suffering. So on the surface, it might seem that expat divorce is just a variation on “regular” divorce. If one looks closer, however, some deeper issues emerge for why expat divorce is much harder. These concern how expats perceive home and how vulnerable they are when home is lost. Divorce essentially implies a loss of home. When that happens, the consequences for expats are much more dramatic.

Divorce is fundamentally harder for expats because they need to reconstruct home in a foreign environment, away from family, friends, familiar social and cultural structures.

What exactly is “home” and how does expat divorce affect it? In my research, I have
identified the concept of home as a central factor in influencing how expats adjust when they move. In particular, there are three ways most people experience home: home as place; home as people; and home as feeling. This framework is also helpful in understanding the challenges that expatriates face when their relationships fail and why
these challenges are different than the ones that non-expatriates face.

Knowing in advance which dimensions of home are most important helps expats cope better with divorce.

Home as Place

This is the traditional definition of home, where geography is the defining aspect. Home
can be your passport country; the city, town or village where you grew up; the neighborhood where you spent formative years and made lifelong friends; the house or apartment that features in your childhood memories; your childhood bedroom; or a landscape that speaks to your soul. There are places that make us feel rooted and connected in a visceral way, either because they hold powerful memories or because they remind us of places that do.

How does divorce affect expats whose concept of home is strongly rooted in place? By definition, people leave behind familiar physical locations when they take expat assignments. When relationships break down, the impact of being in unfamiliar places can hit very hard. The location and mobility issues associated with expat divorce are particularly challenging. When an expat marriage fails, questions of mobility become prominent. Do you have to move? Do you want to move and if yes, can you do so? Do you need permission to move? What about if you have kids – how does that change your desire or ability to move?

After a separation or divorce, some people may want to move – whether to leave the
memories behind or to start over – and when there are no children and custody issues involved, they do just that. Others may have to move even if they don’t want to. For many accompanying spouses, their homes, their children’s schools, but most important, their residence permits are linked to their partners’. After divorce, they may be
legally required to leave their place of residence. Some may want to move but, once children are involved, it gets complicated. For instance, when the parents have joint custody, one parent cannot move the kids from their place of residence without the consent of the other. So if you’re an American married to a German living in Germany and your ex doesn’t want to move, you are stuck in Germany, unless you can get sole custody. Even if your ex is also American, you still cannot move without permission. Finally, there are extreme cases where one of the partners can restrict the others’ mobility. In certain Middle-Eastern countries husbands can not only prevent their wives from moving or even traveling, but can also throw them out of their joint home and, worse, force them to give up their children. Many women stay in unhealthy marriages out of fear of losing their children.

Finances may also prevent expats from creating a physical home post-divorce. One person I interviewed was a Greek woman whose Swedish husband didn’t want to divorce and so refused to move out of their home. She had to move with no job, no savings and no safety net. Her ex refused to pay support and did not allow her to take anything from their home. She struggled to create a new home from scratch. She had no money for the down payment of the small apartment she found for herself and her two children. Thankfully, her friends rallied for her and raised that amount. While she wasn’t working before, she now had to work two jobs; still she didn’t have money to buy furniture. “At the beginning, I didn’t even have a mattress for my children to sleep on,” Maria told me. “Every month, I would buy one piece of IKEA furniture with the little money I would manage to save. It is a slow process, but it’s becoming home. Had this happened back home in Greece, I would have moved in with my parents, at least temporarily. I would have had a home immediately.”

After divorce, expats must define and rebuild a new Home as Place for themselves.

Home as People

This refers to our core relationships – our family, friends, our tribe – the people with whom we belong; the people with whom we can be ourselves. When an expat marriage breaks down, what relationships are lost and how does this affect expats’ sense of

The relationships that constitute “home” narrow down when one chooses the expat lifestyle. For expats, who are far from extended family and long-time friends, home becomes the nuclear family, the family that moves with them. Divorce breaks up that nuclear family structure. It makes the more fragile set of relationships that represent home disappear. When you divorce, you lose a partner – whatever the qualities of that partner. When you divorce and have children, you often see your children less. This is common for any divorce; but for expats, losing the relational dimension of home is particularly brutal because often it has become the core dimension of home.

Home needs to be reconfigured and reinvented and one needs to adjust to that new configuration. When Tania’s husband moved out, her concept of home, which up to then had been centered around their nuclear family of five, had to change. There was a gap. Had they been back home, her extended family and friends would have immediately helped fill that gap. But they were not, so her children and she had to adjust to the new reality and the new structure for home, just the four of them together, just some of the time. They had to open themselves to new ways of being together and, like any change, that took time and effort and a shift in their way of thinking.

If your concept of home is deeply rooted in people, then their support – practical and emotional – is key. Your family and circle of friends can make a huge difference in how you fare through the divorce process. But they are often thousands of miles away, so local support networks become vital. In any divorce, however, you often end up losing part of your support network. Losing such networks can be devastating and rebuilding them is a huge challenge.

In expat divorce, whatever local social network you have begun to build up also gets disrupted. Usually you lose relationships as the result of inevitable changes in the way you socialize. If your social circle consisted mainly of friends with whom you interacted on a family-to-family basis, for example, that has to change. Now that it’s just you or you and your children, you may no longer be able to have the same social activities that you had as a “family.” Your configuration is different now and not everyone in your circle is comfortable with that.

You may also notice that some “friends” will “drop out.” People may feel they need to choose sides or attitudes towards you may change. Juliana, a Brazilian living in
Vienna, told me: “When I take my son to soccer practice, I notice that both the other moms and dads are looking at me differently now that they know I’m separated. It’s uncomfortable sometimes.” Whether it’s embarrassment or social awkwardness, divorce is a taboo subject, especially in expat circles. There seems to be a fear of “contagion,” which, even if not rational, may result in you feeling distanced by your network.

These losses are normal when one goes through divorce, but for expats, especially for those for whom people are a large – if not the largest – part of home, such losses are much more devastating.

Home as Feeling

This dimension refers to the feelings that home evokes, such as belonging, safety, comfort, familiarity, authenticity, love. What challenges does divorce raise for expats’ emotional home? When a core relationship breaks down, different aspects of your life and identity are affected and this, in turn, influences how secure, comfortable and at home you feel.

To start, divorce has an impact on your professional identity and feelings of competence and self-sufficiency. For expat partners, whether male or female, who have most likely either given up their career or put it on hold in order to follow their partner abroad, this is a serious challenge. In most cases divorce implies that, if you are not in the job market, you will need to get back in it. So, in addition to trying to get your life together, you have to consider questions such as: How employable are you? How long have you been away from the job market? Are you even eligible for a work permit or visa in the country where you live?

More generally, there are often gender differences in how expatriates cope with divorce, especially when it comes to professional identity. For most men, that aspect of their identity remains intact post-divorce. There is a sense of comfort that is rooted in professional identity and men seem to have that anchor more than women. The majority of expat men going through divorce state that focusing on work helps them cope with the emotional downside of the breakup. By contrast, most expat women, who are much more likely to have sacrificed their professional identity as a result of expatriation, don’t have that resource to fall back on.

Another gender difference in the aftermath of divorce is the fact that women often may have a harder time getting back to work depending on the country they live in, especially if they have children. For instance, in Switzerland, childcare costs, especially for pre-Kindergarten ages, are very high, even relative to the higher salaries. Also, Switzerland lags far behind other OECD countries in terms of providing equal professional opportunities for women compared to men. All that makes being a working mom in Switzerland a challenge – even more so for a working single mom.

In addition, different cultures have different expectations from mothers. Staying at home and taking care of the children for several years may be the cultural norm in one country but unacceptable in another. This has an impact on how family dynamics evolve upon expatriation. Juliana, the Brazilian mother of two living in Vienna, told me: “In Brazil, being a stay-at-home mom is not well regarded. Had we stayed there instead of moving to Europe, I would have focused more on my career, which now would be at completely different level. I would not have become so dependent financially on my husband.”

Financial dependence is another key issue that is linked to the feeling of competence associated with professional identity.

Expatriation is disempowering for accompanying partners, especially because it leads to a transformation of couple dynamics: it often creates a dependence relationship that can turn out to be catastrophic. This dependence happens gradually and very subtly. It is only exposed if and when the marriage starts going south, and many partners start feeling trapped – financially, emotionally, physically.

I hope it is becoming clear that the consequences of divorce for expats are particularly devastating because they involve the loss of home at very deep levels. Sometimes the consequences are so scary that partners prefer to stay in unhealthy or abusive relationships rather than leave.

In my next article in this series, I will look at how expats can rebuild home after a

This series of posts is based on a presentation I gave at the Families in Global Transition conference(FIGT16) in Amsterdam on March 12, 2016.


Dealing with Expat Divorce – Part 1: Why It’s Different for Expats

Expat divorce (the term I will use to describe the breakdown of a primary relationship while on an expat assignment) bears many similarities to non-expat divorce. However, there are unique features that make it even more challenging. In the coming weeks, I will explore these challenges and ways people can better cope with them in a five-part series. Part 1 focuses on what makes expat divorce different.

Almost a decade later, Lily vividly recalled the morning when her husband told her that
he was leaving. An ethnic Chinese, Lily was in her early forties when the bottom fell out of her life. She had met her husband Luuk, a Dutch expat, ten years earlier in Hong Kong, the city of her birth. She had followed him on his two subsequent overseas assignments – to Budapest, Hungary and then Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. By this point they had three young children and were on the second year of a four-year stint. Then over breakfast on morning, Luuk informed her that he was leaving her for another woman, moving out of their common home and going back to the Netherlands.

Like most people facing divorce, Lily experienced confusion, shock and devastation. However because of her expat situation, she also faced immediate, very hard decisions.  Foremost, she had to figure out whether to stay in Ethiopia with her three children or follow her soon-to-be ex husband back to the Netherlands. Going back to Hong Kong was not an option: she had been away for many years and had few family members or friends there.

Ethiopia had become home for Lily. She had a good life in Addis and many close friends who tried to convince her to stay there with her children and let her husband leave alone. But there were many practical difficulties with that. If she were to stay, she would have to move out of their current home. She would also have to take her children out of the international school they were attending. Both were sponsored by her husband’s employer. Lily was not working and had no financial resources of her own.

The only option that seemed feasible was to go to the Netherlands and stay with relatives of her husband’s until she figured out what to do. That is what she did, and the months that followed were the worst of her life. She had no family close by, no friends, and no support. She was not familiar with the Dutch legal system. She did not know her rights or how to fight for them. Her husband, more knowledgeable of the system, as a local, and able to afford competent legal representation, managed to get the divorce very much in his favor. Lily could only afford a state-appointed lawyer and ended up with no alimony, minimal child support and no share of common assets. “My husband lied in court and they believed him. Nobody listened to me.” Lily spoke Dutch, but wasn’t fluent.

After the divorce, she had to work two, and sometimes three, jobs to make ends meet.
“I had to live with my husband’s relatives for quite a while because I could not afford my own place. I had no money and no job. I had nothing. I spent my days agonizing. Sleepless nights. I was lost.”

Lily’s case is hardly unique or extreme.

Divorce is hard in general, for a variety of reasons – financial, emotional, practical – and the challenges multiply when children are involved.

Expat divorce is even harder.

Some of the reasons for this are obvious. Expats experience the usual challenges of divorce more intensely, mainly because the support system they would have had at home isn’t there. If you are living in your home country when your marriage breaks down, you have resources for dealing with the practical implications. If you move out and need a place to stay, it is likely that your parents, extended family or friends will be able to help. If you need cash to tide you over or help moving to a new place, these people are usually there for you. They are also the ones who refer you to contacts that can provide legal advice and help you with the process of separation or divorce.  You also speak the language, which gives you access to information about the practical and legal implications of divorce. Finally, friends and family provide an even more valuable resource: emotional support. They are the people you call up when you are not feeling well, when you need someone to talk things through or just to cheer you up – no matter what time of day (or night) it is.

As an expat, you often lack that kind of support.

Yves, a French expat, experienced this when he and his wife, also French, decided to end their marriage while on posting in Southeast Asia. “As expats, we did a lot of socializing, but most of the relationships we formed were superficial,” Yves describes. “We didn’t have any true friends. Our family and true friends were back home, 12,000 kilometers away.  We had to stay up late at night to be able to connect with them. We could not spontaneously fly home for the weekend. While Skype and email were great, we ended up feeling isolated at such a difficult time and had no way of diffusing the tension or looking for solutions.”

Legal and jurisdictional questions also can be much more complex when you live in another country. Juliana and her husband, both Brazilians living in Austria, had a hard time figuring out what the legal framework was for their divorce when they separated. “There are government-sponsored agencies and websites that specialize in helping people who go through divorce,” Juliana said, “but they are addressed to Austrian couples or those where at least one is Austrian. We were both foreigners who did not get married in Austria, so there was no provision for us. Even friends of mine who were
lawyers could not point me to the right information. Eventually I had to hire a lawyer to do the research for me.”

Other practical difficulties with expat divorce include what happens to residence and work permits after the breakup. If you are living at home, you can simply go out and get a job. Trailing spouses in expat situations often have no legal way to do that. They may be classified as “dependents” and therefore not allowed to work; or their residence permits, visas and work permits may be linked to their partner’s.

These are only some of the reasons why many expats either do not divorce or wait until they return to their home countries before they start the process.

While there are no figures yet for divorce rates among expatriates, it is believed that they are lower than the general divorce rate. The reason is that, given the severity of the consequences, both short- and long-term, many expatriates choose to stay in unhappy, unhealthy marriages because leaving them is so much tougher.

In the next part of this series, I will explore a fundamental, but perhaps less obvious, reason why divorce – and relationship breakdown in general – is particularly devastating for expatriates.

This series of posts is based on a presentation I gave at the Families in Global Transition conference (FIGT16) in Amsterdam on March 12, 2016.

Our Gilded Expat Cages

It starts as an adventure. We are young, ambitious, qualified, full of dreams. We feel powerful. We know exactly what our life will look like. We have big plans. We want to explore the world. We find a partner who shares our dreams. We fall in love and, together, we’re off to great places.

The first couple of moves go relatively well. We are childless, unattached, free to grab every opportunity that comes our way. Our career is our priority. Our independence is sacred. Our partner respects that. That both careers are equally valued is not even an issue. We’re on top of the world.

As the years pass, we start wanting to have a family. We decide to go for it and take a step – or two – back, career wise. Temporarily, of course. There is no regret; on the contrary, we feel fortunate, even grateful to be able to do that. We appreciate that our partner enables us to focus on taking care of our young family by taking over the burden of being the main breadwinner. We forget about our sacred independence for a while. We trust. Nothing can go wrong. We are blissfully unaware that that is not true.

Especially the first few years, we are busy with the children, the household, organizing the moves, making sure everyone is well adjusted and settled. We are still on track. We are still exploring the world. But with every move, it becomes harder for us to pick up where we left off, professionally. In every new place, local laws need to be navigated and work permits negotiated, careers that don’t “travel” well need to be reinvented and short-term moves don’t allow us the time to do any of that because, by the time the boxes are unpacked and the kids settled, it’s time to plan the next move – something which we are rapidly becoming masters at organizing, on our own. Soon, we have been away from the job market long enough to lose confidence in our ability to ever go back. If and when we do manage to go back to work, what we end up doing usually does not have much to do with the ambitious plans we had when we started our journey.

Thankfully, we are still equal partners in our relationship. We have access. The money our partner makes – which they always refer to as “our money” – buys us a beautiful home, expensive cars, designer clothes, exotic vacations and perfect manicures. But there is no equality in dependence, which just keeps growing in the background, imperceptibly, discreetly. Until someday it is right there in front of our eyes, in black and white, when we realize that we can’t even get a credit card in our name.

While these kinds of dependence relationships are not an exclusively expat phenomenon, expat life makes them much more likely. Expatriation can be disempowering, especially for women. The ideal of a dual-career family can only be maintained for so long when that family moves every few years, before children even enter the picture. Usually, the ideal becomes logistically and practically impossible. Usually, one of the two careers stays behind. I’ll let you guess which one. The power balance is transformed, but it’s a subtle process.

When does this start to bother us – if at all? Many partners, to their credit, behave in a way that it never does. But there are also wake up calls. For expats, this happens often when the relationship or marriage breaks down and the massive power imbalance is revealed. We realize how powerless we’ve become. The extent of our dependence is so terrifying that many choose to stay in failed, suffocating relationships, too scared to face the consequences.

There are many of us out there – with advanced Ivy League degrees, impressive work experiences, respectable salaries and all. We enter our gilded cages voluntarily. We put away our dreams and hang our prestigious credentials on the walls of our “home offices,” so that we can glance at them – not without a tinge of regret – when we pay household bills or schedule doctors’ appointments for our children.

So here’s my question. How do we get ourselves into this? Why do we disguise as “our choice” something that goes against all our principles? Is it love? Trust? Comfort? The urge of motherhood? More important, how can we stop making choices that render us powerless and dependent? How can we help others like us avoid making such choices? This is not a discussion about whether women can “have it all” in a modern society; this is about what goes on in our head. What are we thinking when, fully aware of the possible consequences, we willingly enter those gilded cages and give someone else the key?

A version of this post was published on the Huffington Post Blog.