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 home?
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 breakup.
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.