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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.


I Belong

A few weekends ago, on a Sunday evening, my daughter was preparing her schoolbag for the next day, when I
noticed a sheet of paper on her desk. It was a drawing of a square with several layers, like concentric…squares. I asked her what this was and she explained that, as an assignment for one of the subjects, she had to draw a diagram showing all the communities to which she belongs.
When I looked at what she came up with, I couldn’t help but smile. This was a very rich diagram, if one can call it that. My girl feels that she belongs to one continent, three
countries, four cities and two towns. This, beyond her family, friends and, of course, sports affiliations (should I be worried that she also “belongs” to Lionel Messi?). Even though I would not call our children seasoned expats, at least not yet – having been through a grand total of one international move –, this diagram pointed out (literally) how many layers make up their identity already, at such an early stage in their lives. It doesn’t take much, does it.
I asked her if this means that she feels at home in each one of these places. Without hesitation, she said that she could imagine herself living in any of them, but then quickly added the caveat – in case I got any ideas – that she has a preference for Zurich now
(our current home) and that she’d rather not have to go through another move and leave her friends behind once more. Feeling equally at home in Athens, Vienna, Zurich or even the small town in the south of Austria where her father’s family comes from, was something completely natural for her. She didn’t seem to be concerned with the practicalities of living in each place. More important considerations were familiarity with her surroundings and the presence of people with whom she belonged. Oh yes, and knowing the language.
And this is just what a bicultural child with a relatively stable upbringing perceives and experiences. As we all know, it gets much more complicated. Is this complication a disadvantage? Are we doing our kids a disservice by imposing our itinerant lifestyle on them? Are we condemning them to a life of foreignness and confused identity? I suspect that often we, as parents, agonize more over these questions than they do.
Having multiple homes and multiple allegiances does not seem strange to my daughter because it’s what she has always known. She and most of her friends – children who have multicultural backgrounds or come from families that are leading a globally nomadic life – are born with several affiliations already. The multiplicity of belonging is a fact of life for them. It is something that comes naturally and often goes unquestioned. It is part of who they are. The number of layers is not important here. It doesn’t matter how many homes or communities they are part of. What matters is that there is belonging, that our children (and we, their families) feel grounded, comfortable and at home in each of these communities. As many as these may be, there is space in our heart for all of them.
Besides, if we, as adults, can handle having many homes without feeling like split personalities (well, most of the time), then it should be easier for them, who essentially come into this world “programmed” to be this way – right?