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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
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.

 
home

Punch the knife

As I relish one of my last scorched, wind-blown afternoons on my little
stone-paved veranda on a Cycladic island, I think of my past few weeks here and
the Greece I have encountered.

Greece is a country in perpetual crisis. It has been in a constant
crunch, a state of emergency, a permanent state of transition, for a while now. Scenarios of doom and reckoning have been floating in the air for
at least half a decade. It’s hard to miss how all that has affected its people.

In between reconnecting with my sensory home – the smell of thyme bushes
and fig trees, the crisp taste of watermelon, the buzzing of the cicadas in a hot
afternoon – all I seem to be doing this summer vacation is talk; probe; ask questions.
I seek out mostly the younger Greeks. They are the ones hit the hardest; the
“lost” generation of Greece, as they are now called by sociologists and the
media. More than half of them are unable to find jobs. Most of them can hardly
envision, let alone plan, their future. They are also the ones that
overwhelmingly voted “No” to the recent Greek bailout referendum, which I have had a hard time making
sense of.

I talk to the young woman serving me at the village coffee shop. When I
ask her how she and her peers are coping with the crisis, she tells me with a
half smile: “I am serving my degree,” implying that her university degree is
utterly useless in getting her a job. There is no anger or bitterness in her voice. She seems rather stoic. “I’m grateful that I can wait tables; at least I have a job, unlike most
of my friends,” she rushes to add.

Across the street, the small crafts shop is empty most of the time I
pass by. As the shop owner carefully wraps the piece of hand-made pottery I just
bought, she shares with me her worries about her three children, aged between
17 and 22. “They are constantly angry and I don’t know what to tell them,” she says.
“They have no future and it’s not their fault. But I have raised them to
endure.”

The more I talk, the more it seems to me that the whole country is immobilized.
Nobody really knows what’s coming or when, what the next development will be,
which rumors are true and which are baseless. Everybody is in a state of
suspended animation. At the same time, I witness an unprecedented level of
stoicism and a very particular kind of resilience in the face of so much
uncertainty. When I came here, I was expecting to be confronted with anger,
frustration and bitterness. There is a lot of that going around, for sure; a
lot of disillusionment. But there is also an extraordinary level of kindness. The crisis has
brought families together. People support each other whenever possible, even
with limited means. Everyone seems to realize that a selfish way of living
belongs firmly in the past if the nation is to survive these times.

Resilience is in our Greek genes for sure. As a country, as a people,
we have been through many crises over the centuries, most of them worse than this
one, and we have always bounced back. But the kind of resilience I am observing
here is not just the one that is bound to a strong survival instinct. This resilience
comes packaged in humanity and compassion. It is a kind-hearted resilience; a caring
resistance; a gentle, but undeniable, strength. Quite a contrast from the polarization
and intolerance of only a few weeks ago.

As I am leaving the little crafts shop on the Cycladic island village,
the owner tells me something that makes an impression on me. She says that,
although her kids seem to have no future in a country that is battered and
bruised from both the outside and the inside, they haven’t given up. “They are
the ones inspiring me for moving forward,” she admits, “rather than the other
way around. They tell me ‘Mom, you need to punch the knife!’” She looks at me
with a half-conspiratory, proud smile. “We all need to punch the knife. Keep
going even though it hurts.”

A whole country is doing that right now. Again. In our own, gentle way.

Losing home

I have written a lot about finding home – the two words that, in my mind, sum up the essence of nomadic life. But until today, I had not felt the need to write about losing home. For the past few weeks, I have been watching my vision of home slip away, little by little. I have been watching the people I love lose their home. I have been witnessing a whole nation becoming homeless, slowly but steadily, for a long time.

Even though I chose to leave my home and become a permanent foreigner 20 years ago, that home has always been in the back of my mind. I could always return if I wanted to, even though I probably would not. If I did return, though, I knew that I would be welcome; free to be myself; surrounded by people who share the same values as me – my people – because that’s what home feels like.

I have been a silent observer of developments in my home country, Greece, for the past few years. I have watched the country struggle and tear under the weight of the economic crisis and its people battle hardship and poverty – without losing their beautiful spirit. I have felt heartbroken but proud to be Greek, not least because in times like these, more than ever, Greeks stick together. We help each other. We share. We stay true to our values. We endure.

I have watched the most recent developments in Greece, feeling tormented and powerless. I am not a person who talks politics, yet I have found myself actively engaged in discussions about my country’s future, its politicians, the merits of different views. I have read and debated scenario after catastrophic scenario. I have watched in disbelief as my people, led to the edge of a cliff, willingly, passionately, fanatically embrace self-destruction. I have heard the terror in the voices of friends and family who feel trapped in a country without a future, about to be forced off that cliff in the name of
democracy.

As the crisis deepens and living conditions in my unraveling country resemble less those of a developed country and more those of a country at war, the spirit of unity that I was so proud of has all but vanished. In the place of solidarity with those less fortunate, I see polarization, aggression and intolerance. I see difference of opinion being regarded as treason. I see people viciously attacking and insulting each other on every occasion and through every available medium: in front of overcrowded ATMs, while waiting in line for their daily ration of cash; while queuing at the gas station; on social media. I see threats, bullying, intimidation. Friends tell me that, for the first time,
they are afraid to express their views openly or post on social media, for fear of being labeled as taking one side or the other – by people whose help they might need in the near future. There is an atmosphere of fear and despair.

I fail to understand how all this is happening. Like many others who live away from our home country, I feel like I have lost touch. I no longer “get” my own people – how they think and why they act the way they do; what their values are; what they believe in. It feels like the home that was there is there no more. This is not the country I grew up in. These are not the values I was taught. These are not the people I was proud to be part of.

We are all losing our home.

There was an eerie silence yesterday on social media. There’s an eerie awkwardness today at the other end of the line when I call to check on my loved ones. A sort of numbness. As a good friend wrote recently, these are uncharted waters. Very dark uncharted waters. I hope that we can cross them and still find our lost home on the other side.

expat, home

Home is what you make it

“I see you.” As Doug Ota said in his moving keynote speech that concluded this year’s Families in Global Transition conference (FIGT15), we exist in the eyes of others. I see you. I see into you. I understand who you
are. We exist in the eyes of our tribe. We are at home,
with our tribe. We are “seen.”
Just like every year, coming to FIGT15 was like coming home – to my tribe. I was not the only one who felt that way. For the majority of the 150 or so participants from all over the world who braved the weather conditions and made it to Washington, D.C. that first weekend of March, this was home. First-time attendees and veterans alike, we had found our tribe.
We were seen, understood, “gotten.”
This year I had the privilege of being able to combine this annual ritual of finding home and being with my tribe, with my passion, which is to explore exactly that – how we, perpetual foreigners, find home. The theme of this year’s conference – “Finding ‘Home’ Amidst Global Change” – has occupied me for years. I have been researching, talking and writing about it and wanted to share some of that. Presenting one of the Concurrent Sessions at FIGT15 was thrilling, stimulating and rewarding. The audience was probably the most welcoming and responsive audience one could wish for. I shared their energy; I learned from them; I came away with a richer perspective and a sense of gratitude.
I’ve been asked several times for a copy of my presentation, so here’s a summary:
“Home is What You Make It: How Our
Concept of Home Shapes The Way We Move”
Why do we feel at home in some places but not in others? Why are there times when connection is almost immediate, while other times we struggle to find a sense of belonging? I believe that this has to do with our concept of home and how it affects the way we handle transitions; how it influences the strategies we use to adjust and
create home every time we move.
In my research, I saw emerge three broad themes that home evokes; three dimensions that pervade most concepts of home: Home as Place, Home as Feeling and Home as People.
Home as Place is the traditional definition of home, where geography is the defining aspect. We can be rooted in place and that place can be as narrow as a specific room filled with familiar stuff that gives us comfort; as broad as a landscape that speaks to our soul and makes us feel grounded; and everything in-between.
Home as Feeling refers to the emotional dimension of home: feeling a sense of belonging, safety, comfort, authenticity, love. Home can be a
single moment, a taste, a smell, an image, a sound or anything that evokes those feelings.
Finally, Home is People. We feel at home when we are with the people we love – whether these are our family, our close friends or our “tribe” – the people who “get” us and with whom we connect at a deeper level.
The need for home is a universal human need. But for us foreigners –who take the leap outside the normal paradigm of home – it is even more central: it shapes the way we experience expat life, how we reap its rewards and cope with its challenges. Our quest for home (and the kind of home we look for) affects how we cope with transitions and how we fare through them; how we constantly pack, unpack and repack our life; how we rebuild, recover and reconnect.
Different concepts of home often lead to different
strategies for finding home. These include gravitating towards particular landscapes that evoke in us a sense of home; choosing to live in a bubble that offers us comfort and homeliness; creating a physical home that makes us feel grounded; establishing (and transferring) rituals and routines that create continuity and familiarity; and nurturing relationships, whether that involves connecting with our close family or finding our tribe.
No one strategy is better than the others. There is
only what works best for each one of us; the strategy that helps us find the comfort of belonging and home. Reflecting on our experience and becoming conscious of our core concept(s) of home helps us make better transitions. If we can use that fundamental sense of home as a guide, if we know what we need and what to look for when we cross cultures and create new lives, then we can find home wherever we are.
Linked to #MyGlobalLife linkup at SmallPlanetStudio.com
expat, home

Less homesick, more lonely?

It’s Sunday evening and my kids and I have just finished a Skype call with my mom. She is in Athens and we are in Zurich. We try to have these calls at least once a week. My children take turns parading on my mom’s tablet screen, the timing and duration of their appearance depending on the importance of the distraction – suddenly “remembered” homework for tomorrow, texting with friends or finishing up that “last” video game. Besides the weekend Skype sessions, my mother and I talk on the phone every morning. I call her from my car, when I’m on my way back from the last school drop-off. She waits for my call so that she can get on with her day. We chat about the day that passed, about what’s ahead, about how we feel, about the weather. Nothing of extreme significance, just normal everyday stuff, stuff you talk about over morning coffee – only our respective coffee cups are a few thousand kilometers apart. It’s winter, so these days she concludes our call by telling me to makes sure I dress warm – the same way she would if I was in Athens, going out of the house and she was at the door saying goodbye.
I have been away from home for almost 20 years but have always had regular contact. The actual rituals have evolved, of course. Talking daily, as we do now, was not always possible. Phone calls were expensive, especially when my family and I were on different
continents. There was no Skype nor smartphones that would allow us to talk for free or see each other even when we are not at home. Still, whether it was through letters, faxes or weekly calls, I remember us being as much part of each other’s lives as we are now.
I often wonder if I was more homesick then; if I felt more disconnected from my family and friends when I did not have the privilege of instant access. Does being able to virtually see and hear my mother every day, sometimes multiple times per day, lighten the pain of separation? Or is the illusion of closeness created by technology just that – an illusion?
I was discussing this with a friend and she told me that, although she loves being so connected to the people in her life, she finds that the effortlessness of communication that has become standard nowadays – at least in the developed world – makes us feel that we are part of each other’s lives, when we are not. And how can we, she added, if we are not there physically?
At the same time, all that virtual connection can distract us from engaging with real life,
especially relationships. The time we invest in being up to date virtually often means less time available for being present in the real world. This is true whether we are expats or not; but for expats engaging is crucial, relationships are crucial. No wonder some of us end up isolated and lonely. And, as I read recently in an article, loneliness is not only unpleasant; it is unhealthy, even deadly sometimes.
I have kept some of the letters I exchanged with my parents back in the “old days” – the first few
years after I left home. We used to fax them back and forth, since fax was the most immediate means of communication at the time. I was surprised at the depth of some of the conversations I had with my dad – about life, about where we come from and where we want to go; at the advice and love pouring out of those faxes, both always in large doses. I found recipes my mom faxed to me when I needed ideas for a dinner party I was hosting. I found more letters from my parents congratulating me on a success, consoling me when I was heartbroken. So many details about our respective lives that I had almost forgotten; immortalized, just because they are on paper.
So yes, I am slightly less homesick now that we talk every day. It means a lot, knowing that I can always pick up the phone and connect. But there are also times when being a phone call away – and not there – makes me even lonelier than I was in the “old days.”