The expat partner struggles are REAL. For many of us anyway.
And yet, so few of us talk about it, get the support network they long for and need, and start creating the life they love with intention.
- experienced myself
- seen my clients struggle with and
- observed in different expat wife networks (yes, they start to exist, because the need is growing!)
#1 Life is much less exciting than you expected it to be
You did move for love. To be with your partner. And to build a fantastic life together.
Some of us move to our partner’s country, some move together to a third country to pursue a career opportunity. I have done both.
I moved to Denmark, my husband’s home country. Then we moved to the Netherlands together, and then back to Denmark.
When the hoped for adventure turns into frustration
My lowest point happened during our time in the Netherlands. We had been through a lot of change in a very short time. Changing job, quitting job, moving to a new country with all that implies, becoming parents, figuring out our roles in that new setting.
And all of a sudden, I realised that I felt quite weak. Like a follower.
I questioned why I had put so much sweat and effort into studying a double master degree – to what end? To be a stay-at-home mom?
And life was not about adventures and exploring either. It was more about managing home life, travelling to each of our countries to see family and friends (read more about the travelling part in #2 too), and trying to not be grumpy too often. I did feel frustrated and overwhelmed with all the chores that did not actually spark joy or fulfil me.
How to get out of this situation
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#2 Everyone thinks you are having this glorious, adventurous, comfortable life
Now, I don’t know what your friends’ impression is of your life. Or distant acquaintances, extended family and others around you for that matter.
But I know that I often got reactions along the line of:
- “So you moved abroad and started a new life there? Wow, that is so exciting! It’s like being on vacation all the time!”
- “You are travelling so much, that is so cool!”
- “Not working, that must be so nice. So what do you do all day?”
When you are trying to make an effort to stay connected
All the travelling is not what it looks like either.
From my own experience: yes, I have travelled a lot. And I have actually written down all the flights I took with my son. In 2014, when he was 0 to 1 year old, he had 24 flights! Only 6 of those were in the context of 2 different vacations. All the others were in an attempt to stay connected to family and friends, to make sure my son can build a connection with them as well and to not miss out on different celebrations and happenings in our home countries.
And to be accurate, the one of the 2 vacations was planned around seeing family and friends as well.
When not working is actually not purely a choice
And the not working. Somehow so many think that this is a life in luxury, you don’t have to work, but still get a decent life style, and you as the expat partner can just chill all day.
Truth is, not having a job
- Takes away part of our identity.
- Makes us feel less worthy.
- Exposes us to all kinds of prejudices.
- Makes us financially dependent.
So why don’t you just work?
Another question expat wives are frequently asked. Depending on the country we move to, for some it is simply not possible by regulation.
And for those who can: finding an actually fulfilling job that does correspond to your level of education and experience in a different country, the language of which you might not (yet) speak (fully fluently), is not necessarily a walk in the park.
Plus, in case there are kids too, managing a situation where both parents work and there is no help from family anywhere to be seen, puts enormous pressure upon the relationship, the kids, and the family as a whole.
Now, I realise that this challenge is not necessarily specific to expat couples. But it is definitely amplified in a setting like this, and I know that it is perceived as a huge barrier by many expat wives.
#3 Your partner is not the support you hoped for
Your partner is the main reason for your move.
And you might also long for adventure, want to explore a different country, experience something new.
All of this was true for me, especially when making decision of moving to the Netherlands in 2011. At that point, I was in a full-time position that I was only half-satisfied with. (But that half-satisfaction situation is a different topic around my personal values, strengths, vision for life. Which I have much more clarity and awareness around now than several years ago.)
We are ready for that new chapter of our life TOGETHER
So when the opportunity showed up, we were pretty quick to decide. For my soon-to-be husband, who has always been very determined regarding career goals and putting in the necessary effort, it was a great career opportunity. For myself, I was ready to try something new. Something new in the context of work, adventure, culture, exploration AND our relationship.
We had a wedding date 4 months down the road and were fully in planning mode. The way our life “together” in my husband’s country at that point looked like was this: I was living there full-time, working. He was technically employed in Denmark, but travelling Monday morning to Thursday evening most weeks on different international assignments. Right after moving to Denmark in 2008 it was Russia, then Germany, England, and finally Norway.
At that time, I often jokingly said: “Yeah, I moved to Denmark to live there on my own.”
So we were ready to actually have that life TOGETHER!
When the challenges of the "new" life catch up
The new job was a perfect opportunity in that context too. It would require much less travelling. That said, it was my husband’s first official leadership position. With all the challenges that this involves.
So here is how our days looked like after the first few months of our honeymoon period of living abroad:
Looking at job ads, writing applications, getting invited to interviews, counting rejections. Taking the occasional stroll through our new home town Utrecht, discovering cute little spots, excited to tell my husband about the discoveries. In the evening, my urge to talk was huge. I wanted to share about my day and, well, also just have a proper, longer conversation.
Going to work in the morning, coming home in the evening. Finding himself in this new leadership role, speaking to many new people throughout the day (all in Dutch!), creating success with the new challenges. Let me phrase it like this: his need and desire to speak more in the evening was limited. Which I totally understand now, to some degree probably also understood then, and found it difficult to fully respect anyway.
(And yes, this depiction is exaggerated and extremely simplified. But if you are an expat partner you can relate, right?)
And then we added a baby to the equation
Almost 2 years into our Netherlands adventure, a baby came into the picture as well. Our wonderful son did bind us together as a couple for a certain time, but then our lives became even more different. We grew apart. It takes a hard look and high awareness to see how changing diapers, managing a household, raising a child relates to a high-level corporate job in leaderhip.
What this might do to a relationship: you live together, and lead different lives under the same roof. Unless you are aware of it, and both make an effort to work against it.
The thing is: before you are in that situation – and I know with certainty that this is reality for many expat couples around the world – you don’t realise that this might happen. I think if someone had told me before, I wouldn’t have believed it. We were in love after all, and making this bold move to create a better life and succeed at life together.
(In case you are wondering: yes, we went through a rough patch and came out on the other side stronger and better as ever – as individuals and as a couple & family.)
Can you relate to any or all of these expat partner struggles?
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#4 Where are all those visitors?
So when you move abroad, lots of friends and acquaintances probably announced their visit. Right?
I know of couples who picked a larger house at their destination to make those visits possible.
And then this turns out to be a quite sobering experience. The minority of the people who announced their visit actually make it. Somehow, even if it is within Europe and the distances are not that big, travelling is a hurdle for most people. So for us, as the expat partners, making that move to live abroad, the perception of travelling is very different than the one most others have.
The stakes are also different. For me, when I moved abroad, it was clear to me that I would travel a lot to visit home on a regular basis.
2 important things for you to keep in mind
- It is not personal, it is not because they don’t want to see you. There are just things going on in their own lives that are occupying them, and they can’t make that trip in this phase of their life.
- Real friendships will not break apart just because you don’t see each other for a while. When I stopped travelling all the time (see #2, where I wrote that all this travel with a small child became a bit too much for me at one point), there once went more than an entire year, in which I didn’t see one of my very best friends. And she still is one of my best friends, we know that we can count on each other and once we meet we jump right into meaningful conversation. Also our kids, who are only 2 weeks apart in age, are crazy about each other.
This conscious decision of travelling back and forth less, and how to spend our time when we do travel to Austria, has made a huge difference for my well-being and happiness.
#5 You start questioning what the purpose in life is
Now that one was huge for me. I hit rock bottom in 2015, at which point I really had lost touch with myself, what I stood for, what my unique strengths were, and where I saw myself going in my life. I also had this nagging feeling that there MUST be more to life. I just didn’t know what.
For quite some time I thought that the missing piece was not pursuing a career. I needed to get back into a job in order to feel better and find purpose in life.
At the same time I also knew that I had never been overly happy in my corporate career that I had before being a stay-at-home mom. And I was also aware that I had always had this huge interest in coaching, all things human behaviour and connecting with people. Coaching, connecting and supporting was also something I naturally did at all my jobs, it was what I enjoyed most, and I got the best feedback for from bosses and colleagues.
How I found more meaning in life and won back my sparkle
So through working with and on myself, pulling out that wisdom that is hidden somewhere deep inside all of us, I figured out what MY personal life purpose is.
It is combining my personal experience, professional coaching training and educational background to support and empower expat partners to be happy abroad.
And knowing that about yourself – being in touch with your true personality and what is most authentic to you – will make such a huge difference.
Not only does it FEEL different, people around you can also SEE it. That is something I started hearing again after feeling like a “wall flower” for quite some time: “You are sparkling.”
It is happiness form within. Because that is where it all starts.
Over to you
My invitation to you
From MAY 20-24 I am hosting a FREE 5-day training exclusively for expat partners.
We are going to
- Pinpoint what you want to change in your life
- Get hands-on tools for immediate happiness & freedom
- Gain clarity on your next steps towards your dream life
Make sure to sign up today and join an engaged, inspiring and supportive community of expat partners from around the world
Be happy abroad. Create the life you love away from home.