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Expat Wife – A Redefinition Of Couple Relationship That You Never Expected

‘Push… once more’, said the midwife.

Vickie, in pain, winced, gasped for air and braced for the effort.
Suddenly, she felt a release, the first in eight hours of labour.
A cry and the midwife held the baby in the air.

‘Here it is, she announced triumphantly.Expat Wife
A beautiful girl!’

What are you going to name this little wonder?’ she asked, smiling while placing the baby on Vickie’s chest.

‘Laura’, answered the mum proudly.

That was 35 years ago.

Image result for paragraph separator‘Looo’a. Looo’a.’

The bank clerk repeats louder ‘Loooo’a?’ looking at her a bit unsure.

Laura frowns.

Since she moved to this new country, accompanying her husband for his job, nobody can get her name right.
It started with the real estate agent. He had them sign the house lease and misspelled her name.
It continued at the local school where her children go. It’s the same struggle with her neighbour.

No matter how carefully Laura articulates, people always pronounce her name differently.

Within a few hours – the span of a plane trip, she got a new name.

At the same time, Laura lost her ability to communicate, to get by in her neighbourhood, to find her usual ingredients to cook a meal. With the local currency, she struggles to figure out pricing and these are just a few examples.

The change is brutal.

From a world where she was a capable adult supporting herself, making informed decisions, interacting with her peers, she now finds herself in a foreign environment feeling extremely vulnerable, like a new-born baby.

Moving abroad is like a new birth.

With a new name and a brutal change of living conditions, there is a clear parallel with the physiological birthing process.

But in this re-birth process, if Laura has become a child, who are her symbolic parents?

Laura is fully dependent on Michael, her partner, for her visa, for money, for housing, for health insurance. If it wasn’t for him, she wouldn’t be allowed to stay in the country.

Symbolically speaking, her husband fulfils the role of her mum.


You may question the redefinition of such a role! Can a man be considered … a mum?
Actually, this already happens in case of a young child raised by a stay-at-home dad while the mother goes out to work and earn money. The child calls his/her father ‘Mum’ because the mum is the person – regardless of gender – who takes care of them for their daily needs.

This redefinition of role in the couple relationship is no small change. Depending on the couple structure, it can be a make or break situation.
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Laura is lost. The first few months in this new country are very disorientating. She doesn’t speak the local language. She feels in turn excited and frustrated, brave and helpless. The trip to the supermarket is her outing for the day.

She’s desperate for an adult conversation! She’s waiting all day long for Michael to come back home. As soon as he arrives, she wants his full attention, eager to unload her frustrations.

Michael isn’t prepared for such demands.

Laura used to be so independent and self-assured!

Michael lost his mum when he was three and was raised by a stepmother who favoured her two girls, Michael’s younger half-sisters. To cope with the painful emotional situation, Michael escaped into sports and work, becoming a workaholic.

He sorely missed his mum and found in Laura the caring nature he always longed for.

She was perfect in that role when they lived back home.

Suddenly becoming now the primary caretaker of his wife – materially but most importantly emotionally and symbolically – is more than he can bear.  He sees Laura struggling. That makes him feel guilty.

The increased pressure at work is a convenient excuse to spend more time in the office.

While Laura grows more and more frustrated, Michael becomes less and less available, fueling a downward spiral in their relationship.Image result for paragraph separator

We’ve looked at the symbolic motherly role that landed on the shoulder of the leading spouse in expatriation.

Who is then in a fatherly role?

Francoise Dolto, a respected psychoanalyst and children specialist, observed that the father is the one who is responsible for separating the Mother-Child dyad.

Through the father figure, children understand that they’re not everything for their mum and this relationship allows them to avoid a merge altogether.

When the father is physically absent, it’s the society at large, and in the expat case, the society of the host country that will fulfil this role.

The attitude of local people and the policies enacted towards newcomers will thus have a direct impact on the accompanying partner.

But for Laura, there’s an additional element. Michael was sent on an assignment by his company overseas. His corporation also plays some part in a fatherly role.

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Laura looks at her agenda. Empty.

Her kids are enjoying themselves at school with plenty of activities. Her husband is buzzing with meetings, projects and visits.

She’s at home. Alone.

Here she is, in this new country where she can’t understand a word and her credentials are not recognised.

During all the process, from the moment her husband received the proposal till now, Michael’s company never showed any sign of interest in her.

She feels neglected and ignored. Just like when her dad remained weeks away from home, travelling for his work and not even asking for her.

Luckily, Laura had a big surprise when she arrived in this new country: people are extremely friendly!
They usually smile at her and even random strangers greet her in the street.

That’s such a contrast with her home country where people are so busy, stressed and preoccupied that they often don’t even make eye contact.

She can’t understand the language but this positive attitude from the locals warms her heart. It feels so good.

She’s eager to communicate and has decided to take a language course. She wants to make friends and get more support.

How will this resonate with her real father relationship? This remains to be seen.

Over to you: How did the move change your relationship as a couple? How did the country you moved to, the attitude of locals, and the country’s policies affect you?


Credit music Free Music Archive credit pictures Depositphotos

Reproduction of all or part of this article is permitted provided clear attribution is given to Anne Gillme and linked to Expatriate Connection

Parenting Teenagers Abroad – Two Extra Challenges You’d Happily Do Without

Alison is bewildered.

Josh, her 15 year-old son, has changed dramatically.

While he used to be such a social kid, always a smile on his face and a sparkle in his eyes, he now spends hours alone in his room on his computer.

He hardly talks. There’s no grin on his face anymore. He looks down and avoids eye contact.

It’s been 6 months since the family moved abroad.

At first, Alison didn’t worry too much. She was busy herself with the transition and all the practicalities: finding a new house, getting groceries and securing a place at school for her son. But now that the dust has settled, Alison is concerned.

Why this change in her teenage son?

Is it because Josh is entering the heart of his teenage years that he’s withdrawing? Is it because of the international move and the new school system? Is it the loss of his friends? Or because he’s so angry at his parents for this move against his will?

So many questions and few answers. If only she knew what was to expect! She could at least figure out whether she needed to be more pro-active or just take a step back.

The situation is all the more difficult to tackle because everyone’s role in the family is changing.

Alison left her job and overnight became de facto a stay-at-home mum. Matt, her husband, found himself the only bread-winner with increased responsibility and pressure in a country he didn’t know.

Alison knew it would be hard on Josh.
She hadn’t anticipated it would be so hard on her too.

While each situation is unique, there are common threads playing a key role during adolescence. They impact both children and parents. Let’s have a look at two of them based on the insights coming from psychoanalyst Francoise Dolto who condensed 50 years of experience in a book called ‘Paroles pour adolescents’.

Becoming a parent to a teenager is a little death in itself.

Alison used to have such a good bond with her son. They’d laugh and play together. Often, it was only the two of them because Matt was caught up in meetings or on business trips. When Josh was sick, Alison stayed at his bedside. She would feel so good when he would take her hand to cross the street and confide in her with all his secrets.

Not anymore.

Alison can see how Josh is embarrassed to be seen with her in public.

Compared to the relationship of the parent to a young child, the change is real and confronting.

From an idealized position in your child’s eyes, you fall from a pedestal when they become adolescent. Gradually, you stop being the only point of reference, their privileged focus of attention.

Dolto mentions that adolescence is a difficult period for both parents and children.
She compares it to a ‘second birth happening gradually’.

It means that parents go through a new phase. They’re not dealing with children any more but with young soon-to-be adults. It’s a loss and as such, it needs to be acknowledged and grieved.

Now, what extra challenge does an international move add to this reality?

Challenge #1 – This loss comes on top of all the other losses you go through when you change country.

Take the case of the accompanying spouse: Alison who resigned from her job, gave up her financial independence – at least in the immediate future. Since she arrived in the new country, she dreads the question ‘What brought you here? What do you do?’ She’s only known as Josh’s mother or Matt’s wife. On the house lease contract, she had to provide a credit check – because she has no income – to avoid being labelled as ‘approved occupant’ in her home.  She was even denied online access to change the details of her son’s health insurance because she was not the primary contact!

Those major losses affecting identity are extremely destabilizing.

Matt, on the other hand, is under high pressure at work. You never get a second chance to make a first impression as they say. He misses the familiarity with colleagues he knew for years. He struggles to hold his meetings in a foreign language and to understand the new rules in this work environment. He worries for his mum battling cancer back home. He can’t even call her any more each Friday when driving back home from the office: the time difference makes it impossible.

Those losses have a compounding effect and Matt needs to muster all his energy to keep focused.

Josh becoming a young adult, Alison and Matt need to adapt their parenting but in the middle of all those changes, it’s a challenge to keep the balance.

A teenager wakes up in each adult, the teenager they once were.

Josh retreats in his room as soon as he gets home.

This reminds Alison of her own childhood when she used to lock herself up in her bedroom to have some privacy.

Her mother had a part-time job on Mondays and Tuesdays. At least those days, she didn’t have to justify herself if she came home 15 minutes later than usual. Her mum was paranoid about smelling her breath to make sure she didn’t smoke or drink any alcohol. On top of that, she suspected her mum of snooping through her belongings in her absence. She hated it.

Alison doesn’t want to be like her mother but she can’t stand to see Josh withdrawing from her.

What is he hiding? Her heart twinges.

Living with an adolescent is a constant reminder of your own adolescence. You can’t help but compare what you were allowed to do and what they have access to. But time and place have changed and the struggles you had back then are different from the ones experienced by your child right now.

Even if this seems self-explanatory, we sometimes can’t refrain from burdening our adolescents with our own fears, anxiety and guilt.

Yet this is counter-productive.

To ease the situation, Dolto suggests you to speak of your own adolescence to people you trust, without speaking about it to your own teenager.

This will enable you to vent the feelings that you experienced at the time and not – consciously or unconsciously – ‘load’ your teenager with those emotional affects.

In the middle of an international move, this is easier said than done.

Challenge #2 – How can you confide in someone when you left friends and relatives behind, the very people you trusted!

Who can you turn to? Maybe a local meet-up for expats, a FB community like Expats Parents or an online peer support group like the one we offer at Expatriate Connection.

Each of those options has pros and cons.

Building relationships takes time and commitment and when you move often, you find it tiring to start everything from scratch for each relocation. When you’ve met people online and it works well, you know that you won’t lose them when you change country.

Alison is determined to embrace the expat experience. She realizes that her son is not a little child anymore and that she needs to address her distress. She doesn’t want to be alone in that journey. She’s eager to share and hear from others.

But she’s also concerned about her privacy. The last thing she wants is for her family to become a gossip topic. She needs to find a group where she feels safe.

What about you? What kind of support are you looking for?


Credit music Free Music Archive credit pictures Depositphotos

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Stella is anxious. Her mum, Janet, is not the same any more. Since last week, she has lost her smile. Her eyes are red and swollen, her face is bleak. She often withdraws in her room. What’s happening? She doesn’t want to talk. Dad is avoiding them, leaving early and coming back late, when Stella’s […]

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