She doesn’t want to talk.
Dad is avoiding them, leaving early and coming back late, when Stella’s in bed.
Returning from school today, she finds them both in the living room. They look serious and preoccupied.
‘We have bad news. We’re going to split.’
Stella’s world is falling apart.
‘How? What do you mean you’re going to split?’
‘Your dad is filing for divorce’, says Janet, struggling to hold back her tears.
She followed her husband abroad for his work two years ago and she now finds herself in a foreign land with no family around, no job and no close friends.
Divorce is one thing. It’s already incredibly hard in your own country.
Emotionally. Financially. Administratively.
But what does it look like when you have to face a divorce abroad?
- Do you know what your rights and your duties are?
- What law is applicable?
- How will the divorce affect your visa and thus your ability to remain in the country or to look for a job?
- How will you manage when your financial resources are scarce?
- And how will you deal with the language barrier?
You feel heartbroken, lost, trapped and torn apart.
But there’s one thought that keeps coming back to your mind: the children.
What’s best for them? How can you spare them any unnecessary trauma?
The purpose of this article is to provide a map to navigate as best as possible the pitfalls of this situation.
It’s based on the book ‘When parents separate’ where paediatrician and psychoanalyst Francoise Dolto, informed by her 40-year experience with families offers some precious clues. This book was not intended for expats, but it provides some universal landmarks in child development to help you make the best decisions.
Stella is confused.
She left her house, her school mates, her teacher behind 2 years ago when the family moved.
Now she loses the only stable structure she could hold onto: her parents.
Dad wants to leave. Does he still love her after all?
Guiding Principle #1 – Children need to hear that their parents don’t regret their birth
Stella is part of a triad: father – mother –child.
When parents split, they dissolve their couple.
Stella may thus believe that their parents regret everything they created together because they don’t want to continue the family life. Alternatively, she may think that each parent only loves in her their particular part, which means only half of her.
Dolto suggests for each parent to overtly say:
‘I don’t regret to have lived with your father/mother. Each of us is so grateful for you to be here that we’re arguing with each other to see you more often.’
Even if the child was not desired, there’s a possibility to speak the truth in a constructive way
‘I didn’t expect to have a child but you came anyway. You had the strength to live. You had this amazing desire to exist.’
Dolto also mentions what a third party could tell the child in front of her parents
‘This divorce and this suffering are not useless because you were born and you’re an achievement of this couple.’
Stella feels guilty because her presence is causing more complications for her parents.
‘If I wasn’t here, mum and dad would have it much easier. I’ll never marry to make sure I won’t do the same to my children.’
Needless to say that this belief is extremely harmful. That’s why it’s important to talk, always speaking the truth. The divorce is not the children’s fault. It’s the couple that’s not good together.
Stella is devastated. Her parents are separating. What does it mean for her?
She’s worried, she’ll have to move. Maybe back to her mum’s home country, thousands of km away. Leaving her house, her school, her friends.
Or she might be able to stay put with her dad but she’s afraid she won’t see her mum anymore.
Will she have to leave? She doesn’t have a job in this country and she’ll probably lose her visa once she becomes single.
Guiding Principle #2 – Children need continuity
They need continuity at 3 levels: their physical environment, their social ties, their family relationships.
Importance of physical environment
If the child can remain in the house where the family lived, it’s easier for her to ‘process’ the divorce.
Her body grew in a defined place in presence of both parents. Her body identifies itself to the house in which it lives. If the parents leave, if the place changes, the child is lost even in her own body. It’s especially important till the child is 8-9 years old.
Dolto goes even further: ideally the house remains the place where the children live and each parent comes alternatively to perform their parental duty.
2. Social ties
Stella has a social life, at school and in her extra-curricular activities.
If she has to attend another school, or worse, if she has to change school in the middle of the year, she’ll face a double hardship:
- on one hand, her inner being, the person she is, as formed by the 2 structuring parents, is shaken.
- one the other hand, her social being, in her relation to her friends, is damaged. She’ll have to get used to new schoolmates who’re going to ask, time and again, why she’s new here, redoubling her disarray.
3. Family relationships
Divorce relieves the parents from sharing their lives together but it doesn’t relieve them of the responsibility and the duty to raise their children.
Children need both parents to care for them and their education.
In case of big distances, visiting every other weekend proves to be impossible. But regular contacts and prolonged visits during holidays are welcome and cannot be emphasized enough.
Dolto underlines the benefit of spending quality time with the children where real education can take place while this doesn’t necessarily happen during school days where you need to hustle them to be on time and do their chores.
Stella doesn’t want to think about the future.
She overheard her mum talking with granny about going back.
Her dad wants to stay because of his job. Even if he’d like to repatriate, he’s from another country than mum. That wouldn’t help much!
Guiding Principle #3 – Children need links to both their parents and their respective culture
When separation occurs in an expat family, chances are parents are from two different cultures and/or will live in different countries because one of them can’t have a working permit or a visa.
In those circumstances, the child exposed more often to the culture of the parent who has custody, may easily get cut off from the other parent and their corresponding legacy (language, customs, story).
This fact may seem harmless for many during childhood but is always very damaging when the children become parents themselves.
Why? Because the child coming from 2 different cultural backgrounds is experiencing in their inner life – imaginary and symbolic – something that is not talked about: they can’t speak of their feelings in the culture of the country they live in. As a consequence, when you can’t speak the truth, it’s not humanized. It’s not valued and this is an obstacle to future development.
In your experience, if you’ve had to go through divorce abroad, what helped? What would you NOT repeat?
And if you’re in the throes of it right now, what keeps you awake at night?