Difficult Expat Conversations – A Hidden Factor Makes You Lose Your Balance When Planning The Holidays (Part III)

There comes a time in every trailing spouse’s life when the thought of the holidays makes you want to…

Difficult Holiday Conversations

Holidays… Really?

well… hide.


Because holidays mean even more work and stress.



Going back to your home country?

You’ll be visiting 30 relatives and 15 friends doing it all in ten days with 3 children and a husband in tow putting 2000 km on your rental car.  

Staying at home in your host country?

You’ll face the prospect of hosting and entertaining 15 guests for 3 weeks 24/7.

Is this really what you want and what you need? Not always.

However, there are expectations. Your family, your in-laws, your friends.

You feel the pressure.

How can you handle with grace the necessary difficult conversations that will arise from planning the next Christmas?

How can you create a peaceful holiday for everyone without stressing out too much?

Read Sally’s story and uncover a hidden factor that you absolutely need to consider before starting any difficult conversation.

 The phone rings.

“Hi Sally, this is Lauren.”

Sally’s face freezes: Lauren is her mother-in-law.

“What are you doing for Christmas?”

Sally’s embarrassed. “Oh, we’re not sure yet. My parents may come.”

“That’s awesome, said Lauren. How about we all gather at your place this year? The whole family reunited, that will be fabulous.”

Sally’s stunned.

Having spent the last three Christmas overseas, she has longed for a core family retreat.

For weeks now, she has dreaded talking to her own mum because she knew she’d want them to visit. When her parents finally announced – in front of her hesitation – that they would come to her, she worried about the required preparation.

Now, cherry on the cake, she has to take care of her in-laws too!

Sally doesn’t want to remain silent any longer.

Inspired by the book “Difficult conversations” from Harvard negotiation project consultants Stone, Patton and Heen, Sally has been working hard to understand her contribution to the situation: she never set clear boundaries in the past and always put others’ feelings before her own needs.

She’s now determined to speak for herself. Quietly, respectfully but firmly.

“Lauren, frankly speaking, I don’t think that will work. As a matter of fact, I’m really tired and stressed. This year has been a difficult year for all of us with Harry travelling so often and the kids doing so many sports. They’re not so easy any more. They’re becoming teenagers. I need a rest.”

“A rest? Really? But you’re at home. How come you’re so tired? When I was your age, I used to organize the family reunion with 25 people and I had a full-time job.”

Sally feels the sting. Like an electric shock.

A rush of adrenaline flows through her body.

So many thoughts race through her head.

Sure, hosting family reunions for her was only planning the evening meal, not a tourist’s stay for three weeks! How dare she? Me, at home… Doing nothing?? Is this really what she means?  I can’t believe it. I’m doing everything here, without even time to drink a sip of water. I have three jobs: running the household, raising two teenagers with multiple hobbies and trying to figure out what to do with my career. Completely on my own. In fact, whether her beloved son’s travelling or not doesn’t make a big difference. With his work, I can never rely on him.

Sally thought she was well prepared to handle the conversation but now she’s so emotional that she’s ready to explode.

What went wrong?

Her identity was triggered.

And this is the hidden factor that can knock you completely off balance.

Why hidden? Because you probably won’t recognize right away that you have an identity issue.

You feel tense, anxious and overly stressed without realizing that the conversation jeopardizes how you see yourself as a person or how you’d like to be seen.

Taken by surprise, you feel as if the floor is swept beneath your feet.

Sally was so furious at her mother in-law implying she was lazy at best, incompetent at worst: she couldn’t control herself any longer.

Shaking up [images of yourself] can cause an unmanageable rush of anxiety or anger or an intense desire to get away.

Stone – Patton – Heen

Identity issues cannot be taken up lightly, nor are they easily fixed.

However Stone, Patton and Heen give us three directions to look for, three pillars supporting identity that show up again and again in difficult conversations.

  • You don’t feel competent

How does this apply to Sally?

While she was a recognized professional in her home country, she couldn’t find a job in her host country. She can’t speak the language yet. She defines herself now by being Harry’s wife or her children’s mum. Cut from all ties and references she was familiar with, isolated and misunderstood, Sally has lost her self-confidence.

While she used to organize parties for 25 guests back home in the blink of an eye, the prospect now of inviting her next door neighbor makes her think for hours of what she needs to prepare…

The stinging remark of her mother-in-law insinuating that she’s lazy and incompetent only rubbed salt in the wound.

External feedback is all the more destructive that you’ve not come to terms with your own image.

  • You’re afraid of not being a good person

Sally used to view herself as a family person. Now she doesn’t even feel like spending the holidays with her parents (let alone her in-laws).

She wonders if she has become a selfish daughter, a bad daughter-in-law.

She resents her husband for letting her down and not taking the time to listen to her. She’s grumpy. She fears she has become an unsupportive wife too.

She’s affected by the school difficulties of her teenage kids. If they’re struggling in their studies, she may not even be a good mother!

Who is she then?

One thing is sure, she doesn’t love who she has become.

  • You’re not lovable

This seems to be a natural consequence of the previous points. You think: if you’re not loving yourself, who will?

At its most profound, letting go of a character trait you cherished can be a loss that requires mourning just as surely as the death of a loved one.


Can you see how those losses pile on all the others that happen when you’ve changed country?

Identity issues are not solved with a few tricks. They take time and hard work. You have to be willing to dig deep in yourself and see what’s inside.

Maybe you can’t do it alone.

Luckily, there are some actions that you can take to best cope with identity issues. 

Action #1

Identify your weak points

Make a fierce inventory of what’s triggering you.

Where do you stand in regards to the 3 pillars:

  • I’m not competent
  • I’m not a good person
  • I’m not worthy of love

Describe with precision what affects you: the words and the expressions, the innuendos, the tone of voice, the expectations, the body language.

How are your own values in conflict with your current situation? For example, you have a strong image of yourself as   a professional but you’re currently a stay-at-home parent.

How are your own values in conflict with the cultural beliefs of your home country or of your host country? For example, you’re a stay-at-home dad but this fact is not well regarded in your host country.

Being aware of your own identity issues will help you recognize triggers during a difficult conversation. Think of how you want to handle the situation when your counterpart pushes your buttons. This is a first step to regain a sense of control on your identity.


Action #2

Be ready for an unpleasant reaction

Sally didn’t please her mother-in-law when she dismissed her idea of visiting them.

Delivering bad news – which is always the case in a difficult conversation – is hard. You may be tempted to smooth over or stifle your counterpart’s reaction because you don’t like to hurt others or you’re scared of their response. Seeing them suffering makes you feel bad, reviving your identity weaknesses.

But you can’t control others, neither should you. Even if it’s a tempting strategy, it doesn’t help. You’ll end up either avoiding the difficult conversation or denying your counterpart’s legitimate feelings fuelling even more resentment, frustration and anger.

The success of difficult conversations is not measured by whether or not your counterpart is upset at you. They most likely will!

In this case, Stone Patton and Heen advice that you

a/ Make your point. For example “I don’t feel like hosting 10 people for 3 weeks at Christmas”

b/ Express your contradictory feelings. For example, “even if I value family gatherings”

c/ Acknowledge their reaction. For example, “and I can understand your disappointment”.

“That’s alright, said Lauren. I’ll talk to Harry.”

Great, thought Sally, more difficult conversations to come!

Sally’s still struggling with the image of herself. But there’s one big difference: she’s not lost in the dark any more. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. She has a direction. She has a goal.

And she swears she’ll get there.

What about you?



Photo credit Puzzler4879 via photopin cc and credit music Piano Society



  1. This really spoke to me, Anne. Once again you have come up with an incredibly insightful post. This issue of changing identity is at the core, I think, of what can make being a “trailing spouse” (still don’t like that term) so incredibly difficult. I like how you offer some solutions and it’s very interesting to read about the Harvard work. I’d love to do some more research on my own (let me know if you have some references) of identity as a human need. Best to you and your family during the holidays. Carol

    • Thanks a lot, Carol for your comment. It’s always a pleasure to read your insights. I’m very glad that the article resonated with you. Identity issues are both complex and fascinating. I’m still investigating this topic and be sure that you’ll be the first to learn about what I’ll find out 🙂 Merry Christmas, Anne.

  2. I appreciate you taking on another hard topic. I think it’s particularly insightful because I think most women go through these feelings during holidays even if they are not expats. I think it’s compounded as an expat because you feel trapped as they company does not go home afterwards but can stay far a very long time. This creates more pressure especially as a “trailing wife” who rarely gets to spend time with her spouse and now has to share that family time with the extended family. It creates anxiety. I have gone through this and now that we are entering the end of our year abroad, everyone and their dog has decided to visit and I feel very uncomfortable about it. We have five guests coming over three months and I feel like I’m going to implode with anticipation of entertaining and the stress of my husbands work. I actually feel angry at myself for inviting people out when we were first leaving to London and now angry at them for deciding to “pop” out and see us without asking. Our place isn’t very big and I can’t imagine going on another open bus tour. I need some wise experienced advice. And please don’t tell me to tell them not to come because I can’t do it. Rrrr… Nothing seems easy. Please help.

    • Thanks Bella for sharing your story around this situation. You may want to think what you could do to identify more about the cause of your feelings? What does it say about you, your identity, your boudaries? How can you – in short – be more attentive to yourself and care for yourself so that you’ll feel better?
      I know this may sound frustrating because it’s not a rock solid advice in 3 bullet points. But as said Lao Tsu, a Chinese wise man who lived around 600 BC “The Way that can be told is not the eternal Way.” We all need to find our own path ourselves. However, you’re well aware now that you’re alone 🙂


  1. […] Sally was reluctant. She was scared. She felt guilty. She had such mixed feelings: was she now a bad daughter because she wasn’t motivated enough to visit her parents who missed their grandchildren so […]

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