Difficult Expat Conversations – The One Thing You Can’t Avoid To Create A Peaceful Holiday For Everyone (Part II)

Sally’s in a tricky situation. Difficult expat conversations

For the last few weeks, her parents have been chasing and pressuring her: “When are you — and the kids — coming back for Christmas?”

Sally is agonizing. She’s torn between catching up with loved ones, reviving childhood memories, passing family traditions to her children and juggling her husband’s busy schedule at work, her grumpy teenagers, the expensive flight tickets, the gifts’ hunt and quite frankly the thought of having to put up with some less pleasant family members.

All of the above being called HOLIDAYS.

Deep inside, she doesn’t feel like travelling this year. But she fears her parents’ heart wrenching disappointment.

Paralyzed by this dilemma, she keeps postponing the conversation.

In front of Sally’s hesitation — call it escape — her mum takes a bold stance. They would come to her!

Sally has mixed feelings.

The holiday period is a sensitive topic for expats, at least for two reasons:

  • The logistics involved don’t revolve around just a SINGLE meal for Christmas’ Eve. Sally’s parents aren’t staying for one day but for a couple of weeks! They may not see each other very often, but the cohabitation during the holidays will be 24/7.
  • There’s  a general assumption, from society as a whole, that gathering as a family – with all extended ramifications – is the ultimate bliss. Even more so when you live far away. Your neighbors, friends, relatives, all assume that you’re thrilled either to “go back” home or to host 15 guests for 3 weeks. The reality is much more complex.

As a supportive accompanying partner, you’re naturally expected to take care of all these low material and organizational tasks. Because you don’t have a paid job, the pressure is on you.

Your level of anxiety increases as the holidays loom. You obsess about it.

You need to manage this situation with grace because otherwise it eats you from the inside. It drains all your energy.

Learning how to handle difficult conversations can make all the difference.


In their book ‘Difficult Conversations – How to discuss what matters most“, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen from the Harvard Negotiation Project distilled 15 years of experience in conflict resolution.

They tell us that in every difficult conversation, there are in fact three different interwoven conversations.

The first conversation is about getting the facts right. 

Last week, we described the urges we’ve got in those heated moments and the traps we fall into. We’re quick to blame, judge, assume intentions of others.

Unfortunately those instinctive reactions don’t help. Neither to soothe us (only but temporarily) nor to solve the problem.

What matters is to stay open, be curious and listen to the story of our counterpart. That’s all well and good: a perfectly rational answer.

But we’re human beings, not robots.

We have… feelings. They get in the way.

This is where the second conversation takes place and that’s the one thing you can’t avoid.

Feelings matter: they’re often at the heart of difficult conversations.

Stone – Patton – Heen

We’re going to explore it more in depth today.

(The third conversation is about your identity and we’ll address it in our next article.)


When Sally hangs up the phone with her mum, she thinks:

Well, I guess… my parents coming… that would work.

It’s less stress than preparing for the trip, booking the tickets, buying all the presents, informing all the friends. It’s less pressure on Harry to get days off from work. The kids can still see their friends.

But now, all the pressure is on me. Mum wants to eat all those traditional dishes. No chance to have a salad for Christmas. She’ll expect to have the stuffed turkey otherwise she’ll throw a fit saying we’re losing our traditions, we’re not respecting anything… She’ll also insist on going to church. If we don’t, we’ll get the verse on how amoral we’ve become.

And I’ve got to think about the bedrooms. Where are they going to sleep? We’ll need to reshuffle the kids.

Sally has mixed feelings but she is too tired to think anymore.

She escapes by focusing on the planning and throwing herself into busy work. She rationalizes the situation to bury her feelings.

And this is the first mistake we’re very often tempted to make.

Mistake #1

We ignore or numb our feelings

And we have good reasons.

We don’t know how to identify our feelings. Or we assume that expressing them means becoming totally emotional, weeping, sobbing, shouting…. all attitudes that may be unacceptable in our culture or our family.

Who ever got a crash course at school or at home in naming, recognizing, analyzing and calmly expressing feelings? Raise your hand. I’m waiting.

Feelings are complex.

Let’s take a closer look at Sally. Behind her apparent overwhelm, other emotions lurk…

Just after the discussion, Sally feels relieved. At least, now Mum and Dad are aware that we won’t come. I’ve got it off my chest.

However, the satisfaction of that moment is short lived.

Soon after, Sally becomes worried and guilt-ridden: I don’t want to hurt them. In fact, the whole point has nothing to do with Mum and Dad. It has everything to do with my own family.

Since we’re living abroad, we’ve lost our balance. Harry’ s travelling so much and working such long hours, I barely see him. The kids are growing up and becoming teenagers. They’re withdrawing more and more. They go out with their friends or spend time in their bedrooms with their computers. They’re not interested in hanging out with me anymore.

Here I am, feeling useless. How can I negotiate another holiday for which they show so little enthusiasm?

I’ve given up my job. I don’t enjoy offering gifts when I’m not earning the money! I feel like a fraud.

I’m more stressed than when I used to work full-time, run the household and give a hand to Mum and Dad.

When I think of my ambitious sister-in-law, always impeccable with her huge BMW eager to climb the corporate ladder and joking about me spending my days at the pool and enjoying the manicures, I just want to hide. I hate Christmas.

Sally’s mum on the other hand is sad and disillusioned.

I only have one daughter and two grandchildren. It’s not much. I was so looking forward to having grandkids, sharing with them what I had learned over the years, passing on family traditions and stories. I wanted them to know their roots because Sally never got the chance to know her own grandparents. I gave her all I could, paying a fortune for her education: the best schools in the country. I would have given her the moon. Now, she’s so distant with me. She doesn’t want to see us for Christmas. She doesn’t call very often. I feel so lonely…

In many difficult conversations, it is really only at the level of feelings that the problem can be addressed.

Stone – Patton – Heen

Secret #1

Make a thorough inventory of your feelings


It’s not enough to scratch the surface and look for the obvious. Dig deeper and find the underlying emotions that are at stake.

Sally decides to work on herself in order to get out of the overwhelm and the stress. She read that journaling ten minutes first thing in the morning should help to uncover feelings and emotions, accessing a more unconscious part of oneself. She is supposed to write anything that would cross her mind.

After a few mornings, she realizes that she is censoring herself.

Mistake #2

We’re afraid of our feelings because we think “Good people shouldn’t have bad feelings”


Without really wanting to admit it, Sally resents her parents.

They influenced me to go to law school while I would have preferred arts. They were worried about my future and wanted the best for me — I get it — but I never asked for it!

They scrapped holidays, outings, restaurants from their life for years to be able to pay for my college and tuition fees.

Then I married Harry and they weren’t particularly enthusiastic about it. He’s the one now pursuing a brilliant career while I’m the stay- at- home mum “wasting” my time and my education.

I’m not even calling regularly and looking forward to spending a holiday with them.

Oh my goodness! After all they did for me, how can I be so selfish and ungrateful?”


Secret #2

Feelings are what they are. You can’t control them.

But feelings come and go.

They are especially modified when you have more information about what’s causing them.

What if Sally knew more about her mum feeling lonely and worried about her father’s health?

What if Sally’s mum knew more about Sally’s doubts and unhappiness?


Mistake #3

We’ve learned to put our feelings after others

Sally reflects:

I understand Mum and Dad aren’t happy about this situation but I’m not happy either. I can’t always do everything to please everybody. They have such expectations. 

However now, I feel I let them down. I’ve given up my career. My credentials aren’t even recognized in this country.

But I love Harry and I love my family. This move is such an opportunity for us as a family.

I feel torn from all sides.

I do my best to make everyone happy. But who’s taking care of me? Who cares about me?

Harry is too busy with his work, the children are more focused on their friends, my parents are aging and want more of me. Who’s got my back?”


Secret #3

Putting your feelings after others is unfair to you


It’s undervaluing your own emotions and more dangerously, training others to ignore your feelings and manipulate you.

That’s not what you want.

While it might seem dangerous to jeopardize a relationship by expressing yourself, it’s even more risky to keep the illusion of a relationship and remain exploited for years.

By working on yourself, you can have a dramatic influence on the conversation.

Granted, it’s not easy.

But it’s much better than submitting to the control of others.

There’s a third piece to the puzzle in difficult conversations that we’ll uncover in the next article. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, work on naming your feelings. Are they easy to spot?


Photo credit spaceodissey via photopin cc Music credit Piano Society



  1. I know what you mean- and it is not easy. But then, you one day get to the next stage- the stage when your parents are no longer there- when you can’t spend Christmas with them- and you feel bad, guilty even, that your didn’t make the time when they were still able to enjoy it so much.
    But it’s too late, and that time will never come back. Not saying you should yield to pressure to be with parents every year- but, just another side of things you younger expats may not quite realise yet. That time will come, sadly- and sometimes sooner than you think. Due to OH’s job, we never ever were able to visit my parents for Christmas. They came to us every year, and spent 2 weeks- lovely but not always easy to have them for such a long time, at a time of year when cooped up inside. And then they were too old- but we still didn’t make a real effort- eg to tell work partners that ‘stuff the schedule’- THIS year, we will be away over Christmas and New Year, and they will just have to live with it. We didn’t- and we regret it.

    Merry Christmas to all,

    • Thanks so much, Odile for offering us your words of wisdom. I believe it’s a great reminder for all of us. You’re also referring to the relationship we – or our partner – have with work: how far are we able or willing to go to not be indispensable? That certainly is another difficult conversation… but with your boss 🙂 Or, in case of the accompanying spouse, between their partner and their partner’s boss: this underlines once more the challenge of this type of couple.

  2. And here- I’ll say this too. As I am at the next stage- with 2 adult daughters and grandchildren who live abroad. Would never ever make them feel guilty for not coming to see us- or inviting us to be with them. They have other grandparents abroad elsewhere too- and I’d totally respect their wish to go on hols on their own, or to choose to spend Christmas at home together. But I am so pleased they have chosen to come to us again this year- they had an open invitation, without pressure, and chose to say ‘yes’- and I can’t wait to have my girls and grandchildren all together under one roof. Not every year, of course- I understand that totally. And we of course reserve the right to go off to the Bahamas or the North Pole if we wish too. Merry Christmas all- but making an effort from time to time now- will stop you feeling too guilty when it is too late- and that time comes, sadly, to us all.

    • You are onto something here, Odile: showing understanding, extending an open invitation, having non-exclusive expectations, giving each other’s space for other experiences. What if this was the secret to gather family around? Maybe Third Culture Parents show more empathy because they know the dilemma their children experience. Anyway, it’s heartwarming to see your joy. Merry Christmas to you all 🙂


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