This Widespread Disease Can Kill Your Expat Couple (Here’s What You Can Do About It)

You longed for this moment all day.

And when you heard the car’s engine at the front door, your heart bounced. “Finally! He’s home!”

Today was like so many other days. You hadn’t seen a soul. After six months in this new country, you’re still struggling to hold a simple conversation, let alone read the signs!

Going outside feels so scary!

Your enthusiasm from the early days has faded away. You’ve already seen all the museums, cafes, churches, temples, monuments out there. What’s left?

Nobody’s waiting for you here. Nobody cares about you. Nobody knows you.

Your mind wanders: you think of your former colleagues. They wouldn’t recognize you. No make-up. Track pants as a second skin. Neglected hair. You’re the shadow of your former self.

He opened the door and shouted “Hello honey! Where are the kids?”

Then his phone rang. Ping! E-Mail Syndrome

Your smile froze. Your heart stopped. He didn’t hesitate and reached for his device. It was a new email this time. He frowned and responded.

His boss needed an urgent presentation. He didn’t raise his head. Just mumbled “Sorry honey, an urgent file to send. I’ll have to work on it for at least an hour.” Rushing to the study, he opened his laptop and closed the door.

That was it. Your opportunity for time with him came and went.

Later on, he’ d be too tired for a proper conversation.

A quick look at the clock: 8 pm. The kids should already be in bed. You kept them awake to see daddy and share a few minutes of rare family time together.

Forget about it. You’re on your own, once more.

You feel so lonely.

You want to shout, to throw his phone out of the window, to scream “Hey! I’m here! Do you care?”

Your husband has become a stranger.

When he isn’t in the office, traveling or on the phone, he’s glued to his machine, checking his emails every five minutes.

He takes his device everywhere: to the dinner table, to bed – using it as an alarm clock and switching it on even before getting up – bringing it to the bathroom!

He always has good reasons:

“Honey, you know I love my work.”

or “I need to be on top of things. Otherwise, I’ll be out in no time. I’m the only bread-earner now.”

or “Stop complaining. Do you know who brought us here, who’s paying for the house, the cars, the international school for the kids?”

Sure, you get it.

You gave up your job, you left your friends and family behind, you sold your house…

to realize that in a long line of priorities, you come after an email.

But you’re not the problem. It’s a disease!

Your partner has a disease. A widespread disease: E-Mail Syndrome.


E-mail Syndrome: The Causes

There’s no doubt that the development of mobile technology and worldwide internet access has greatly helped the disease to spread.

But the roots go much deeper.

While there isn’t a single cause, I believe that renowned sociologist and humanistic philosopher, Erich Fromm analyzing the development of our society in the last century nailed an important one down. He named it the “marketing” character.

Here’s his explanation:

In order to make a living, you have to sell yourself: your skills, your experience, your talents. The company who wants to hire you is not interested in your level of happiness, your goal in life or your spiritual beliefs and moral values. The company is only focusing on your ability to add value, to bring cash to the bottom line. You’re an investment product: the company invests some money in you (your salary package, your training) and they expect a financial return (aka. a profit, a benefit). This job hunting advice from an energy industry recuiter is a beautiful example.

As a consequence, your success depends on your ability to sell the right set of skills at the right moment. We all know stories of thwarted vocations. You’d better study law, engineering or IT if you want to secure a good living. Those jobs are in demand.

Hence your identity is not based on who you are but on who you should be.

Fromm writes “Most people turn out to be as society wishes them, so that they can be successful.”

He says

“the aim of the marketing character is complete adaptation, as to be desirable under all conditions of the personality market. [People] have become selfless instruments whose identity rests upon their participation in the corporations (or other giant bureaucracies) as a primitive’s individual’s identity rested upon membership in the clan.”

Under those conditions, your self-esteem is always dependent from the approval of others.

“Each day is a new battle because each day you have to convince someone, and you have to prove to yourself that you are all right.”


4567Women against email syndrome


So, if your partner is suffering from E-Mail Syndrome, what can you do?

E-Mail Syndrome: The Treatment

There’s no official treatment currently recommended by the World Health Organization.

But as with other issues that involve our habits, the first step for an infected person is to acknowledge there’s a problem — one that can have severe consequences on himself (stress, burn-out, depression) and on his relationships. Later steps still need to be defined. More research is needed.

However it’s up to the individual to recognize his suffering and then to seek help. You can’t force somebody to change if he doesn’t want to. It has to come from within.

Does it mean, as a partner, that you can’t do anything but accept the situation and submit in silence?


You can make a difference. Here’s how:

  • Don’t take the situation personally

“Are you kidding me?

My partner is so absorbed in his work that he’s not even paying attention to me! I feel neglected, ignored, rejected. I feel worthless. He can’t give me five minutes of undivided attention after a ten hour workday, while I followed him and left everything behind. I’m angry, resentful, frustrated. I’m desperate.”

I hear you. But remember. It’s a disease.

When your partner has the flu with 40°C fever, are you angry at him because he’s not taking care of you?

However this doesn’t mean that you should just sit and watch.

  • Look after yourself

Self-care is essential. We’ve discussed this topic at length here, here and here. This a must-do before anything else.

“Taking care of myself? But it’s my husband who’s sick!”

I hear you. But remember the plane safety instructions before take-off “In case of depressurization in the cabin, oxygen masks will automatically drop. Please be sure to adjust your own mask before assisting others.”

The first rule of any first-aid training is to ensure that you’re safe. You can’t help anyone if you’re depressed, anxious and resentful.

  • Don’t stay alone

By definition as an expat, you’re uprooted. You left your family, friends and colleagues behind.

Technology enables you to talk to them frequently and to keep in touch. That’s not the problem. But can you really confide your worries in your parents who’re sad because you’re far away, or heaping you with reproaches because you moved?

Your friends are too busy. Moreover, they imagine you’re living the perfect dream! How can you tarnish this image?

You may even have some expat acquaintances in your new location. But can you really trust them? In this microcosm, everyone knows everything about everybody else. The slightest anecdote will be transformed in crispy gossip!

Are you tired of suffering alone? Are you fed up with feeling powerless?

Stop submitting.

Join me in collecting the stories, brainstorming ideas, deepening our knowledge and supporting each other.

Always in a respectful and loving way.

I’m launching a new support group in February.

There’s no reason to give in and let this issue destroy our marriages.

Are you with me?



  1. So true! this is a pernicious disease that could be the tree that hides the forest…
    Could we discuss it by Email? :-))

    • Thanks a lot Jean-Luc for stopping by. Glad to see it rings a bell. Excellent joke: I nearly fell in the trap and was about to send you… an email!! (while my husband was writing to his boss anyway…).

  2. Brian Crothers says:

    This is not a disease…… here is the medical definition of Disease: an impairment of the normal state of the living animal or plant body or one of its parts that interrupts or modifies the performance of the vital functions, is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms, and is a response to environmental factors (as malnutrition, industrial hazards, or climate), to specific infective agents (as worms, bacteria, or viruses), to inherent defects of the organism (as genetic anomalies), or to combinations of these factors.
    I would but rather say what is described is symptomatic to foreign work when companies are short of staff and / or budget. Often, EXPAT workers are seen as property and when on assignment, and that their time is ‘owned’ 100% by ‘The Company’.
    Prior to any family assignments, there should be clearly established in contract language what the expat employee will be responsible to do, off normal hours for the company. Without such, this abuse of his family will increase week by week until the family, leaves… often in divorce.

    • I’m afraid that even an explicit contract won’t solve all the problems. I suspect part is pressure from the company/boss/colleagues but part is rooted in the individual, their identity image, their status, their fears of getting behind or left aside, their need of recognition.

  3. Thanks for awareness raising post. Agree self care is paramount for the spouse. As a re-pat, couples counsellor and someone who lives with this reality, I would urge people to communicate with their spouses directly. Let them know (calmly) that when you are together, every time they pick up their phone, the unsaid message is ‘you are less important than me messaging’ or whatever they are doing. The same applies to the children. Unless the spouse is heartless there should be some room for understanding or leverage? Positive, clear ommunication is always the way forward to solving problems, I think?

    • Thank you Laura for your comment. Communication is certainly important but my feeling is that checking emails in this context is a compulsive behavior, a kind of addiction. Hence my approach about naming this as a disease.


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