How can it be stressful being an expat spouse?

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You’re an expat. Your children are at school and your spouse at work. Your only duty is to make dinner today. You have all the day to do whatever you like. Yet, you’re not happy. You actually feel quite stressed and you feel stupid about it. How on earth can you be stressed under these luxurious circumstances? If you would tell your friends at home they would probably frown at you and not understand how such a spoiled person can be stressed. So you try to tell yourself that you are such a lucky person, that all is well and you engage in a mass of activities to keep your mind off those depressing emotions.

If you’re actually living an expat life I’m pretty sure that you have been there. The question is how it can be stressful?

Last week I took a look at the Holmes and Rahe stress scale. It lists 43 stressful life events that can lead to illness, and I realized that when you move abroad you (usually) have to separate from your extended family, say goodbye to all your friends and social network, quit your job not knowing if you will ever get it back, leave or even sell your house and then move to a new house with foreign furniture and no things of your own, try to find food that you can use in a new food culture, try to find your way around in a new neighborhood, try to communicate in a new language, try to understand all the new, unwritten laws and behaviors, get used to the climate and all the noise in a big city as well as the traffic, take care of a stressed out spouse coming home from his/her new job and comfort your children coming home from school in a roller-coaster of emotions (with a new language, friends, system, teachers, subjects and unwritten rules), get yourself out and find new friends and finally enjoy that now you can do whatever you want – if you just had any idea of what that might be.

My conclusion was that you hit so many of the crucial stress factors at once, in a way that you probably never ever do in an everyday life at home. You might not have the stress related to time management that you have at home, but that’s not the most dangerous one. You sort of get BINGO in stressful events!

So accept that it’s enormously stressful to move abroad like you have done! You have had to meet so many stressful events at once that your friends at home would be shocked if they actually understood! Take care of yourself and accept your feelings. Share them with the new friends you find and you’ll be able to comfort each other. If you listen truthfully to yourself you’ll probably be able to figure out what you need to do to reduce your stress level. It might be to start meditate, find a gym, read a book, organize excursions with a neighbor to get to know your city, sleep a lot, watch a movie in the middle of the day or join a course to try new hobbies. The most important, I think, is to accept your feelings, listen to your thoughts and wishes and take a first step to reduce the stress and bring in more moments of recovery and joy.

 

Below you will find the Holmes and Rahe stress scale.

Life event Life change units
Death of a spouse 100
Divorce 73
Marital separation 65
Imprisonment 63
Death of a close family member 63
Personal injury or illness 53
Marriage 50
Dismissal from work 47
Marital reconciliation 45
Retirement 45
Change in health of family member 44
Pregnancy 40
Sexual difficulties 39
Gain a new family member 39
Business readjustment 39
Change in financial state 38
Death of a close friend 37
Change to different line of work 36
Change in frequency of arguments 35
Major mortgage 32
Foreclosure of mortgage or loan 30
Change in responsibilities at work 29
Child leaving home 29
Trouble with in-laws 29
Outstanding personal achievement 28
Spouse starts or stops work 26
Beginning or end school 26
Change in living conditions 25
Revision of personal habits 24
Trouble with boss 23
Change in working hours or conditions 20
Change in residence 20
Change in schools 20
Change in recreation 19
Change in church activities 19
Change in social activities 18
Minor mortgage or loan 17
Change in sleeping habits 16
Change in number of family reunions 15
Change in eating habits 15
Vacation 13
Major Holiday 12
Minor violation of law 11

Score of 300+: At risk of illness.

Score of 150-299: Risk of illness is moderate (reduced by 30% from the above risk).

Score <150: Only have a slight risk of illness.

Lessons learned by living an expat life

DSC_0760When an employee is starting a new job in a new country, the accompanying spouse is often facing a job free life. In theory this is paradise! But in reality, the ones who loved their job with all the responsibilities, hardships and engagement, find themselves frustrated by not having something purposeful to do. Yes, it’s quite nice going to lunches with new friends, enjoying a manicure or shopping new decorations for the home. But after a while many accompanying expatriates whom I’ve met say that they have a desperate need to “use their brain”. Along with this comes the fear that their career is finished and that these years abroad will be nothing but a drawback to their future chances.

But don’t we learn a lot of things that we could not have learned if we had stayed at home? Have we required any skills that we maybe even could put in our CV? Some weeks ago I asked my expat friends on Facebook about this and I got answers, e-mails and messages from men and women all over the world! Thank you all for your contributions!

Yes. We have learnt a lot!

If I summarize the experiences I would say that living in a new country, a new culture, puts us out of our comfort zone. Suddenly we can’t communicate with the locals in our own language and we have to use body language and smiles to help us do the most ordinary things during the day. We have to be humble and ask for help all the time, because things in this new country are done in other ways and found at other places. Soon we find friends in our new country, mostly expatriates coming from all over the world, and in our discussions we realize that what is bad or good, right or wrong for us most probably look very different for them. They have completely different values and perspectives on things like children’s education, religion, equality, treatment of animals, family life or law and order. “How can she be such a nice person, but have these strange values?”, can be a normal question to ask oneself.

We pretty soon come to understand what people from our own country have in common, cultural things and values that we wouldn’t have noticed until we meet other cultures. Suddenly we can see that not everything in our home country is that logical and perfect. In the beginning we are most probably irritated or even disgusted by how people do things in this new country, but after a while we start to see things their way, we get more patient. We know that things can be done in different ways, that these people also have their truths, ethics and moral – it’s just that they aren’t the same as ours. So how can I be so sure that mine are the correct ones?

After a while we might have learnt some more words in this new language and we have understood more of the “codes”, the unwritten social rules. (I can tell you the Istanbul traffic is full of them!) Interacting with locals and friends from other countries is now a wonderful adventure! Thanks to our new friends it’s much easier to solve all these new problems that arrive every day in a new country. Once again you have to accept that you have to ask for help. Also thanks to our new friends, we start to see ourselves, our home country and even life in a new perspectives. Maybe there are other things in life that are more important than I thought before? Maybe the truths I’ve never questioned are not that good?

The hardest lesson though might be the one concerning loss and grief. Living an expatriate life usually means that we have to leave the rest of our family, friends and colleges for months, sometimes even years. When we meet we know that we will soon part again. And the new friends we get suddenly move or we leave them behind. For our children this might be the biggest problem, so we have to deal with their loss and sadness as well. The good part of this lesson is that we slowly learn to live in the moment and enjoy the friends we have right now.

Honestly I think we can put some of these lessons, specially the more traditional ones, in our CVs:
A new language; basics or advanced, taught by the people in the country.
Intercultural communication; how to interact and communicate with people from other cultures, how to detect the “codes” in a new culture
Critical thinking; how to interpret information based on new observations and experiences
Problem solving; how to constantly find creative solutions, how to ask for help in every moment, often in languages you don’t know
Body language; how ask for help, food, solutions, directions, appointments etc. without any words (and understand the answers!)

Other skills are softer, but not entirely uninteresting to the HR department:
Patience; how not to be upset because things aren’t done the way I am used to, but in a much more complicated and time consuming way
Humbleness; how to realize that my way might not be the only way – and maybe not even the best way!
Thankfulness; how to be grateful for life, laws, environment etc. in our own country
– Self-awareness; how to discover yourself when you are out of your comfort zone, and your country based values when confronted with other peoples’ values
Mindfulness; how to better enjoy the moment and not fear the unpredictable future

Do you recognize yourself in this? Please let me know if you have learnt some other lessons!

Of course also people not living in another culture can learn some of these lessons, but I think the combination is somewhat special to expatriates.

The four stages of cultural shock

IMG_0115.JPGMy new neighbor was not at all happy with her life in Shanghai. She had been here for a month and found everything dirty and different. Her young children hated it at school and were crying every morning. She had no friends and wondered what on earth she was doing here. That exciting, adventurous life she had expected was not appealing at all. She just wanted to go home.

Because it’s my second time moving, with three years in Istanbul and now four months in Shanghai, I stopped by the playground trying to comfort her. “This is just the way it should be. Your feelings are following the culture shock schedule exactly. After 2.5 month, or so, you and your children will enter the next phase and everything will be better”, I told her, hoping that this information would make her feel that she was not alone in this, that there was actually an end to this stage in her transition.

1.5 months later I got a message from her: “Yes, it turned out exactly as you said. Just suddenly at 2.5 months it was as if all problems started to dissolve. Unbelievable! And so incredibly GOOD! We are now 6 days into this new phase!”

Finnish anthropologist Kalervo Oberg was one of the first to do research on “culture shock”. He stated four stages; honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and mastery. Below are some explanations, “translated” from academic language into my own words.

Honeymoon
Everything is new and exciting. Perhaps you are staying in a hotel and live more like a tourist in this new fascinating culture.

Negotiation
Now you start to notice how different everything is, how strange people behave, how dirty and insecure it feels everywhere. You don’t know how to buy and cook proper food or get around doing everyday life tasks. You’re alone and disconnected. Your children are switching from hysterical unhappiness to excitement about their school life every second day and your working partner is busy with his/her new job. If you find some people from your own nationality you will feel extremely dependent on them.
(This is just where my neighbor was when I met her!)

Adjustment
After some more months (maybe 6-12 months) you get into a more normal life. You have found your ways around and have even got some new friends. The children have become accustomed to the language and the school system much better. You are getting more and more used to the strange behaviors of the host country people and are even starting to see the charm about it.

Mastery
When you come back after the summer break (not everyone is moving at that time of the year of course), your home in this new country feels much more like a true home. This is your life now. You might even have missed some parts of it when you were away! You don’t feel like you and your family have become a complete part of your host country, but you have found a sort of bicultural level.

My experience is that the three first levels can go a bit back and forth if something new is introduced in the everyday life. And the rest of the family members might not go from one phase to the next at the same time as you do. But I think it is pretty good to have some understanding of the different stages, knowing that it is a very natural series of reactions. Later I will write more about what you can do to feel better in each phase.

 

I’d be happy to hear your comment on this! And if you like what you’ve read, please share it!