Expat divorce (the term I will use to describe the breakdown of a primary relationship while on an expat assignment) bears many similarities to non-expat divorce. However, there are unique features that make it even more challenging. In the coming weeks, I will explore these challenges and ways people can better cope with them in a five-part series. Part 1 focuses on what makes expat divorce different.
Almost a decade later, Lily vividly recalled the morning when her husband told her that he was leaving. An ethnic Chinese woman, Lily was in her early forties when the bottom fell out of her life. She had met her husband Luuk, a Dutch expat, ten years earlier in Hong Kong, the city of her birth. She had followed him on his two subsequent overseas assignments -- to Budapest, Hungary and then Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. By this point they had three young children and were on the second year of a four-year stint. Then over breakfast on morning, Luuk informed her that he was leaving her for another woman, moving out of their common home and going back to the Netherlands.
Like most people facing divorce, Lily experienced confusion, shock and devastation. However because of her expat situation, she also faced immediate, very hard decisions. Foremost, she had to figure out whether to stay in Ethiopia with her three children or follow her soon-to-be-ex husband back to the Netherlands. Going back to Hong Kong was not an option: She had been away for many years and had few family members or friends there.
Ethiopia had become home for Lily. She had a good life in Addis and many close friends who tried to convince her to stay there with her children and let her husband leave alone. But there were many practical difficulties with that. If she were to stay, she would have to move out of their current home. She would also have to take her children out of the international school they were attending. Both were sponsored by her husband's employer. Lily was not working and had no financial resources of her own.
The only option that seemed feasible was to go to the Netherlands and stay with relatives of her husband's until she figured out what to do. That is what she did, and the months that followed were the worst of her life. She had no family close by, no friends and no support. She was not familiar with the Dutch legal system. She did not know her rights or how to fight for them. Her husband, more knowledgeable of the system, as a local, and able to afford competent legal representation, managed to get the divorce very much in his favor. Lily could only afford a state-appointed lawyer and ended up with no alimony, minimal child support and no share of common assets. "Nobody listened to me." Lily spoke Dutch, but wasn't fluent.
After the divorce, she had to work two, and sometimes three, jobs to make ends meet. "I had to live with my husband's relatives for quite a while because I could not afford my own place. I had no money and no job. I had nothing. I spent my days agonizing. Sleepless nights. I was lost."
Lily's case is hardly unique or extreme.
Divorce is hard in general, for a variety of reasons -- financial, emotional, practical -- and the challenges multiply when children are involved.
Expat divorce is even harder.
Some of the reasons for this are obvious. Expats experience the usual challenges of divorce more intensely, mainly because the support system they would have had at home isn't there. If you are living in your home country when your marriage breaks down, you have resources for dealing with the practical implications. If you move out and need a place to stay, it is likely that your parents, extended family or friends will be able to help. If you need cash to tide you over or help moving to a new place, these people are usually there for you. They are also the ones who refer you to contacts that can provide legal advice and help you with the process of separation or divorce. You also speak the language, which gives you access to information about the practical and legal implications of divorce. Finally, friends and family provide an even more valuable resource: emotional support. They are the people you call up when you are not feeling well, when you need someone to talk things through or just to cheer you up -- no matter what time of day (or night) it is.
As an expat, you often lack that kind of support.
Yves, a French expat, experienced this when he and his wife, also French, decided to end their marriage while on posting in Southeast Asia. "As expats, we did a lot of socializing, but most of the relationships we formed were superficial," Yves describes. "We didn't have any true friends. Our family and true friends were back home, 12,000 kilometers away. We had to stay up late at night to be able to connect with them. We could not spontaneously fly home for the weekend. While Skype and email were great, we ended up feeling isolated at such a difficult time and had no way of diffusing the tension or looking for solutions."
Legal and jurisdictional questions also can be much more complex when you live in another country. Juliana and her husband, both Brazilians living in Austria, had a hard time figuring out what the legal framework was for their divorce when they separated. "There are government-sponsored agencies and websites that specialize in helping people who go through divorce," Juliana said, "but they are addressed to Austrian couples or those where at least one is Austrian. We were both foreigners who did not get married in Austria, so there was no provision for us. Even friends of mine who were lawyers could not point me to the right information. Eventually I had to hire a lawyer to do the research for me."
Other practical difficulties with expat divorce include what happens to residence and work permits after the breakup. If you are living at home, you can simply go out and get a job. Trailing spouses in expat situations often have no legal way to do that. They may be classified as "dependents" and therefore not allowed to work; or their residence permits, visas and work permits may be linked to their partner's.
These are only some of the reasons why many expats either do not divorce or wait until they return to their home countries before they start the process.
While there are no figures yet for divorce rates among expatriates, it is believed that they are lower than the general divorce rate. The reason is that, given the severity of the consequences, both short- and long-term, many expatriates choose to stay in unhappy, unhealthy marriages because leaving them is so much tougher.
In the next part of this series, I will explore a fundamental, but perhaps less obvious, reason why divorce -- and relationship breakdown in general -- is particularly devastating for expatriates.
Katia Vlachos is a writer, blogger and perpetual foreigner. She writes on cross-cultural transitions and expatriate life on her blog Diary of a Move.