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Dealing with Expat Divorce, Part 3: Surviving the Breakup

Imagine that you are living in a foreign country and your primary relationship has collapsed. You are heading for separation or divorce and desperately need support - both practical and emotional - but your family and friends are mostly far away.
05/03/2016 05:56pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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In my two previous posts, I looked at why relationship breakups are harder on expats than on non-expats. One of the key reasons is that expats find it much more difficult to reconstruct "home." In this post, I explore how expats can rebuild home after a breakup.

Imagine that you are living in a foreign country and your primary relationship has collapsed. You are heading for separation or divorce and desperately need support - both practical and emotional - but your family and friends are mostly far away. What do you do? Here are some survival strategies which help expats cope with the major challenges of relationship breakdown: coping with the initial shock, rebuilding home, and navigating the legal process in a foreign country.

Coping with the initial shock

While people differ widely in the pace and extent to which they recover from trauma, most experience the initial stages as a time of disbelief, dislocation and denial. Divorce - any divorce - is extremely hard. However, it is even more difficult and more dislocating in expat situations, for the reasons I mentioned previously. Nour, an inspiring Turkish divorcee I interviewed, described her experience as "an emotional boot camp." Most expats going through divorce feel depressed, lost, overwhelmed. It is important to get through those initial stages of pure survival in order to start thinking about new beginnings. Another person I interviewed compared this stage to dealing with an injury: you need to apply pressure to stop the bleeding first, before you can start moving.

Identify a couple of "emotional anchors" - close friends or family - with whom you can connect a lot early on. Don't hesitate to ask for help from them. One of my interviewees, David, said, "There can be a strong tendency to want to hide; you need to fight it. People close to you want to help, but they also want to respect your privacy. So If you don't ask for help, you surely won't get it." Most of the people I talked to would not have made it without their friends' practical and emotional support - but they had to ask.

Get expert help if you can afford it. Nour spoke of coping with the initial shock "I saw a therapist and worked with a life coach, among others." Even if you can't afford this sort of help, there are still resources. Nour told me: "I read a lot about divorce because it gave me the feeling that I'm not the only one, that I have nothing to be ashamed of. A lot of people not only don't know what is out there, but they also don't look."

Strive to stay active. For instance, exercise is very important for one's mood. Nour, again: "I did sports, even though I'm not a sporty person. I went to book groups and expat meetups."

Rebuilding home

Once you have begun to recover your footing, you need to focus your energy on recreating home, consistent with what home means for you. As hard as it is to see the big picture when you're in the midst of something that feels like a Category Five hurricane, understanding your concept of home is crucial; it helps you concentrate your efforts on rebuilding the home you lost with divorce. Think of what you need to find home again, the resources you'd like to have, and search for what's available.

If home is place, give your physical home a priority. Even if you don't have to move out of your home post-divorce, but especially if you do, you will need to make adjustments to your living space. If feeling at home in your physical environment is crucial for you, don't postpone making those adjustments "until things settle." Start as soon as possible. The comfort you get from your home will soothe you and make you feel more supported through a challenging process.

If home is a feeling that comes through rituals, focus your efforts on reviving your rituals or creating new ones. For instance, many family rituals may have to change post-divorce. It helps if you anticipate that and try to find new ones to replace them. See it as an opportunity to do something new. If you can only have family movie nights at home every other Friday (when you have the children), then maybe the other two Fridays of the month you can treat yourself to something you love, but weren't able to do before - like actually go to a movie.

If home is people, focus your energy on rebuilding your circle of friends and support network. Find or build your new tribe. The importance of rebuilding one's social network was a constant refrain in my interviews. Many people go into isolation mode during or after a breakup. For expats, this distancing may also come from their environment. Don't cut yourself off - as much as it may feel you want to hide. Join an expat organization, a book club, the PTA. Talk to a friend, a neighbor, a colleague or another parent at your children's school. Get on Skype more often and talk to your friends and family back home.

Tell your story. People will want to hear it and it will help you find a community.

Finally, many of the people I interviewed spoke of how the experience helped them find home within themselves. When you go through divorce, especially when you are away from the people you love, you are practically forced to find home within. Despite the many external disadvantages to dealing with divorce as an expat, there is an area where being an expat is an advantage: expat life equips us with a level of endurance and a mindset of adaptability that are invaluable in such situations. Michelle, an American expat divorcée told me, "Being an expat makes you incredibly resilient. Especially as partner, you are used to constantly reinventing and redefining yourself; and this is exactly what you have to do when your marriage breaks down. You have huge resources in you that can help you cope."

Navigating the legal process

The biggest complaint I heard from the people I interviewed concerned the crippling lack of information on how the system works - the process of divorce, the parties' legal rights, custody issues etc. - in any particular country. Language is a huge barrier: how do you get information on the legal framework that applies to your case and what your rights are if you don't speak the local language?

The best option is to get a good local lawyer who speaks your language. However, hiring a lawyer can be incredibly expensive and, even in countries where there is state-provided free legal information (in many European countries, for example, there are specialized websites or free legal consultation services), that information is usually in the local language. This can be a serious disadvantage and can also create an atmosphere of distrust if there's an asymmetry in the parties' access to information (i.e. if one party speaks the local language and the other does not).

If possible, find a friend or acquaintance who can help translate. Alternatively, there are online articles, mostly in English and usually posted by attorneys, on family law in different countries or issues relevant to expatriates of specific nationalities (for instance, a lot for Brits divorcing outside the U.K.).

However the experience of the people I interviewed confirmed that none of that is enough There is a real need for better resources to help divorcing expatriates cope with a life-changing process that will so profoundly shape their futures.

In my next post, I will look at how such resources can be generated and ways for the community to help expats who go through relationship breakdown get the practical and emotional support that they need.

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.