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Fighting the Expat Blues: 5 Tips for Expat Wives Abroad

After the excitement of an international move has worn off, what’s a non-working expat wife to do? When the boxes have been unpacked and the thrills of the new culture you find yourself living in have become well, less thrilling, how do you fill the days and beat the dreaded expat blues?

Sure, not working might seem like a pretty good gig, but not for everyone. Alicia, a Canadian-American, states that “it’s hard to believe that not long ago I was involved in life and death decisions on a daily basis as the neurosurgical manager for a bustling Seattle hospital.” Now her “most thought-provoking decision” of the day as an expat wife in China is: “chicken, beef, or pork for dinner?”

For expat wives, it’s important to create a fulfilling, rewarding life abroad. Not doing so could jeopardize the expat experience. According to Brookfield Global Relocation Services’ 2013 Global Relocation Trends Survey, spouse/partner dissatisfaction is one of the top reasons why expat assignments fail. 

Defining the Expat Blues

Expat wives face many challenges beyond the initial culture shock. Moving and living abroad “demands a great deal of emotional strength”, according to Dr. Cathy Tsang-Feign, a Hong Kong based psychologist who counsels expats and is the author of Keep Your Life, Family and Career Intact While Living Abroad: What every expat needs to know. Life abroad can be stressful, not to mention dull at times, and various triggers cause bluesy feelings ranging from sadness to frustration. Alicia defines her expat blues as an “intimate sense of loneliness” that has simply come and gone over her four years abroad. For Cathy, an American expat also living in China, the blues set in around Halloween, when she’d normally be back home in Tennessee having a big party with her family and trick-or-treating with her grandkids.

Ways to Cope

There are as many ways to deal with the expat blues as there are causes of them. We all use different coping mechanisms to get through challenging times. For Cathy, it’s all about having the right mindset: “If you come [abroad] thinking that it’s going to be like home, you’re going to be disappointed.” Alicia’s quick, feel-good fix is to hop on her bike and break a sweat. What works for Cathy and Alicia may not work for you. Until you figure out what works best, here’s a list to help get you started.

Acknowledge Your Blues

In Dr. Tsang-Feign’s words, “awareness is half the cure”. She writes that many expat wives struggle to feel grounded in their new culture because they see their life abroad as temporary. Others wrestle with maintaining their self-identity. The loss of a professional identity can be especially frustrating for women who are unable to work abroad. Ella, a Ukrainian expat who has spent almost twenty years in Shanghai, told me that the professional opportunities just aren’t the same for expat women as for their husbands. Obtaining a work visa and sponsoring employer can be a monumental task. Understanding the underlying causes of how you feel and acknowledging your feelings should be your first steps to dealing with the expat blues in a productive manner. Dr. Tsang-Feign also suggests asking “how your own actions or thinking” contribute to your blues.

Build a Supportive Network Abroad

It’s important to remain connected to your family and friends back home, but that’s not enough. For those living in a city or area with lots of other expats, reach out to other women who can relate to what you are going through. Meet them, talk to them, find out how they cope with their blues, and use them to help you settle into your life abroad. For expats who are in more rural or “hardship” locations that lack an extensive expat network, get online. Expat forums like InterNations and Expat Women can provide a sense of community. Many expat wives are also blogging about their experience from the good to the bad to the ugly. Chances are they’ve already gone through what you’re going through and can offer advice.

Find and Do Something That Fulfills You

Filling your days with household tasks can make the hours go by quickly, but won’t provide you with the sense of satisfaction and achievement you used to get from a rewarding life back home. Some expat wives pick up long lost hobbies while abroad and others discover new ones. Cathy took painting classes from a local artist and asked her neighbor, a bilingual Chinese-American woman, to translate during the classes. Or, look into online courses, which can range from free courses courtesy of iTunes U or Coursera to semester-long courses from accredited universities. Some employers may even contribute to course-related expenses. If you have school-age children, can you participate in a parent-teacher organization? How else could you volunteer while abroad? Teaching English is a popular option. 

Don’t Isolate Yourself — Find a Way to Connect 

Isolating yourself from your new culture is only going to reinforce your blues. Your spouse’s career wasn’t the only reason you moved abroad. What excited you about the opportunity to become an expat? Was it the sense of adventure? If so, how can you be more adventurous? Start out small. Buy an odd looking vegetable from the grocery store or market and incorporate it into a dinner. Make friends with a local, suggests Cathy. Having a friend who speaks the language can help you accomplish simple, daily tasks like communicate with a handyman. More importantly, your friend may provide you with better insight into the culture you’re living in and, perhaps, more of an appreciation for it. Eventually, try and learn the language, which can lead to an increased feeling of “independence and sense of being integrated into the local community,” according to a recent Mobility Insights report from corporate relocation management firm Cartus.

Don’t Suffer Silently

Being an expat is a special experience, but not a unique one. There are many expat women living in far-flung places around the world who, in Alicia’s words, are “riding the wave” of life abroad just like you. If you are feeling bluesy, talk to someone about it. Start with your spouse, who may be dealing with different expat-related challenges at work. What can you learn from each other? Reach out to a friend within your support network. Check in with the human resources department at your spouse’s employer to find out how they can assist. Perhaps they could put you in touch with other expat wives or recommend a therapist or counselor. Ever heard of an intercultural coach? They are a cross between a life coach and a cultural coach. Dominika Miernik, a career and intercultural coach, told me that coaches can help expat wives can gain better insight about themselves, establish personal goals, and figure out how to overcome challenges abroad. In other words, coaches can help you not only survive, but thrive abroad.


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