SOS: Clash of Cultures

By Bettina Hemmingsen

Did you know that 86% of expatriates take their spouse or family along when moving abroad? Are you one of them? You may have noticed that the working expats usually have a career to distract them from the culture shock while their partners often struggle with the situation in various ways.

Expat spouses usually have very few options when their partner accepts an assignment abroad. They can either stay behind to continue life as they know it or they can “trail” along. Both scenarios have their pros and cons. In each case, expat assignments can make or break a relationship or marriage. In many cases, traveling spouses cannot pursue their own career while abroad and experience some restrictions on their personal freedom. Thus, spouses often face an identity crisis when they realize that they are losing their independence and status.

Temporary Separation

A temporary separation may be an alternative to accompanying the assignee abroad. This option of leading a long-distance relationship may be preferable if one partner is sent abroad for a short-term assignment of a few months. While the expatriates live and work abroad, their partners or spouses stay at home, continuing their career and life as usual. Couples usually choose to live apart if it is impractical or even impossible for a partner to trail along. This is often the case if one of them is on a military assignment abroad or if their job, the children’s education, or medical issues are holding the other partner back. A temporary separation can surely put a strain on a relationship or marriage. However, taking some extra measures can make it easier to hold out until the spouse returns from the assignment abroad.

The impact of going abroad

When their partner receives a lucrative job offer abroad, spouses often agree to “trail along”. Moving abroad together can offer many opportunities for trailing spouses. However, for the partners, an expat assignment is also a time of severe emotional pressure. As most spouses of assignees statistically still tend to be women, local and cultural traditions may have a strong effect on their personal lives as well. All this pressure on expats and their spouses is like a magnifying glass on a marriage. Underlying issues and disagreements will come to the forefront, and one will soon find out if the relationship can pass this crucial test.

 

Traveling spouses may experience a loss of freedom when their partner’s employer controls housing and schooling options.

Additionally, many are unable to get a work permit and have to put their career on hold. The mere status of a resident, which many spousal visas grant, is not enough to get a job. In contrast to their working husbands or wives, expat partners may lose their professional reputation when they arrive abroad. Instead, culture shock as well as the language barrier can make it hard for them to manage their lives the way they used to and even to accomplish simple tasks.

Culture schock comes in stages

The Oxford Dictionary defines culture shock as disorientate experienced when suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture or way of life. Culture shock can be characterized by periods of frustration, adjustment, and even depression. Nearly everyone, regardless of maturity, disposition, previous experience abroad, or knowledge of the country in which they will be living, experiences some degree of culture shock when initially moving to a new country. Rather like the grieving process, there are stages that we go through.

Stage 1: The Honeymoon Stage

When you first arrive in a new culture, differences are intriguing and you may feel excited, stimulated and curious. Like any new experience, there’s a feeling of euphoria when you first arrive and you’re in awe of the differences you see and experience. You feel excited, stimulated, enriched. During this stage, you still feel close to everything familiar back home.

Stage 2: The Distress Stage

A little later, differences create an impact. Everything you’re experiencing no longer feels new; in fact, it’s starting to get you down. You feel confused, isolated or inadequate and realize that your familiar support systems (e.g. family and friends) are not easily accessible.

Stage 3: Re-integration Stage

During this stage, you start winging about your new home. You dislike the culture, the language and the food. You reject it as inferior. You may even develop some prejudices towards the new culture. You’re angry, frustrated and even feel hostile to those around you. You wonder why you made the decision to change. You start to idealize life “back home” and compare your current culture to what is familiar. Don’t worry. This is absolutely normal and a healthy reaction – it means you’re adjusting. You are reconnecting with what you value about yourself and your own culture.

Stage 4: Autonomy Stage

This is the first stage in acceptance. Sometimes called the emergence stage when you start to come out of the ‘fog’ and finally begin to feel like yourself again. You start to accept the differences and feel like you can begin to live with them. You feel more confident and better able to cope with any problems that may arise based on your growing experience. You no longer feel isolated and instead you’re able to look at the world around you and appreciate where you are.

Stage 5: Independence Stage

You are yourself again! You embrace the new culture and see everything in a new, yet realistic light. Things start to become enjoyable. You feel comfortable, confident and able to make decisions based on your own preferences and values. You no longer feel alone and isolated. You understand and appreciate both the differences and similarities of both your own and the new culture. You start to feel at home.

When the emotional shock kicks in

Everyone experiences culture shock in different ways, at different times and to different degrees. But what is common about these reactions is that we tend to keep them to our self and pretend that everything is all right. Holding back and keeping up appearances often adds to the problem rather than solving it, so let’slets take a look at the things we don’t want to talk about and find out what to do about it.

A “Since moving abroad I had to give up my job and career partly because it was not possible for me to get at work permit and partly because my partner’s partners workload is extremely high which means I am responsible for everything around the house and with the kids. I feel a tremendous loss of identity and don’t feel I contribute with anything since my husband became the sole provider. I am tired of being referred to as the mother or spouse of someone, I don’t know who I am any longer.”

B It is very natural to feel a loss of of identity when you quit working and completely change environment and surroundings at the same time. In fact this is one of the major reactions to moving abroad and giving up your “old familiar life,” so don’t blame yourself for not adapting fast enough. The feeling of identity is deeply connected to the values and norms of the society we live in and as such we are being challenges on many levels when we become part of a new and completely different society. This is an excellent opportunity for you to learn not to identify with outer concepts, beliefs and norms but to find out who you truly are on a deeper and higher level. So start by accepting the emotional struggle as a healthy part of the change you are undergoing. Practice how to stay present and add meaning and purpose to the most simple things and routines in your daily life. Open up to the idea that life is a journey and the more open you are the more you get to see. And furthermore you might have the feeling that everything depends on your husband but never doubt for a minute that it’s a team effort and he depends just as much on you and your commitment – because without your cooperation and willingness he couldn’t pursue his career abroad.

A “I often blame myself for not appreciating both the financial and personal freedom I have gained after moving abroad and I feel guilty each time our kids have to change school and say goodbye to close friends.”

B Once again you are confronted with feelings that attach to your identity because you are not doing what you where raised to believe you should do. Norms and values are such an integrated part of our upbringing that they become a reflexive response to every challenge in life.  So when you blame yourself there is an emotional conflict between what you think you should do and what you are actually doing. You are trapped in a void between values – which is actually a good thing since it brings awareness to new qualities in life, so see if you can take a step back and observe the inner conflict for a while without identifying with it. Eventually you might discover that your mind feeds on problems, drama and conflicts and the less attention you give it the less noise it makes.

The same goes for the guilt we tend to feel as parents when our lifestyle force them to change school and environment many times during their childhood. We compare their life to the general norms and ideas of a stable and predictable childhood and feel guilty instantly. But stability doesn’t necessarily equal a strong fundament in life. Fundament is rather a rootedness in oneself than in outer objects. Good parents give their children roots and wings. Roots to have a strong feeling of their inner self and wings to fly into life with confidence and awareness. So change your focus from feeling guilty to coaching and supporting your children in the process of becoming balanced and rooted citizens of the world.

A “I feel helpless and frustrated each time I have to deal with all the practical things that are involved in getting settled in a new country and I face a lot of problems due to language barrier and cultural differences. I am tired of establishing a new network and starting all over and I often experience feeling lonely and isolated. Nobody at home seems to care or understand my problems and at the same time I try not to take it out on my husband since he has so much on his shoulders already.”

B This is a classic reaction to culture shock and should be taken very seriously mainly because suffering in silence often make you fall into the trap of filling out the emptiness with self-destructive substitutes such as alcohol, drugs, (pills), obsessive eating, shopping or even infidelity. Holding back and not involving your spouse, thinking you are being considerate by not adding to his/her stress or pressure is only creating a distance in your relationship, which in worst case can lead to divorce. Always share your feelings with your spouse and stop isolating yourself as it will only enhance the negative feelings. Try to overcome the physical or mental barrier that is preventing you from getting to meet other people and force yourself to make plans, create routines and schedule your day.

A “I often hear myself saying, ‘As long as my family is happy, I am happy too’ but deep inside I feel worthless and that I am wasting my life.”

B Every once in a while we lose perspective in our life and it becomes hard to find the meaning in what seems meaningless but one thing is certain – it is not enough that your kids are happy and that your spouse is happy, you need to feel happy as well. But to truly feel happiness you need to fully accept the circumstances that life offers you at this very moment. If you surrender to life, as it is, you will stop feeling you are wasting it and instead see the true beauty, diversity and complexity of it. Just keep reminding yourself that there is no right or wrong and no recipe to a perfect life. Find positive constructive ways to release your creativity and energy and channel it into something meaningful to do, it might be something controversial, it doesn’t matter, as long as it matters to you. Don’t give up on yourself and the dreams you have, it is never too late to find your passion or mission in life and remember to always count your blessings and remind yourself that the grass is never greener on the other side.

Employer’s Support

Lastly but not least the support froorm the employer make a huge difference. While employers often try to support their expats wherever they can, they tend to forget that expat partners and children need at least the same amount of support during an assignment. The unhappiness of their family is often the main reason why expats end assignments early, which often causes financial loss to the company.

Many companies have now recognized the need for spousal support therefore their partners are taken just as seriously by companies as their actual employees. They enjoy language lessons and information about cultural differences or are given help with establishing contact with other expact and selecting the best schools for their children.

Although unrealistic expectations should be left at home, it is important for expats to be clear about the support they and their partners need. This often requires some initiative on the employee’s behalf such as help with relocation, housing, insurance, schooling, and much more. But every family hasve their own special needs so it is important that you make sure your company’s expat package is right for you, and negotiate all extras and subtractions before you leave.

FINALLY …

It is important to stress that culture shock is entirely normal, usually unavoidable and not a sign that you have made a mistake or that you won’t manage. In fact there are very positive aspects of culture shock. The experience can be a significant learning experience, making you more aware of aspects of your own culture as well as the new culture you have entered. It will give you valuable skills that will serve you in many ways now and in the future.

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