Moving homes is always difficult. Adding an international factor makes it that much more of a challenge. This is because every component of your life is changing: job, home, environment and social group. This is particularly true if you are leaving behind friends, family and a career you love. As such, one can find it especially difficult to forge new relationships during all this change. In the same vein, already established relationships can also take a hit because of this same evolution. With Valentine’s Day just around the corner and a hyper societal focus on relationships, this article will highlight some of the common challenges that relationships abroad undergo, and how to overcome them.
Whether an introvert, extrovert or ambivert, as humans we are social beings by nature and have an innate desire for human interaction. When living abroad, these connections are not always easy to foster or maintain. This is in part why the transition period that comes with moving overseas can be so psychologically and emotionally challenging.
No matter how seasoned of an expat you are, each move can manifest this truth in a different way. With each of my international moves, I experienced this challenge to some degree. When I moved to Spain, it was difficult for me to make meaningful relationships because of the initial language barrier. I remembered not wanting an influx of expat friends because I really wanted to immerse myself in the culture.
On the other hand, I recall feeling isolated because without knowing the local dialect, it was a challenge to make Spanish connections. In England, although I knew the language, I spent longer hours at work and had very little interaction with local social groups. This meant most of my social connections were my colleagues. Although many of them became my friends, establishing a work life balance became difficult with those lines blurred. Lastly, I moved to Japan with previously established connections from my home country but found those difficult to maintain with the vast time difference between my home and host country.
A common challenge when living abroad is establishing new relationships. This can be for several reasons – language barrier, being new to the area and not knowing where to find like-minded people, or because you’re feeling unsettled in every other area of your life.
To navigate this, it is first important to give yourself grace. Allow yourself to take the time you need to get acclimated to your new surroundings, as putting extra stress on yourself will only make it that much more difficult to connect with others. Once you’re ready, it is then important to identify what type of connections you want to make. The best way to avoid excessive disappointment is by first understanding your desires so that you can easily identify if an interaction is meeting that need.
Disappointment often comes when we were hoping for an intended outcome and that does not come to fruition. Being realistic about your desires and setting those expectations internally upfront allows you to assess sooner if a connection is worth investing your emotions, time and energy in.
With language often being another barrier to establishing relationships while abroad, participating in language exchanges is one way to increase your language level and find like-minded people to practice with and locals you may share common interests with. Many countries have groups specifically for expats, where varying social and recreational activities are arranged to help people new to the country find compatible connections.
When trying to establish new relationships, the best way to find people with similar interests is by doing activities you also enjoy doing. Seeking out activities and excursions you want to take part in is often the best way to find the very people you are looking for.
Other challenges with relationships are maintaining them. If you have been living on this earth for any long period of time, you know we do not all think and act the same. That is the beauty of diversity. But navigating these differences in relationships can sometimes be a challenge. Whether the relationship you are trying to maintain is with a partner who moved with you to your host country or one you met while abroad, it is important to communicate frustrations and challenges as they arise instead of letting them fester. This can sometimes be a difficult task if there is a significant language barrier or significant cultural differences.
Common challenges in relationships abroad are the breakdown in communication and established expectations. As stated previously, it is seldom the outcome of a situation that truly frustrates us but rather the outcome in comparison to our expectation of what the outcome should have been. A way to both preemptively navigate this challenge or address it when it arises is by setting aside time to check in with one another and giving yourself space to fully talk through disappointments and expectations.
Disagreements often last longer than they should or get exacerbated when time is not allocated to fully process and talk through disappointment and expectations. Agreeing to a time weekly or monthly where you are checking in with the individual on significant matters, can help reduce conflict in this area. A common model I provide to my client is the ‘traffic light check in’. Each participant outlines a green, yellow and red area. Green expresses things they feel the other is doing well that they would like them to keep doing; yellow area is things they feel the other is not doing that they would like them to start doing; red outlines things they feel the other is doing that they would like them to stop.
Having this arranged time allows both parties to anticipate and plan for tough conversations, as opposed to being blind-sided by them on a random Wednesday morning on their way to work. Using this model also allows individuals to use positive praise and talk about the areas that are going well as opposed to only focusing on the challenges of the relationships. This communication style shifts conversations from a problem focused perspective and helps establish mutual expectations.
Lastly, another common challenge to relationships while abroad is maintaining the meaningful relationships that you left behind in your home country. This can be challenging due to both geographic distance and time differences. To navigate these barriers, it is important to be both intentional and realistic in reestablishing how these relationships will change. When living in America, my home country, I used to talk to my mom every day on my way to work. Now that I live in Japan, with the 17-hour time difference and our competing commitments, it is no longer realistic to talk to her daily. Now, we’ve made my Sunday morning (her Saturday afternoon) our sacred time. With establishing this expectation, we both know to mentally block our schedules in expectation that we will be spending that time ‘together’. Moreover, if something comes up and we need to reschedule that time, we can communicate that so we can adjust our schedules or expectations for that week accordingly.
Strengthening relationships abroad comes with a degree of intentionality in a way that this same relationship might not have required it before. Understanding this, and adjusting accordingly is the first step in overcoming this barrier.