A few weeks ago, I got a call from a friend I hadn’t spoken to in a while – let’s call her Emma. Emma’s been living abroad with her partner for a couple of years now, and over time our Skype calls had got fewer and farther between, until we pretty much fell out of touch. So much so, in fact, that I was (pleasantly) surprised to hear from her at all.
When I answered, she was in an absolute state. It turned out that she and her boyfriend had broken up weeks before, things had turned seriously ugly, and she was at breaking point.
“Oh my God!” I said. “Why didn’t you call me before?”
“Oh my God!” I said. “Why didn’t you call me before?”
“We hadn’t spoken in so long, I didn’t feel I could just ring out of the blue and dump all this on you, but I don’t know who else to call,” she said.
This, in a nutshell, is one of the biggest problems you face when we’re living overseas and the sh*t hits the fan.
In the excitement of moving abroad, it’s easy to get swept up in your new life and start neglecting friendships from home. If you’re not careful, you get to the point where you only call them when things go wrong… and end up feeling terrible about it.
Because here’s the thing: while it’s incredibly important to have a support network in-country to lean on during and after your divorce, friends you’ve only known for a few months will probably be quicker to drop you than friends you’ve had for years and years – especially if these are friends you’ve made jointly with or through your partner.
The expat divorce shows you who your true friends are.
Here’s what happened to Emma: she’d been living whirlwind life in a cool city with a buzzing nightlife. She and her partner had made a bunch of fun friends that they hung out with every weekend. As a freelancer, she’d met a lot of these new friends through her partner’s work, while the remainder were couples and others she saw jointly with her partner.
Then, they broke up – a decision she initiated, and which he didn’t take well. Almost overnight, her friendship group dried up. People avoided her out of embarrassment. She’d expected to lose friends she knew solely through his work, but she was unprepared for how quickly the others abandoned her, too.
“It’s easy to get swept up in your new life and start neglecting friendships from home”
The thing was, when it came down to it, none of these people knew her all that well. Her relationships were mostly superficial. Plus, since she was the one “in the wrong” – as in, she’d ended it, ultimately – it was easier for them to side with her partner. She’d never felt so alone.
At this point, you may be nodding away and saying, uh-huh.
Perhaps you’re taken aback by how fickle your supposed expat friends have been. Perhaps you’re hurt by how quickly the couples you know sided with your now-ex. Perhaps you’re a ‘trailing spouse’, someone who moved abroad for their partner’s job but can’t work themselves, limiting your social circle to (mostly) those you’ve met through your other half.
Whatever your circumstances, going through an expat divorce may have highlighted for you how much you need an emotional support network – and, perhaps, how weak your own one has become.
If you’ve been guilty of letting old friendships slide while you’re away, the sudden shock of loneliness hits hard when you’re suddenly in need of a shoulder to cry on. Wallowing in this, though, will only make things worse.
You need to reach out, now, to the people you care about, even if you’re worried you’ve been a bad friend lately. You simply can’t get through this without support, and if they really care about you, your friends back home won’t hold a grudge over your lack of contact.
Pick up the phone. Have a good old cry. Talk through your problems and fears. We’re lucky enough to live in an age where you can call a friend 10,000 miles away for three hours without it costing you a penny, so take advantage of how small the world has become.
At the same time, if you want to rebuild and strengthen those old bonds, you need to make sure you don’t only call people when you need something. Make sure you speak to someone you care about (and who cares about you) every day, but for the love of God – and for your own sanity – don’t just talk about yourself.
You need good friends, but you also need to be a good friend back. Chat about what’s going on in their lives, help out with their problems, get excited about the good stuff happening to them. Doing so won’t just help you to get the closeness back, it will also shake you out of the navel-gazing despair of your divorce, shifting your focus to something and someone other than your own problems.
I can’t overstate how much of an emotional release it will give you to stop obsessing for an hour or two, especially if you reach out to that witty friend who always manages to make you laugh, no matter how bleak things look.
“You need good friends, but you also need to be a good friend back.”
You need these friends and family from home. They will ground you, help you to find your way back to who you are when the trauma of an expat divorce has you questioning your whole identity.
… And, of course, if getting divorced means you also have to move back home, you’re going to need those people waiting for you with hugs, sympathy and support as soon as you get off the plane.
While it’s all very well having your besties on speed dial half the world away, you do also need a support network in-country to cope with an expat divorce.
There are two parts to this: emotional support and practical support.
Right now, you need meaningful stuff in your life to stop you spiralling, especially if you don’t have a job and colleagues you love to help keep you together.
If you’ve just realised, to your horror, that you don’t have friends of your own (i.e. ones that you don’t share with your partner) you’re going to have to make the effort now. Follow your interests on this one: maybe join a sports team, a book club, a theatre group, or an art class. Go to an open mic night. Volunteer with an NGO. Do whatever you can to give you back a sense of pride in who you are and what you can offer, while introducing you to like-minded people that you can go for a coffee with – and, crucially, have no connection to your ex.
Make an effort with these fledgeling friends. Organise drinks and dinners. Be proactive. You don’t want to distract yourself to the point that you ignore the real issues you need to deal with, but it won’t do you any good to curl up under a duvet and feel sorry for yourself for months on end, either.
Then there’s the practical side. All divorces are messy, and the expat divorce is no different. In fact, it’s usually even messier and more complicated than breaking up at home, exacerbated by the fact that you’re navigating an unfamiliar legal system as well as your own.
Seek out professional help and advice as soon as you can. Talk to divorce lawyers and immigration experts at the earliest opportunity to make sure you have all the facts you need when it comes to your rights, your visa status, child custody issues, and so on.
“Of all the friends you need on your side right now, the most important one is you.”
As much as you need a support network that allows you to vent, you also need to a support network that knows exactly what problems are around the corner and what you need to do to protect yourself. While it’s frightening to face up to the stress and bureaucracy involved in an expat divorce, keeping yourself in the dark and letting things get worse is much, much scarier in the long run.
Oh – and remember, of all the friends you need on your side right now, the most important one is you.
You won’t fix this or heal from this by hating and blaming yourself, or torturing yourself over how you could have stopped things reaching to this point. Take care of yourself, physically and mentally. Treat your feelings with the kindness and gentleness that you would if it you were dealing with your best friend in the same situation. The best support network in the world can only be strong if you are, too.
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With you in service
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