Expat Life Is Good… But, What Happens When You Don’t Want To Be One?

Suitcases: How Do You Deal With the News, "We're Moving... Again"?

How Do You Deal With the News, “We’re Moving… Again”?


…you sitting down?

Sure, what’s up?

That’s the way it started. Just like that, we were moving. Again. And in less than 288 hours it was done. Start to finish. That’s all it took, 12 short days.

How do you go from being at work one afternoon, kids in school, plans on the calendar, to being… gone? I was in shock of some sort. Running on auto-pilot. Doing what I had done more than a dozen times before.

I didn’t even have time to think until after we had arrived at our new home that we had made plans to have dinner that very night with a good friend from another life as he was passing through! It was like that old Glen Campbell song, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” where it says “(s)he’ll just hear that phone keep on ringing, off the wall. That’s all.”

We just left town in a whirlwind of packers and movers. The house was dark… no time to even let friends know. My life was over. I didn’t know what was coming, if I could work, what to tell my daughter.

Sometimes moves come quickly; sometimes they take forever to materialize and you’re left hanging, somewhere between limbo and eternity. Sometimes the family is excited, “Yea, Switzerland!” (Ok- that posting almost never happens…); other times it’s more of a bribe ’em run situation, as in, “Ok, we’ll make it work. It says here that the International school is good. What if we work it so you can come back home and stay with Uncle John for the summers- how would that be?”

What if it's You? Photo of a lonely lady, desperate
What if it’s You? …What if it’s Him?

We’ve all seen the scenarios where mom and dad try to soothe the kids’ worries, making everything seem new, and bright, and shiny.

But… what if it’s you. What if you’re the one who has misgivings. What if you’re the one who doesn’t want to move…again. Not again. We’re not ripping up my life, my friends, not when I finally have meaningful work, and family. You’re not leaving me adrift…again.

Judy Rickatson drew attention to a new post on Expat Lingo. Jennifer Brown’s post, “JUCHE IDEOLOGY FOR THE EXPAT SOUL” was so spot on, it made me think with 18 moves in 25 years, how many times I had lurched between Linda Janssen’s swallow hard and smile routine and Jen Brown’s mental foot-dragging.

We talk a lot about how to be an expat, how to be resilient, how to make new friends and contacts. There are any number of resources for coping with repatriation.

What about resources for coping with ex-patriation in the first place? I’m thinking of my situation, with our last move, in particular.

Recently for the Expat Experience challenge with Molly at The Move To America, I wrote about why I left. Put that way it sounds different from “why we accepted an expat opportunity.” It made me wonder about the male trailing spouse expatriation resources?

Looking back, I think my husband must have been very much like Jen Brown, going through the stages of grief that Linda Janssen talks about in The Emotionally Resilient Expat:

    • Denial

    • Bargaining

    • Anger

    • Depression 

    • Acceptance

I believe that, as a pretty traditional, “baby-boomer”, the thought of becoming a “trailing spouse” must have been rather hard to deal with. What resources are there even today for men who need help adjusting? How many men here in the USA would even know what to say to a friend trying to discuss this?

In our case, I had made 17 moves in 22 years at that point. I had given up my work each and every time. I closed up the house and set up the next one, sometimes in similar cultures, sometimes in very different places. We always had to rent a place and wait up to 6 months to receive our household goods, deal with the damage, make claims, replace what we could and get on with things. That was my job. Learning the new culture and rules was his job.

But none of the moves in all that time had been made for my job. Not once had my husband ever been without an identity, or, been the one with no friends. Experience had prepared me, but not so much for him.

In the case of this particular move, we also had the added twist that this opportunity came about because of a corporate buy-out that would eliminate many jobs, and his being a likely possibility. At 40, to have a career go away is hard for anyone. But after 20 years in one field, it really caused some soul-searching. I thought I was being helpful by looking at a new expat opportunity for us.

This week has been like a lightning bolt for me- a real eye-opener, full of things I had just swept away in the divorce, never wondered about until now. But I saw from Jen Brown’s description, quite clearly in fact, indicator’s that might have saved us a lot of grief.

1. Denial: I believe that my husband had a good deal to be in denial about.
“My job is not going away, but if it did, I would be taken care. But if I’m not taken care of, I will get a comparable job right away…”

As a spouse I wish I had seen and understood this stage more clearly instead of being Pollyanna, saying “Here’s a quick fix.” I would have been better off to sit down and openly discuss the likely job situations and work out the pros and cons. I also think, looking back, that there were likely some pride, or self-esteem issues, related to the job- worry that somehow my feelings might change if he didn’t have that specific job or title. I never thought of that nor do I remember him ever addressing it. Sweep that under a corner of this rug.

2. Anger: My feeling, rightly or wrongly, is that women identify and perhaps express anger in these situations more readily. At least in American culture, it has historically been more acceptable for women to feel emotion and men to be somewhat more stoic.

In our case, I think there was much frustration for him over not being able to control the corporate buyout and the impending consolidation, and it all stayed inside. No matter how much we “talked” about it, looking back, I don’t think we ever got down to that level.

As a man of faith, I believe he prayed about it, but I don’t know that any answer really comforted him in this issue. And I know his nature would never have let him talk to any guy friends- in fact most of his friends were in the same boat at work.

I’m still not sure what I should have done, or what I could have done that wouldn’t have made matters worse for him. If I had said anything to anyone outside, he would have viewed it as breaking a trust. So it’s almost damned if I did, or broken if I didn’t.

3. Bargaining: For us, he said, “Yes, let’s do this one.” He seemed happy and excited, but nervous. He wasn’t in the driver’s seat, and wasn’t all that sure about Azerbaijan. Being so close to Iran and Iraq- remember we in the US were just out of Gulf War I and there was a lot of sabre rattling in the area (um, sort of like today, oddly enough!)

His bargain was probably something like, “Ok, we’ll go ahead with this until something else comes along to save me.”

Had I been able to contain my excitement about having a chance to do something meaningful, and getting a chance to stretch my wings after 20+ years of following, I might have been more attuned to this bargain-making. It should have seemed a little too easy. But that’s what hindsight is best at, isn’t it?

4. Depression: Because I went ahead to set up the business office and get the registration process started, I didn’t see this play out. I wasn’t in Houston for the sale of the house or the sorting of goods we could take (very few) and those we had to sell or donate (90%). Seeing your life go away for something you’re sure of is hard. But throwing it away if you’re waiting for a reprieve has to be unbearable. From my vantage point today, I wish I had been there.

From my side, since I was overseas already, dealing with the quirks of let’s see, having no water most days, adjusting to eastern-style bathrooms, ensuring I could find bottled water each day, I operated by the old adage, “Don’t go looking for trouble”.  If there were questions, I expected my husband would call me. (We didn’t have email at the beginning.) Otherwise, I’d assume things were going ok or he was figuring out a way to resolve issues, as I had always had to do when I trailed him.

When we got stretched thin by miles and problems galore, I realize my compassion meter was the first casualty. I went into triage mode and I was prioritizing rather than supporting. My bad. I viewed my problems as just as important as his.

Funny, this is exactly what he always did when we moved before. And I understood it. Things worked wonderfully. But when the roles were reversed, I didn’t think to leave him the “Owner’s Manual” to help him do that job for the first time.

It’s easy to say he should have stepped up and spoken out. It’s easy to say he should have asked for help. And both of those are fair statements. In most relationships we do look to each partner to pull their own weight, but in expat moves, it seems that we have to “mind the gaps” by being willing to each go 100%, not just 50-50%. I did well in some areas, but like a horse off to the races, I got ahead of the plan and didn’t watch for signs of depression.

Even though I didn’t know these stages of grief then, I was personally acquainted with depression and could possibly have helped if I had paid attention when I came home at Christmas, or if I had listened more closely. It’s hard to go back and say what exactly I missed, but knowing what I know now from Jen and Linda’s writings, I hope I would do better.

5. Acceptance: This is a tricky stage. To some people acceptance means that you go along with the program and get on with it. But in our case, I believe that my husband came to the point, after 3 years of one-thing-after-another, that he accepted that he was not going to make this move with me. He didn’t have it in him to be a trailing spouse. It wasn’t a role he could live with. Ex-husband was easier to accept than being the trailing spouse or not being needed.

If you’re like me when you read those words, your first responses are something like, “Wait, that’s not how this works. She made how many moves supporting you? How could you not even try?”

I went through all those thoughts. But then I realized that acceptance is a two-way street. It had taken him three years to come to this point. It wasn’t something cavalier like “no I don’t think today is good for me and tomorrow my schedule is full too.” I think there was a lot of soul-searching that led to this acceptance that he had to let go.

Sometimes that’s what happens when you find you don’t want to be an expat. Other times a compromise can be made.

So, yes, Expat Life is good… when it’s right for you.  I wouldn’t have traded that next 10 years overseas for anything.

But, if you find you really don’t want to be one,  my best advice is: accept how you feel, realize the expatriate life isn’t a life for everyone.  Above all,

» Be honest 

» Be vocal   

» Be sure

Give your family a chance to help. Work through your personal dynamics and make the decisions that are right for all of you. Just remember there are more than two possible answers, and each of them can be right answers.

8 thoughts on “Expat Life Is Good… But, What Happens When You Don’t Want To Be One?

  1. What a thought provoking post. How interesting to hear how things played out when your roles were reversed. And how terrifying to hear that you once had to move countries in a 288 hour period! Makes my issues seem like chump change.

    As for our moves, I’d say I was much more enthusiastic the first three times around. Assuming we do move again this year, our time in Hong Kong will have been two years, too short for my liking. Plus, we spent the last eight months planning on a different next expat posting (one more in tune with some of my personal interests) that fell through. So the fourth time has been rough. Maybe the fifth time I’ll be more sunny!

    It’s been a pleasure to “meet” you and a thrill to see that my dark thoughts on expat uncertainties resonated with you.


  2. Thanks for writing about essential ex-pat/ re-pat adjustment issues. At two weeks back in country, they’re right on target for me. The trickiest part so far is finding someone to rent long-term housing from. We don’t fit any categories on the property managers’ check lists.

    I know the feeling of selling the house and letting go of over ninety percent of everything in a short time. It’s exhilarating, terrifying, sad, confusing…well… a whole of of intense everything all at once. I’m not sure I’ve ever had a chance to come to grips with these losses. And both of our two careers gone at the same time. And now the ex-pat thing came apart after eight months instead of the five years we planned. Right now I don’t want another house or another job or another thing that I might have to give away again. At the same time I want a home. What to do? What to I say to people I know about all this? What do I say to people I just met about all this?

    I’ve found another ex-pat living right next door in another temporary rental owned by the same person we rented from. This is this amazing! Their ex-pat thing just fell apart after eight months for similar reasons as ours in a completely different country. She feels the same about so many things. What a relief to find someone who understands.

    I don’t know if I’ll be up for doing this again. I don’t know if I’ll be up for NOT doing it again. Hmm…

    Keep writing.


    • As I started reading your comment, I was thinking how much you played on my mind as I wrote about my experience, knowing that I could be writing your story just as much. Sometimes, remembering back to how much it hurt to be back, yet not back, I wish I could send you a virtual hug or be there to listen.

      And then you found someone next door! It is really good to have someone who is either going or has been through the same deep woods and knows there is a way out. Yea!

      How interesting/spooky/weird the similarities? Maybe there is a new law here that expats can only be gone for a maximum of eight months, thereafter they must return and begin remitting revenues to the US again, before we all go belly up! 😉

      Happy relief, and may it continue… happy hooping!


      • Thanks for the virtual hugs.

        Two weeks back in country. There are moments I feel like I’m back. There are times I feel I never left. There are times I feel like I’m still somewhere else.

        Isn’t it a miracle to find someone next door who just landed back here. What’s the likelihood of that? (“100%, now,” my math husband says.)

        I also found another ex-pat on line who had the same type of visa to the same country at the same time. They struggled with similar issues and returned a few weeks before we did.

        I just came in from hooping with my older sun and husband in the street. We were doing this together last spring in this same street but with different hoops. It feels odd.

        Happy relief to you as well.;-)


      • I was just reading Jen Brown’s Expat Lingo and came across this quote that I thought you might like…

        “When the decisions get tough, it helps to turn to a power beyond ourselves. For some this might be a heavenly being*. I, however, have settled on Bruce Lee.

        Lee was a fount of inspirational quotes, including this one:

        Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

        Strictly speaking, Lee was talking about the practice of martial arts. His words, however, are quite applicable to a hell of a lot more including the situation of the expat-in-limbo or expat-in-transition.

        At the moment I don’t know whether I’m staying or going and, while I have a hint where I may go, nothing is settled. I am in a state of expat limbo.

        And so, I am being water: formless and adaptable, but also strong enough to carve through a mountain (of negotiations, language barriers, paperwork, transitional loneliness, red tape, culture shock, and HR hassles).

        Be water, my friend.”

        Doesn’t that hit the spot?


        “Be Water, my (expat) friend”

        P.S. Tell Robert I love his math ability, a true scholar that one!


      • I like the water image. My husband and I were tai-chi-doers and teachers in a previous lifetime (before children) and followers of the Taoist “watercourse way”. I was out-watered by water in the flood. 😉

        You’re right. I must get back to the watercourse way.

        Thanks for all your kind words.


        PS Yup. Robert says “thanks”. 🙂


  3. Your story of an unraveling triggered initially by a career-ending buyout is a thoughtful one, Jonelle. While you refer to is as a grief process – and it certainly is – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross came to see her original grief process as really being a significant change process, and renamed it accordingly. Which makes sense if you recall that within instances of sizeable, gut-wrenching change, there is almost always an element of grief to be dealt with, even when that change is ultimately welcome. What we come to see as adults is that life truly is about choices, and hopefully you continue to choose together, but there are no guarantees. I’d just like to note that your allusion to my ‘swallow hard and smile routine’ was neither accurate nor routine, but I’ll address that in a post on the topic another day 🙂 Linda Janssen


    • Linda, thank you for re-engaging on this. I felt like despite yesterday’s “let’s move on” comment that you actually had more to say. I was in tears after reading your FB comments, thinking the door had closed and an offense lay there unresolved.

      I appreciate your comments today and completely agree that within a significant change process there are elements of grief to be dealt with, as today’s research reveals. Change is always complex. That was the point I was making when I alluded to Jen Brown’s post. Her reaction to change was different from mine, which was different from the quote she attributed to The Emotionally Resilient Expat.

      Through the words of her post, referencing your book among others, I saw that I had choices I could have made that might have made a difference then. And as I said, I am grateful for the work that allows expats to go back and revisit decisions made, in hopes of learning lessons and doing better in the future.

      Two lessons I learned from this exchange that will help me do better:

      The first is that in writing, if a word has multiple meanings, I need to consider how the reader might (mis)interpret, and decide if it makes a difference. In my post, I used “routine” as a noun, whereas I understand your response to indicate it was an adjective to you. That clearly made a huge difference, for which I again apologize. No intent to minimize the importance of your research and writing was meant.

      The second lesson I learned is that words written are released to readers to absorb and use, as they apply to the reader. Jen Brown was in a different place than I was and wrote about her struggle; my post was written as a look back “forehead slap” why didn’t I see that then?

      Your comments implied that Jen Brown used your words unfairly- combining a review (perhaps not completed in an objective frame) with an emotional vent, and that, because I had referenced her work, that I supported that view. I hope my subsequent comments to the contrary have clarified that.

      I don’t know that this is sizeable, or gut-wrenching, but there is certainly an element of grief here. This communication today is an example of what I should have done when making that last move that I wrote about. Level-headed, contrite, open. Maybe it will yet have the desired result.

      Many thanks again Linda, for being a mentor to so many of us.


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