Global Friendships


Global Friendships

How living abroad can change the dynamics between friends

By Taylor Joy Murray

Originally published in Global Living Magazine – Issue 23 | March/April 2016

Reconnecting with home-country friends can be challenging.

My life and the lives of my home-country friends used to be parallel. But when I moved abroad nine years ago, our lives began turning, splitting, and taking different directions. Now? Our experiences have separated us, geographically and emotionally. Our lives aren’t parallel anymore. When I visit my home-country, I feel this distance between my friends and me. I sense the disconnection. It feels awkward.

Research says this common expat struggle is most prevalent in women. I asked Jessica, a JET teacher currently living in Hiroshima, Japan, about her experience of reconnecting with friends during a recent visit to Indiana.

Every time I’ve gone back,” she told me, “it’s felt a little more difficult to communicate. There’s a little less in common each time, a bigger gap in how much we know about what the other is doing and what our lives are really like.”

SydneyMurray2This can be painful, stressful, and disheartening for any expat moving abroad. A startling moment comes when we realize we can’t relate with our home-country friends anymore. We can feel as though the link between us has been severed. Do I let go? We can wonder. Do I strive to maintain my long-distance friendships? We ask ourselves. And if so, how?

Over the years, I’ve discovered these five tips to coping with ever-changing, long-distance relationships – from saying healthy goodbyes to engaging well during reconnections.

Grieve the loss of your home-country friendships.

A confession: Nine years ago, I was one of those completely-oblivious-to-loss expats. My family and I threw our time and energy into excitedly preparing for our first international move. Amidst this whirlwind of goodbyes, we never actually stopped to grieve. In the busyness preceding our transition, we didn’t fully recognize our loss. This resulted in future regret and unresolved grief.

My first tip for you? Pull out the chocolate, sit down with a box of tissues, and cry. Grieve the approaching loss of intimacy in your current friendships. And not just the first time you leave, but the second, and third, and fourth, and fifth time. The friendships you cherish now will never be the same again. They will continue to evolve and change. Realizing this beforehand, and then mourning the “death” of your close-knit, easily-accessible friendships, eases a healthy release to knowing and feeling known by these friends close to you.

READ MORE from this issue of Global Living Magazine

Become a Facebook stalker, but not too much.

Every day, I scroll through my Facebook newsfeed and delight in the pictures posted by my long-distance friends. I smile. My heart warms with fond memories. I’m learning to be content with pictures, a vital but challenging aspect of coping with ever-changing friendships.

In her article “ABCs of Expat Women’s Life: F – Friends & Family,” Dorota Klop-Sowinska writes, “Skype will never replace face-to-face contact. You cannot maintain your old life and, at the same time, build a new one. You have to invest time and effort in new relationships if you want to establish a ‘satisfying’ life in your new country.”

Trying to keep up with everything in the lives of your long-distance friends is an unrealistic self-expectation, especially while simultaneously forging new friendships in your host country. Surrender knowing the details in the lives of your long-distance friends. Although difficult, this frees you to be fully present in your new life abroad.

Before visiting your passport country, accept that your friendships will be different.

Key word: Beforehand. Your friends will likely discuss people you have never met before, memories you were not a part of, SydneyMurray4fads you don’t know about, and personal struggles you weren’t able to support them through. Knowing this before engaging in conversation with your home-country friends prevents much shock, discouragement and unmet expectations.

In the article “The Down Sides of Living Overseas,” an anonymous writer acknowledges, “As the years go by… friendships will lose their fire. Your friends cannot relate to your life and your experiences whereas you can no longer relate to theirs.”

And this is okay! But it’s also critical to know and accept that your lives are no longer parallel before any face-to-face connections. This knowledge allows you to re-engage with your home-country friends with a fresh perspective.

To ease the initial awkwardness, reconnect through your common thread.

Once you have accepted that your friendships will be different, here are two common threads most expats can use to connect with home-country friends: shared history and personal faith.

“The times I felt most reconnected with [my home-country friends] were when we prayed together, or when an inside joke resurfaced,” Jessica told me. “Just talking helped. We reminisced about the past, talked about our dreams for the future, and caught each other up on where we were at in the moment.”

Base your initial questions on your common thread. Talk about your memories together. This strengthens the weakened bond between you. I recently reconnected with a long-distance friend I hadn’t seen in years. We instantly began reminiscing, reconnecting over our common thread: our shared history. We relied on the times our lives were parallel to bridge the separation between us.

READ MORE from this issue of Global Living Magazine

Learn the “new version” of your long-distance friends.

Once you have connected over your common thread, learn who your home-country friends are now, during your brief time together.

After bonding with my long-distance friend over our shared history, we could then begin to understand each other and reconnect on a new heart level. Mugs of tea in hand, we peppered each other with questions, slowly filling in the gap between our last connection. My friend had changed, and I had too. We realized that our lives weren’t parallel, and we knew we could no longer relate the same way we had previously. Instead, we began to learn each other’s “new” world.

For expats, this friendship cycle of grieving, letting go, accepting, reconnecting and relearning long-distance friends is constant. We must grieve, and then continually learn the new “version” of our friends time and time again. Realize that the most difficult parts of this cycle are getting started and saying goodbye. Don’t give up! Don’t become discouraged. Valuing each other in this way is a catalyst for lasting, rich connections with ever-changing friendships, even when our lives aren’t parallel anymore.

[Images © Sydney Murray]

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