The Psychology of Expatriation

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The Psychology of Expatriation

Internal struggles with the great expectations of global living

By Annelies van den BergOverbeek

Global Living – Issue 10 | January/February 2014

Being an expatriate comes with great expectations and promises. Changes in your life, opportunities for your family and a chance to see the world are reasons that most of us choose to venture abroad. You live life to the fullest; the highs are higher but the lows can also be lower. People prefer not to talk about these lows, which is a shame, because much can be done to counter them.

When it comes to expatriation, everybody seems to be an expert and surely everyone has an opinion. In 2003, when I followed my husband to the Ivory Coast, it struck me how little is really known about the psychological aspects of expatriation. Since then I have specialized in this field and I have reached some very interesting insights. As always in psychology, the power of recognition plays a big role: you are not the only one, what you are experiencing is not strange, and, most importantly, yes, something can be done.

Psychology of expatriation

Apart from the ‘usual’ psychological problems, expatriates are exposed to very demanding circumstances. Although you still stand by your decision to move abroad, the reality of life away from home proves to be harder than you anticipated. This is even truer for trailing spouses.

As an expat, you may very well recognize yourself in the following:

  • You are less confident than usual because you have given up your job and your normal pastimes and find yourself looking for a new goal in life.
  • You do not speak the language or not well enough; you need to get accustomed to the local habits or, worse, you need to get used to a challenging security situation.
  • You need to find your way around in areas like housing, transportation, groceries, healthcare, schooling and utilities.

Furthermore, your social safety net may feel like it has disappeared. Your partner may work long hours or travel extensively, which leaves you feeling alone to deal with your new life not wanting to bother him/her with your problems. Your social network may begin to consist exclusively of your partner’s colleagues and their spouses and you find yourself wondering how open can you be with them. You miss your family and friends back home but, if you talk to them, it seems as if they have limited understanding of, or interest in, your situation. From their point of view, you are living the dream and have little to complain about. I call this the ‘Diva-effect’.

As a result of the above issues, the majority of expatriate spouses suffer from some of the following symptoms: loss of confidence, mood swings, homesickness, stress, anxiety, sleeping disorders, eating disorders, etc. Relationship problems and substance addictions are also common. Additionally, research shows that 20-40% of all expatriate missions fail, mostly due to the spouse’s inability to cope with the new situation.


This is clearly a big issue, but what can be done to solve it? Unfortunately there is no magic pill, but the solutions often can be quite straightforward. For starters, structure certain aspects of your life by getting up at fixed times, and find a job, study, hobby or pastime. (Looking for a job also counts as work.) Now is also the chance to pursue that idea or dream you always had! Actively engage in social interactions, stay fit, and maintain a healthy diet, but watch out for destructive behavior like too much eating, drinking, smoking or shopping. Be open to your partner (your failure will become his/her failure). Be aware that this situation is temporary and try to enjoy the moment. And, finally, be open to your social network. Everyone has issues, and it can be refreshing if somebody has the courage to not keep up appearances – but be careful here, there is open and OPEN).


Expat life is not always easy, especially for trailing spouses. It requires changes and sacrifices that are sometimes beyond your comfort zone. When you are experiencing issues as described above, and if you are unable to cope with them by yourself, I suggest you find help with a professional, licensed counselor or with your general practitioner.

For more information, expat support and services, visit www.worldsupport.biz.

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