Expat life can be stressful. Even after you’ve arrived and are apparently settled you can find yourself battling with any number of unexpected troubles.
As an expat couple, you may be able to turn to your other half as a sturdy rock of support who is always there to support you through any strife. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.There are no official figures for the rate of divorce amongst expats and there’s no reason to believe that couples living overseas are more likely to separate. Some commentators in fact believe the rate may even be lower as the consequences of a split overseas encourage warring spouses to tough it out until they return home.
Divorcing abroad puts you at the mercy of the local legal system, which may require you meet strict criteria, pay expensive fees, and forfeit certain rights. Women especially face tough sanctions in many countries’ divorce courts, automatically losing custody of children or any right to joint finances or property. You may then also be in violation of visa conditions and be facing a return home anyway.
As painful and distressing as a split from your partner can be, at home or abroad, the impact is likely to be even greater on any children in the family.
If parents are fighting, expat youngsters can find themselves without anywhere else to turn, isolated and caught between mum and dad. They will worry about what happens next, who they may end up with, and who they may end up separated from.
For children caught in divorce, it feels like the whole world is crumbling down. The constant feature of life – the family unit – is splitting apart in the most wrenching way possible. Expat kids have to do this in a foreign culture, away from supportive extended family, and possibly surrounded by open criticism of their parents’ decision.
Expats going through divorce need to be extra vigilant that they are not getting drawn into battle with each other at the cost of their children.
Every relationship, and every break up, is different but we’ve looked at some of the most important factors for keeping expat kids on an even keel during a turbulent separation.
Don’t Hide It
It’s tempting to try and hide the news from your child in an attempt to protect them from getting upset. This is a big mistake.
Youngsters are intuitive and will quickly pick up that something is wrong. Changes in tone of voice, altered sleeping arrangements, or the appearance of legal documents in the house will all set off alarm bells in a child’s mind.
They may not be able to understand the entirety of the situation, but they will know enough to start worrying about about it. If you stand in silence on the topic, you’ll be letting your child stew on their own about what may be happening and how it may turn out.
Talk to the child about what is happening, ideally as a whole family. Carefully outline what is happening and what it will mean. Have a conversation that they can understand, without letting the conversation turn to blame.
Let them know that you are divorcing, that mum and dad will no longer live together, and whether if this means one parent or the whole family returning to your home country.
Don’t Complain to Your Child About Your Partner
Your child is an innocent party in the process of divorce. They are not to be used as a bargaining chip or as a tool to manipulate the situation. You need to respect their neutrality and avoid tarnishing their relationship with your soon-to-be-ex.
There will be times in the divorce process when you feel frustrated, angry, lonely, and depressed by the situation. As much as you need to vent your emotions don’t do it in front of your offspring.
Even if they seem to be showing sympathy for your plight, remember to stay even handed. Anything negative you say about your partner can unfairly alter your child’s impression of their parent.
This is especially difficult in cases where infidelity has lead to the break up, but again, your child doesn’t need to know the scandalous details of the affair. This is all the more important when one parent has been sneaking off with someone known to the child.
You and your partner are having problems, and although you need to keep your child informed of the parts that affect them, don’t draw them into the debate on one side or the other.
Continue to Tell Them What is Going On
Divorce is complex, especially in countries where one or both of you is not resident. A plan that may be underway on Monday may have completely changed by Friday. Once you’ve sat down with your child to tell them what is happening, make sure they understand when things have changed.
Court hearings can move, visa applications can be rejected, and lawyers can start fights that neither partner wants. This can all mess with the timeline you outlined in that initial conversation.
If plans get altered or delayed, your youngster will pick up on it and start to worry about what is happening. They will look to you to be honest again.
Don’t betray their trust, either intentionally or because you are too wrapped up in the ongoing process. Set aside time together to keep them informed and to answer any questions they may have.
Listen to Your Child
However old or young your child, they will have questions and concerns about what is happening and what will happen down the line. They may be worried about their schooling, where they will live after the breakup, and how often they will see both parents.
Listen to their questions and answer them as honestly as you can, and if you don’t have the answer be honest about that too.
There will also be times when you have to listen out for what your child is not telling you, for worries and fears they find difficult to articulate. These concerns may be difficult for them to put into words or just too traumatic to verbalise.
Be careful of filling in the blanks too much and thus putting words into your child’s mouth and missing what it is they are trying to say. This can be particularly difficult with younger kids whose vocabulary is smaller and their thoughts more abstract.
Teenagers may have similar difficulties communicating their emotions. They will be burdened with more understanding than younger children but may not be able to fully comprehend why divorce is a solution.
Stay United as Parents
With parents disagreeing and bogged down in legal wrangling, it’s possible that family cohesion will suffer. Remember that your first responsibility is to be the best parent you can be, which may mean playing the bad cop.
Children under emotional pressure may act out, requiring a mix of tough discipline and caring counselling. Don’t let the situation become an excuse for poor behaviour at home or at school.
It’s likely that you are living apart, giving one parent a greater burden in terms of childcare. Make sure that you still communicate about ground rules and boundaries.
Make sure that the same rules apply when visiting one parent as when staying with another. If bedtime is 9pm, it is 9pm in both houses. There should be no scope for “mum lets me stay up til midnight” or “dad lets me have ice cream for breakfast” as both parents are sticking to the rules.
It may seem unfair to keep strictly enforcing rules when a child is going through a situation like divorce, but the consistency of ground rules and routine can help them cope with the situation.
Reassure Them That They Are Still Loved
If mum and dad can stop loving each other, can they stop loving me?
The focus of the family will be on the divorce and all the changes that will bring. Make sure you reinforce their place in the family and your affections.
Living overseas in a strange country, it’s easy to feel alone and isolated. If mum and dad aren’t forthcoming with affections, it may feel like nobody out there cares for your child.
Tell them you love them and celebrate the successes that occur in their lives, remind them that they are still important. A caring text, a kiss goodnight, or a simple hug can do wonders to reassure a worried youngster or anxious teen.
That said, be aware that teens and even younger children may require their own space to process events. Respect this and ensure that they have room to be alone or to go out with friends.
Let Them Know It Is Not Their Fault
Younger children may misunderstand the divorce scenario and fill in the blanks with assumptions. It’s not uncommon for children to assume that minor infractions of their own have helped to bring about the break up.
Be very careful in explaining this, avoiding placing blame on your partner. Instead explain what is happening in the most general terms, always reiterating that it is no fault of your child.
Reassure them that the final outcome will involve them still seeing both parents and that they are still loved.
Minimize Disruption to Their Life
In the process of a break up it is fairly common for partners to set up a second household, with kids splitting their time between the parents. This in itself is majorly disruptive and can leave youngsters feeling like herded cattle. Give older children enough of their own freedom so they don’t feel trapped by any over-parenting.
Along with discipline and routine, it’s important that school plays a part priority in the child’s life. Make sure that any contact time is worked around the needs of school and set aside a study area in both homes for them to work in.
Try to work out a schedule for extra-curricular activities and sporting commitments, sharing the driving duties or making arrangements so both parents can cheer on at big events.
When the time comes to finalise the divorce, try to stave off any major changes until after the school year. If one side of the family needs to leave the country, delay this until lessons are finished, so the pain of separation doesn’t disrupt studies.
Don’t Banish the Other Parent from Your Home
A divorce can bring all sorts of ugly feelings to the surface and the last thing you may want to see around the home is photographs of your ex.
Your child, on the other hand, may be greatly distressed to come home one day to find all evidence of mum or dad has been expunged from the house.
By all means, give the house a makeover to signify the fresh start. But leave up relics of happy memories, even if they do include the hated ex. Let your child keep pictures of the absent parent in their room or in any private space they wish.
Although it’s important to have boundaries, try to work out an agreement whereby your partner can be in their child’s home, be it for babysitting duties, events or short visits.
Make Sure Everyone Knows the Post-Divorce Regime
Whether by mutual agreement or by court order, there will be some agreement on custody, contact time, and support payments.
If possible, agree that these stipulations should be treated as a minimum, allowing both partners to remain an active part of the child’s life rather than a scheduled appointment.
This takes clear communication between exes who may no longer be best of friends. Find a neutral space or an impartial go-between who can be the arbiter of these plans and then stick to them. There is no bigger upset to a child than to have an exciting trip or activity cancelled by someone they love.
If either parent ends up in a different country, plan the logistics of them flying to visit or for older children to fly out to meet them. Also instigate a regular video call date or weekly phone call.
It will be important to your child to know that, although far away, their absent parent is still very much interested in their progress, troubles and achievement.
It may also be worth opening up text or email as a line of communication, where separate, more personal conversations can be had in a more private sphere.
Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer