Going through divorce is ranked among the top most stressful life events one will ever experience, second only to the death of a spouse. Navigating divorce as an expat (or separation, and relationship breakdown in general) is even more stressful. In this article, I will get into the reasons why that’s the case and offer strategies and practical steps to help make navigating divorce a little less scary and overwhelming, even for expats.
The Silver Lining
I went through my own divorce while living away from my home country. I have also coached many fellow expats through this extremely challenging life event, in addition to having researched, written, and spoken extensively about expat divorce. My most important lesson from all this experience is that divorce does not have to be catastrophic; with the right mindset and approach, it can also be an opportunity for growth and a new beginning. Divorcing abroad (or anywhere for that matter) challenges you to build resilience, determination, and the willingness to ask for and receive help. And you may well emerge from it stronger, more empowered, or even transformed. Read on to find out how.
Why divorce is harder for expats
If you’re going through divorce as an expat,
- You are dealing with a complex legal matter in an unfamiliar legal system, often in a language in which you’re not fluent or even conversant; and you have to get up to speed fast.
- You’re away from your familiar environment and likely have limited access to a network of people and resources you can turn to for both material and emotional support.
- You face a lot of insecurity right away, whether it’s related to your ability to stay in your host country (if your residence permit is linked to that of your spouse, that may be a problem after divorce); your ability to move back home (for instance, if you and your spouse have children, you probably won’t be able to move away with them without your soon-to-be-ex spouse’s consent); or your financial future (if you are financially dependent on your spouse, even temporarily).
- In the midst of all that, you may feel isolated. Especially in expat circles, divorce is often feared as ‘contagious’ and considered a taboo subject. At least part of your social circle is likely to change post-separation and divorce.
How do you navigate divorce in a foreign country?
Given all these added challenges, what can you do to support yourself if you are confronted with the prospect of divorce while abroad?
As with any breakup, it makes a difference if you are the one initiating it because it allows you some degree of choice and control over the process. However, even if divorce is not your choice, or it came as a surprise, there are things you can do to help you have a smoother experience and come out on the other side ready and able to make a new beginning.
Here are my top tips for doing that.
1. Find your support right away
The first thing I advise any expat who tells me that the prospect of separation or divorce is on their horizon (even as a remote suspicion or desire), is to talk to a lawyer ASAP. Getting your legal facts and rights straight early on is crucial, and often allows you to shape the (divorce) game. Divorce is a complex process, both in practical and emotional terms so it helps to have as much guidance and support as you can get.
Look into the resources that are available to you locally (some countries provide free legal consultations, for example). If you can, assemble your ‘divorce team’ early on. This should include, ideally, legal, and financial planning, as well as psychological support (therapy, coaching) for you and your children, if you have any. A divorce coach can help you assemble that team, and get up to speed with the process without feeling too overwhelmed, all the while providing encouragement and emotional support.
Reaching out to your social network for emotional support is crucial, even (especially) if the only friends and family you have are thousands of miles away. If you feel reluctant to reach out because you don’t want to burden others or put them in an awkward position, think again. Most people are happy to help or lend a sympathetic ear. There’s no benefit in isolating yourself.
2. Gather your documents
In parallel with getting legal advice, your other top priority is to get your paperwork in order and have a good overview of your ‘affairs’, especially the financials: bank accounts, assets, pension plans, and insurance policies. Make copies of all important documents. Make a budget for yourself and your children (if you have any). This all takes significant effort, but believe me, it’s totally worth it if it will help you get a head start and feel more grounded and confident about coping with the process ahead of you.
3. Monitor your energy
Divorce is an overwhelming and usually long process. Taking care of yourself consistently is essential to weathering the inevitable ups and downs. This means trying to maintain healthy habits, as much as possible, such as exercising regularly, eating well, and sleeping enough, as well as doing things that bring you joy, including indulging yourself from time to time. It also means being aware of your energy levels and knowing when you’re depleted so that you can do things that allow you to recharge. When I was going through my divorce, my weekly yoga class was a lifesaver in helping me maintain both my physical and mental sanity. So was connecting with my close friends regularly and talking to a therapist. You know what works for you when it comes to regaining balance.
4. Acknowledge the loss
When dealing with an extremely emotionally challenging process, you may be tempted to temporarily put away or completely shut down your emotions so that you’re able to function on a day-to-day basis. This means that you may bypass the normal cycle of grief. However, your unacknowledged losses and grief will not disappear; they’ll remain with you and eventually catch up with you at a later time. Not to mention, it takes a lot of energy to suppress grief. Know that it is only by acknowledging and grieving your losses related to divorce (relationship/companion, home, family, etc.) will you be able to get to the other side and restart your life, including building new bonds and new relationships.
5. Work on your mindset
Especially if divorce was not your preferred option, you may at some point see yourself as powerless, helpless, and having no choice. What I have found–from my work and my own experience–is that we always have a choice; we just need to be able to see it. And to do that, it’s important to see yourself not as a victim, but as someone who’s empowered to take charge and move on with your life. Approaching life with a sense of possibility and hope will allow you to see the actual possibilities all around you. Visualize what you want to achieve; who you want to be; and where you want to be post-divorce.
Divorce is an end, but it’s also a beginning. What’s the new life you want?
 This ranking is based on a questionnaire called the Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS) developed by Holmes and Rahe (1967) for identifying major stressful life events. For more information, see here: https://www.simplypsychology.org/SRRS.html
The following books helped me a lot when I was going through my own divorce as an expat, and I recommend them to most of my clients:
- This one is about what the experience of divorce is like in general and how to remain resilient and manage your mindset during the whole process: Crazy Time: Surviving Divorce and Building a New Life by Abigail Trafford
- If you are going through a divorce and have children, I highly recommend this book: Putting Children First: Proven Parenting Strategies for Helping Children Thrive Through Divorce by JoAnne Pedro-Carroll.
- Finally, for those going through separation or divorce in Switzerland, these two books by the same author offer a detailed overview of the processes of separation and divorce (these can be two distinct processes in the Swiss legal framework) and include many practical tips: Trennung – von der Krise zur Lösung: Kinder, Rechtliches, Finanzen (for separation) and Scheidung: Faire Regelung für Kinder, Wohnung und Finanzen (for divorce) both by Daniel Trachsel.
Stay tuned to more such expat living articles in our Expat living section.