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Here is another question from the columns I write for the American Women’s Association monthly newsletter. In this article I explain the phases of the expat lifecycle.
We have been here for about six months, and I still feel terribly homesick and desperately missing "normal." What is the typical time frame I can expect to still feel like this? Does it ever go away?
Dear Missing normal,
First, I would like to thank you for your question as it is one that so many expats ask, that there is now what is known as the Expat Lifecycle. Allow me to explain briefly:
Preparation: As you have already passed through this phase, I will just say that it is filled with both pleasant and hopeful expectations, as well as the difficult aspect of saying goodbye and leaving family and friends behind. For expat spouses, there may also be the added issue of leaving a job or career. Usually it is the employee that is given most of the information by the employer. Studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between how much information was accurately given to the spouse and the incidence of spousal depression after the move.
The Honeymoon: This happens during the first few weeks in a new country and is likened to being a tourist; exploring new sights and sounds and being excited by the newness. Once it has hit home that you are not a tourist, but living in the country, the next phase sets in.
Culture Shock: This phase begins after the first few weeks abroad and can last anywhere from 6 months to a year. This sounds like the phase you are in now, and yes, there is an end in sight. During this phase, for many expat spouses, the overwhelming feeling is one of isolation. That is why I talk so much about building support networks. It is a time when the working spouse and children need a lot of support and frequently the non working spouse can feel depleted.
Instead of everything looking new and exciting, the rose colored glasses have come off and the environment is experienced as inhospitable. I often see spouses during this time who are depressed and at times facing despair. Sometimes they can experience a loss of identity, particularly if they were working in their home countries. Many spouses have difficulty coming to grips with feelings of dependence which they have not experienced before. At times, everything seems monumental. During this period, keeping in touch with close friends and family is very helpful, as is building a new support system in your host country. You might also want to talk with a professional counselor if these feelings persist.
Adaptation: Finally the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. After about a year, most expat spouses find that the highs and lows of adjusting to a new culture have evened out and they are feeling more at peace. They have learned how to maneuver around their new environment, have made some friends, and children are usually adjusted to their new school. This can also be a time of re-inventing yourself; finding something that creates passion and pursuing it, whether it is a class, learning a new skill, or even preparing for a new career.
This time is often experienced as “coasting” after having put a lot of energy into getting the engine started! This is the time to reap the benefits of the last year and enjoy.
So yes, what you are going through is time limited and will definitely have an end, just as it had a beginning, I promise. In time, the most bizarre aspects of life abroad will become the new normal. In the meantime, put your energy into building a support system by joining organizations, taking a class, or doing volunteer work in the community. Get involved, make new friends, and remember, this too shall pass.