Moving abroad as a spouse – thoughts before the big move

What is a spouse moving abroad thinking?

A spouse in contemplation at Puuhonua o Honaunau, Big Island

I had never seen myself as only or mainly “a spouse”, but I quickly learnt the term. Not being the main character of the move, but rather the accompanying spouse on the sideline, is both easier and harder. You agree to a decision or are part of it, but you don’t have the main responsibility. The flipside of that set-up is that you cannot choose freely, but depend fully on the options given to your spouse. This can cause frustration and anxiety – frustration that is often turned towards your spouse … .

First time moving abroad, the spouse issue never crossed my mind. Two main concerns were dominant: my toddler and my studies. I had been on a few months’ maternal leave and enjoyed it, but had always had a network of friends and family to rely on. As for my studies, I had never taken a real break – even during my leave, I was used to working and teaching a little, having library and resources close at hand, and not least having my network of co-graduate students nearby.

We took the decision to go on this new adventure abroad for several reasons: we wanted to try it before our daughter started school (soundly convinced of being home in due time for schooling), we wanted to share the experience together, and we wanted to live in a foreign environment, including new language, culture, climate, and food. But what is a spouse doing – besides learning and navigating her or his way? Well, I could always write a few papers, I thought.

What did I feel?

To be honest, I had no clue what to expect. I felt anxiety, curiosity, fearful joy, joyful fear, adventurous animosity mixed with grief over leaving and having to miss people dear to me. In many senses we went unprepared: we didn’t read books about neither expat life, nor moving children to another country or – alas – moving abroad as a couple or as a spouse.

The truth is that no one could probably have prepared me fully for what to expect anyway: how life-changing and wildly life-confirming, but also how lonely and difficult an experience it would be. Personally, I saw a chance of making use of my language skills, of meeting new people, visiting new places, as well as savoring new tastes.

What is a spouse up to?

My rather romantic lust for adventure was met by the reality that a new beginning in another place also means losing and gaining ground – as well as a new identity. This is felt in particular when you don’t have an occupation to hang your usual identity upon anymore. I never imagined how big an identity loss you actually suffer as a spouse moving “along”. The advantage is that you might be able to influence your new “self” a bit and learn from each mistake on the way 😉

On a level just above yourself, you quickly realize the paramount importance of your family as the anchor unit in the middle of all the new and unknown. This experience can be frightening, but also hugely enriching. Back home we both had separate networks, and friends always meant a lot to me. The success criterion for me in every new country is still: have I found good friends? Meaning deep, enriching relationships beyond the “we might as well spend time together now that we ended up in the same place” level. More about the outcome later … .

Any other spouse stories out there? What did you expect before moving out for the first time? What did you lose, and what did you gain?

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6 Responses to Moving abroad as a spouse – thoughts before the big move

  1. Veronica says:

    Great post today Nana!
    For me.. uffff The situation of being a spouse moving abroad was really hard at first, not just for the whole situation, but mostly for not having my on EVERYTHING. The problem was that for almost each task I needed my beloved husband to sign the papers or to speak for me.. what a situation!!! (if you consider that I really like to talk, and he is a quiet man (sometimes), or not?) This part was the hardest one, but I quickly decided to break this codependency, and I crossed the line to open myself to a new experience: sign language, a piece of paper, and a pen (to draw) were my three must have things to survive. For the ones that don’t know me, I didn’t speak a word of English when I decided to go and live in Hawaii.
    I didn’t lose a thing, and I gained more than I expected when I left.
    The expectations that you have when you decide to be an EXPAT are incredible small compered with the things that you actually will get! But don’t forget that you have to have hard times to force yourself to get over it and to be stronger after. 😉

    • Nana says:

      Yes, Veronica, your first time was Hawai’i, whereas my first time was Spain. But same thing here: I didn’t speak any Spanish … and neither did my husband, by the way! Our first expat stay was a bit of survival trip, admitted. Your first expat stay surely started out rough, but ended up becoming a great life teaching and eye-opening experience … I often think of you in that context :-) Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. Cédric says:

    I don’t know what’s moving as a spouse… but I couldn’t agree more that friendship takes a completely new dimension once being abroad. Both with friends who stayed, and new friends.

    • Nana says:

      Yes, Cédric :-) In a way, I suppose you did move as a spouse this time around, right? A Swiss in France, ok … not a strange and foreign country, but still? Nana

  3. Julie says:

    I’m not the typical expat spouse, having moved out of the U.S. permanently, but at the beginning I felt that I had lost my entire identity. It was harder back then, without e-mail, Skype, even readily available telephone service. Sometimes I have felt like my home is my “safe haven” when everything out there seems crazy. On the other hand, as Veronica says, you definitely become stronger as you get past those times.

    • Nana says:

      You’re right, Julie – hats off to your “generation” who moved out under such very different circumstances! I felt a bit what it was like when I studied abroad and could afford 1 collect call/week home to Thomas.

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