In my counselling practice I see a lot of clients who have moved away from their home countries, usually because of job transfers. This means a nuclear family is uprooted from their home, and re-located to a place where they have no family, friends or support network. Many people enjoy the novelty, excitement, and adventure of international relocation, but the clients who walk through my door struggle with that often over-generalized diagnosis: adjustment disorder. It’s a condition that many insurance companies won’t cover, but it accurately describes a lot of my cases.
Relocation can take its toll on a family’s resiliency. For example, one common problem that I see is when children have underlying feelings of resentment: they were not part of the decision to move, it was forced upon them by adults, and they feel a lack of control and heightened helplessness. Youngsters can become depressed after a big move – I’ve seen this manifest in girls as young as 10 years old who develop eating disorders and boys with anger and even raging episodes – triggered by the move. Previously well-adapted adolescents can develop oppositional behaviors, making the adjustment process for the whole family much more complicated. Erik Erickson identified peer approval and group identity as the psycho-social crisis at this age, and relocation to a new country, new school, new neighborhood upsets this already challenging task. Many children describe feeling lonely and unaccepted as they struggle to adjust, whilst pining away for their old life. As they try to deal with their kids, parents can feel frustrated and helpless (missing their support network at home), and also guilty for uprooting and causing their kids distress. They may also feel guilty for leaving aging parents or other responsibilities behind in their home country.
Sometimes the « trailing spouse » gives up his or her job in order to follow their partner to a new country. The working spouse is immediately immersed in the new job where performance -related needs keep them motivated. But the spouse who gave up their old life can feel detached from their partner, isolated and homesick. They may be overwhelmed with not only their own adjustment issues, but trying to handle the kids’ adjustment as well. I often see the stay- at -home spouse envious of the working spouse – they feel like they got the short end of the stick. This stress can lead to reliance on unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse and other impulsive/ compulsive behaviors. A lot of my cases are wives who feel lonely, unsupported, anxious and depressed, while the husbands are distracted with high expectations from new jobs.
This leads to another problem I’m seeing more and more of: infidelity in couples that live away from the watchful eye of their extended families and close friends. Loved ones keep us grounded and in check. The moral compass is easier to align when it’s under scrutiny. When this anchor is not present, and when there is poor boundary control to begin with, marital vows can be more easily stretched or dismissed. Though there are many factors that contribute to infidelity, couples who are vulnerable to marital problems don’t always survive the stress of relocation.
It’s no surprise that moving is one of the top 3 stressful life events, after bereavement and divorce. The words of an old army wife, who had moved more than 20 times in 30 years, come to mind. She was upbeat and positive when she said: « to be happy, unpack quickly, decorate as if you’ll live there forever, and don’t look back ». The « don’t look back » is the hardest for some of my clients.
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA