How living abroad transforms family bonds for expats

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Published on 2024-05-17 at 14:00 by Asaël Häzaq
Moving to a foreign country changes you and alters family relationships. You are no longer the same as before, and your family changes, too. How do you find your new bearings? How do you accept the changes induced by these long-distance relationships?

Small cultural shifts impacting family relationships

Whether you've just moved abroad or have been an expatriate for a long time, you might notice subtle changes in your speech, actions, tastes, and choices. These changes may seem insignificant to you but not to your family members. When you visit home for the holidays, you notice slight differences—and so do they. Meals, clothing, opinions... It's a fact: you've changed. Or rather, living in a foreign country has changed you. This change is quite ordinary, but its impact on family relationships might not be fully appreciated.

Rest assured: by "impact," it doesn't necessarily mean something negative. Most of the time, it's positive. Imbued with the culture of your host country, you bring new knowledge to your family. Everyday things, like having meals together, going for walks, or shopping, become a new experience for both you and them. The surprise will be greater if you move to a country whose culture is very different from yours. Family relationships are also about building: just as you've gradually integrated the culture of your host country, it might take time for your family to adjust to the "new you." It's important to be understanding and not get defensive when a Skype conversation feels like an interrogation.

Still a family member, but also a "stranger"  

"You've changed." "We don't recognize you anymore." "But you used to like this, right?" "You have expensive tastes now!" "What's happened to you!" "We don't understand each other anymore." "Listen, it's always been like this here." "What are you on about now?"

These are just a few family interactions you might experience after becoming an expatriate. Understanding and calm will be your best allies. Do you feel like the "misunderstood" or "stranger" of the family? You're right: just living far from your loved ones affects family relationships. The culture of a foreign country changes you more than you might think. Your new perspectives on each other largely explain the gap between you and your family. Living abroad may lead you to question what you used to take for granted. The culture ingrained from childhood, the way to live out family, friendship, and professional relationships must all be relearned to integrate into the host country, especially if its culture is very different from yours.

From their side, your family no longer sees you as "before." You're perpetually absent, missing both major and minor family events: birthdays, celebrations, etc. It's hard on those who stay behind, especially if they notice you forgetting important gatherings. You no longer call for birthdays, for example. Here too, it takes time, from both sides, to understand these lapses (you don't do it on purpose) and to find new common ground.

A new story to write

To better write the new family story, you need to go back to the beginning: how did the international relocation come about? Does your family travel a lot? Are they keen on discovering other cultures? A sudden move abroad can be unsettling. We often think about the one who leaves and forget about those who stay. But whether the move was quick or not, learning to reconnect from afar is a skill.

Will family ties withstand a move abroad for a few years or a lifetime? That's what you and your loved ones will have to manage. To better navigate these new family relationships, it's better to come to terms with letting go. The first months of living in a foreign country will have you groping in the dark until you're comfortable with the established means of communication: the long Saturday afternoon video chat, the 10-minute calls at the start or end of the day, emails filled with photos... Learn to respect each other's schedules and time zones! It's warm where you are, cold where they are, or vice versa. It's night for you, broad daylight for them.

You'll notice these shifts in your conversations as well. You'll learn to accept this change while staying alert for any signs of concern from your side and your loved ones. Your stay abroad should not deteriorate family bonds, but rather strengthen them.

Learn to manage the distance

Isn't it said, "Out of sight, close to the heart?" The challenge is to remain a family, even at a distance. It's often said that everything is felt "more intensely" when you're miles apart. This is also true for the family back home. They may know nothing of your host country and discover it through you. Some families live the move of their loved one 200% and learn a lot about the foreign country. Others do not share this desire to travel vicariously and are satisfied with the information you provide.

But the mere fact that you live in a foreign country makes it closer for your family. News mentioning your host country quickly becomes crucial to them. They'll find themselves mentioning your host country in conversation. This is a good way to maintain the connection while keeping in mind that you're not the only one with stories to share. Your family is also moving forward. Show interest in their lives, and don't monopolize conversations with your adventures. It may not be immediately obvious, but it comes quickly.

Also, keep in mind that you will indeed be "the big absent" from family events. Instead of trying to compensate for this absence, be there when you can, in your own way. Make it clear to your loved ones that you continue to think about them even if you forget their birthday (it happens to those who don't move abroad, too!). Gradually build your distant family relationships so that everyone can find their place.