The Impact of Transitions on the Lives of Expats


The Impact of Transitions on the Lives of Expats

Nobody knows more about the impact of transitions on the lives of expats than expats and their kids and spouses. Career Foreign Service Officers, for example  become quite adept at scoping out schools, housing and amenities when they are bidding for postings. Information regarding the FSO’s concrete needs is readily available. For most FSO’s they know that if there’s a special needs child in the family, they need to determine if there are appropriate resources for the child prior to the posting being accepted. The embassy, CLO’s and schools all come together to attempt to evaluate and if possible, provide for the child’s educational needs.

What are not as readily addressed are the emotional needs of family members, before, during and after a major transition. As an American psychotherapist living and working with the expat community in India, and around the world using Skype, what I hear from FSO’s and their families is that they are missing some of the so-called soft skills side of the picture.

According to a worldwide study conducted in 2010 by HDFC Bank on expat preferences and issues, the factor that was of greatest concern to expat spouses was not what kind of housing they would have or even the schools their children would attend, but the kind of emotional support they would receive once at their new posting. This in fact was the single most important factor in determining whether the FSO remained at the posting or not.

The State Dept. provides information on Posts through the Overseas Transition Center outlined at the following site: Interestingly, as many people recognize the positive “spin” involved in many Post reports, written to attract bidders, they are turning to alternative sites that tell it more like it is. One of these is But even this information, while informative and helpful, doesn’t really prepare families and individuals for what lies ahead.

As a way to help FSOs and their families evaluate the ‘soft side’ of a potential posting I use what I call the ‘4 S System’. The 4 S’s are Situation, Self, Support and Strategies. I will explain each in detail and explain how the model can be of help to Foreign Service families and individuals. I will then discuss what I call the Expat Lifecycle in an attempt to provide a timeline for what expats can expect from a posting.

The 4 S System of Transitions:
When considering the first ‘S’, the Situation, it is important to realistically assess the situation in terms of how much input one has in the decision to make the change versus whether it was externally imposed. If during the bidding stage, an FSO gets his or her first or second choice of postings they will be more likely to be invested in making the posting work. Hopefully, the biddings will have been made with the input of the FSO’s spouse and older children. If we have a say in a matter, we invest some sense of ownership in it, which in turn has a positive correlation with a successful outcome. Conversely, the more limited our say in the matter, the more we are likely to feel resentment, anger and a sense of powerlessness which can have a negative impact on other areas of life as well.

Having said that, there are times in every FSO’s career when for whateverreasons,they do not get their first or second choice of postings. It is then important to honor feelings of disappointment, resentment, or powerlessness, and to realize that these feelings are a normal response to a difficult situation. They need to allow these feelings to be expressed in a safe way (*1) in order to let them go and move onto the business of fully living life.

The next step is then to get involved in activities where a certain amount of personal power can be exercised. For the FSO this can often be found in the workplace. For the accompanying spouse, getting involved with a child’s school or volunteering in a place where he or she is valued, or doing something one feels passionate about can often help alleviate feelings of powerlessness.

Timing is also crucial when evaluating our situation. If we are at a relatively stable point in our lives, transitions can be made more smoothly. If there is upheaval in another area, such as a physical illness, a rocky relationship, an aging parent, or a troubled teen, the stress will be exacerbated. It may be necessary in these situations to give ourselves time and permission to address the other more pressing issues before we can even think about adapting to the posting.

Another aspect of the situation that is pertinent to FSOs is being married or single. In my practice with single officers, particularly women, I find that it’s important to gather information while bidding regarding whether a potential posting is “single friendly.” There is much talk about “family friendly” postings, which is necessary, but single people also need to know that there are other single people about, otherwise they are likely to feel lonely and without support. This is particularly true for young women who are aware of their biological clocks ticking. I urge both singles and marrieds to gather as much “soft information” as possible when evaluating a potential posting.

The second ‘S’ refers to the Self, and one’s general outlook on life. It’s the old question of, is the glass half full or half empty? Whether we have a generally optimistic or pessimistic ‘take’ on life can greatly affect the outcome of our transitions, not to mention our overall health and sense of well- being. I am not talking here about becoming a Pollyanna Sunshine. I am referring to deeply held attitudes and beliefs about life that were probably learned at an early age, and/or those that we may have a genetic predisposition toward.

Upon close examination, we may find that we are holding a negative view of life, or some particular part of it, say our relationships with people in authority. If we have grey colored glasses on, we might see a choice between two postings as a choice between two negative alternatives, without any positive outcome. In this case, if we are brave enough to recognize( without judging ourselves) that we may be hanging on to an outworn negative belief, such as, “I can never be happy,” or “I’m not good enough”, it is the first step to looking at the situation in a more realistic light and seeing what is actually true. And upon close scrutiny, what is usually true is that we simply don’t know. I have found that if I can help my clients lift up the veil of a pessimistic overlay, it is possible to change fear into excitement. Then they are able to see the positive aspects of a particular transition, which can spill over to a more positive attitude in other areas of life as well.

The third ‘S’ refers to Support System. The importance of having a supportive network, which can include spouse, family members, friends and colleagues who we can turn to in times of stress, cannot be over emphasized. Unfortunately, during major expat transitions, our support system is often disrupted. It then becomes imperative to begin to build a new support network as soon as we can. Fortunately, the Foreign Service assigns a sponsor to new families, and in some cities there are now organizations for expats to meet others in the same boat, but this is not true across the board.

Sometimes just knowing that there is someone we can call when we’re about to ‘loose it’ can be a life saver. FSO spouses who feel isolated may have a tendency to dump everything on the working spouse as soon as she/he comes home. The working spouse meanwhile frequently has had his or her own share of problems to deal with during the day, ranging from learning about the particular intricacies of a posting, to managing employees who may not share the same work ethic. Both partners may be looking to the other as a source of nourishment, when neither partner feels they have much to give.

When we don’t have support outside of our primary relationship, too much strain can be put on the individuals, which can result in a drain on the marriage. One or both partners can become alienated from the other at a time when support and comfort is needed most. So what to do in a new place without your usual support system in place? You might make a call, meet someone new for coffee, and get involved in something you feel passionate about. If you find you are still feeling alienated or isolated it may be helpful to seek out professional help, either within the State Department or outside of it.

Which brings us to the fourth ‘S’, strategies. This refers to coping strategies that have worked in the past and that we can now draw on. A few examples of effective coping strategies are negotiating, taking optimistic action, seeking advice, asserting ourselves, using humor, suspending judgments and accepting, and rearranging our priorities. If we’ve not used particularly effective strategies in the past, we may want to seek help to develop new methods of coping with difficult situations. By learning new coping strategies, we can move beyond returning to homeostasis and can allow real growth to take place.

Now I would like to mention what I refer to as the Expat Lifecycle, and how this can be helpful in mapping the terrain of Foreign Service Officers’ transitions.

The Expat Life Cycle

Phase 1:
This is in some ways the most crucial stage of the cycle for FSOs. It begins with bidding for posts usually between 6 months and 1 year prior to the move. As mentioned above, it is essential for FSO’s to gather as much information as possible about the posting, through both formal and informal networks. Much of the kind of information needed has been referred to elsewhere. The waiting period between bidding for posts and receiving notification of acceptance can be a stressful time, and also one of anticipation.

Phase 2:
Once the Officer has been chosen for and accepts a posting, another phase begins, which is that of disengagement. Many FSO’s manage a huge portfolio and are emotionally invested in their work. As they will probably be at the old posting for another 6 to 9 months, it is important to start disengaging emotionally in order to prepare to hand the portfolio over to the next person. At the same time, the quality of work needs to remain high. This is sometimes quite challenging. The FSO may have difficulty letting go emotionally as he or she has put in so much time and hard work. Or, if disengagement occurs too abruptly, there can be a feeling of ennui or not caring as much, which results in a decline in the quality of work. I suggest that this phenomenon be openly discussed during the transition period so feelings can be normalized, and the employee can receive support in the process.

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 State Department. 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, which in turn is directly correlated with how long the FSO remains at the posting (*2).

Phase 3:
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 and working in the country, the next phase sets in.

The honeymoon phase happens at the workplace as well. New responsibilities and surroundings feel exciting and full of promise, and the FSO can feel like everything and anything is possible professionally.

Phase 4:
Culture Shock:
This phase occurs after the first few weeks abroad and can last anywhere from 6 months to a year. During this phase the FSO can feel a bit overwhelmed by all the newness, both within the department, and with the country. If the Officer has been promoted, there is the added stress of more responsibility at a time when there is a huge learning curve, on all fronts.

During this phase, many expat spouses have an overwhelming feeling of isolation, emphasizing the importance of FSO spouses building support networks as soon as possible. It is also a time when the working spouse and children need a lot of support and the non- working spouse may feel discouraged.

Instead of everything looking new and exciting, the rose colored glasses have come off and the environment can be experienced as inhospitable, particularly in developing countries. I often see spouses during this time who are depressed and at times facing despair. Sometimes they can experience a lack 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 with Skype is very helpful. If the feelings persist, it can be helpful to talk with the Embassy psychiatrist, or a professional counselor outside the Embassy.

Phase 5:
Finally there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. After about a year, most FSO’s and their 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 their children are usually adjusted to their new school. This phase can also be a time for the non-working spouse to re-invent him or herself, by finding something that creates passion and pursuing it, whether it is a class, learning a new skill, or even preparing for an inspiring new career.

This time is often experienced as “coasting” after having put a lot of energy into getting the rocket launched. This is the time to reap the benefits of the last year and enjoy. At least for another few years, until the process begins all over again!


  • There are basically two ways to express negative emotion in a safe way: one is by speeding activity way up while occupying the mind with something other than the negative emotion; the other is by slowing the body way down.In the first instance, we often suggest that people do strenuous physical activity like running or simply climbing up and down the stairs while counting backward from 100 by 3’s. This occupies the mind, while allowing the feelings to be released by the activity.Slowing the body way down refers to stopping and doing some breathing exercises. One helpful one is to close the eyes, breathe normally and put the hands on the abdomen. Then feel the belly expand on the inhale, and contract on the exhale. Once there is a rhythm going, a count is added for each complete breath. So it would be 1, inhale, belly expands, exhale contracts, 2, inhale, exhale and so on. Try this for 10 breaths and you will definitely feel less attached to the negative emotion than you were before you started.
  • This is taken from the HSBC 2011 Expat Explorer International Study

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