When international relationships end, one partner can end up feeling held hostage for the sake of the children. This article looks at the different aspects of this terribly painful dilemma.
You took the plunge, you moved to abroad to join you foreign partner in their home country, agreeing that life there would be so much better for the children. You do your best to settle in but it takes time, and you feel lonely because your partner is not experiencing the same sense of displacement.
While you experience the regular ups and downs of expatriate life, you also begin to find you don’t always agree on the best way to raise children, and perhaps the ‘battle of cultures’ begins. Or maybe you miss seeing your own family, such as parents and siblings, getting to know and love your children as well as the local side of the family. Slowly but surely, you begin to wonder if your new homeland is destroying your relationship, or whether the relationship is destroying any chance of settling in to your new home. And in amidst all this turmoil, you look at your joint child(ren) and wonder how on earth you can resolve matters without losing them.
Does it really have to come to a separation?
This scenario is sadly one that we see time and again at Turning Point, our Swedish counselling center. Our relationship counsellors often find that couples end up being tangled up in issues that are related to unacknowledged difficulties in settling in, in addition to normal relational ups and downs. Sometimes they will help normalize the feelings of the international partner’s about having very little power over the lives of their children. This can cover anything, from language acquisition to social behaviour. Addressing this sense of dis-empowerment often opens up a new way of looking at the host country, and can avoid storing up trouble for later. In other cases, the relationship would have been in trouble, regardless of which country the family had settled in to. But the question of staying put for the sake of the children remains.
Maisie was recently divorced when she conceived a child with her new Swedish boyfriend. With two grown children in her home country, this new opportunity seemed heaven sent. Her Swedish boyfriend suggested they go back to Sweden to raise the child there in its toddler years, and then they would see. Five years later Maisie began to realize that his ‘then we’ll see’ has either been forgotten, or was still being ‘seen’. Her initial arrival in Sweden had been as someone who would be here on a temporary basis, a two to three year adventure, and as such, she’d made a real go of it. But in the back of her mind was always the belief that at some point she would go home, and continue life there, now with a new partner, young daughter and reunited with the rest of her family.
It took the better part of two years to accept that the man who had ‘betrayed’ her was still someone she could love. A temporary separation had achieved nothing, and eventually Maisie made her own, personal commitment to life in Sweden, and in doing so, also freed up good positive energy to fight for a good part of the year to be spent in her home country, with Swedish partner and child.
I use this example because the question about staying or going is as much a question related to the relationship as it is to the geographical location. Can a relationship be rescued if the partner who feels ‘held hostage’ is met with kindness and understanding from the partner who represents the country where they now live?
When separating is the only option
It worked out for Maisie, but in other situations the relationship can’t be saved and you end up single and alone in a country that’s not home. Sadly, this situation happens in Sweden and of course all over the world, on a regular basis. When we hear in the media about child abductions, we instinctively feel for the parent left behind. However, the pain of the ‘trapped’ parent is often overlooked. In fact, very little research has even begun to explore their side of the story; their sense of helplessness, dis-empowerment, feeling the ‘system’ is against them, and facing a life a never ever feeling ‘home’. These parents often experience economic difficulties because they can’t support themselves in a foreign culture.
Men, as much as women, face these dilemmas on a daily basis, and as one client once said ‘someone pushed the pause button on my life, just as it is in the worst place possible’. Depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and yes, thoughts of ‘heroic’ deeds such as abduction become part of daily life. You’re left feeling alone and isolated, ill-equipped to deal with life in a country that doesn’t feel like home, with no family to support you. But leaving your child(ren) behind feels unthinkable.
Resentment and a sense of failure can build up to such a degree that it takes over your life, and while all these feelings are part and parcel of the desperately sad situation you find yourself in, it also becomes corrosive and takes away all the energy that you need to stay on your feet. Forums and Facebook pages such as ‘expat stuck mums’ can offer a sense of community and support, but they can also continue to feed your anger and resentment. So how do you survive?
Changing your mindset is the only way forward, renegotiating your reasons for staying in the country. Perhaps with the support of someone who can help you express all the hurt and disappointment of what’s happened to you, but then essentially, the person you renegotiate with is yourself. You have to sit down and ask yourself if you can let go of the old reasons for coming to your partner’s country. Let go of, and mourn, all the hopeful dreams of making a new life. Try and see your new life circumstances as something you can actively choose, and make a decision ‘for now’. Children will grow up soon enough and make their own lives away from you and so staying ‘for the sake of the children’ is not a life sentence. It is a difficult decision to be taken, but it is not forever, it is ‘for now’. As one friend said, ‘I have chosen anew to be here on my own terms, rather than the terms that originally brought me here, and that gives me a sense of mastery over my life’.
Or choosing to go
For others choosing to stay is just not an option and leaving the child(ren) behind a hugely painful, and yes, courageous decision. Courageous as your fears of being condemned by ill-informed bystanders for your decision to ‘abandon’ your child(ren) will have to be faced. Depending on the relationship with your (ex)partner in, a sense of trust needs to exist that your existence will not be wiped out. At least today we have Skype, Facebook and occasional visits to help stay ‘in the picture’.
Harry went home after trying unsuccessfully for almost two years to make a living for himself in Sweden. “I was on welfare and could not make my rent payments and was almost homeless..so it turned into a ‘choice-less’ choice. I wouldn’t say I was brave, I just felt like I had no other choice plus there were many other signs that were telling me I should leave.” Harry drew great comfort from conversations with other fathers that lived in another country from their children, and gradually began to feel that he needed to go. “It was just a feeling that I fought but the feeling was there nonetheless. In retrospect it was quite obvious but not that easy to see in that moment.”
His fear that his daughter will be affected by not having him around on a full time basis has not abated. And from a psychological perspective it would be foolish to say that growing up with a physically absent father or mother would not make a difference. On the other hand, there are many children growing up with a physically present, but emotionally absent parent, while the ‘parent abroad’ will usually be deeply emotionally invested in the lives of their children. Harry found his fears are based on core beliefs that may not have any truth or weight behind them. “My beliefs were constantly being challenged and contradicted. I was constantly being proven wrong. I just truly don’t know anything anymore and I just have wait and see what happens”. And for Harry it meant a chance to find love again, and to recover his sense of professional wellbeing by finding a good job that matched his professional capabilities. “I have more purpose in my life”.
In the end the decision to stay in the country where your children are settled, or to go home and get on with your life will never be easy. There are no easy answers, and whatever you decide, there will always be times that you feel you could have done better. That’s part of being human. If you feel trapped, or held hostage, then no one can change that feeling for you. But you can choose how you relate to the situation, and try and change your mindset, just as Maisie did.
Couples and individuals can be helped to re-frame their experience of being trapped or held hostage, to one where they find a new meaning to staying put, either with or without the mother/father of their children. If possible, it is important for the partner whose country you’re living in to be supportive in helping the relationship to develop, be it of a physical local nature, or a more cyber based foreign nature. So even if that needs to be negotiated through a third party, it is worth the effort.
Lysanne Sizoo is the mental health contributor to your living city and this article first appeared in their pages.