EXPAT PARTNERS: REINVENTING YOURSELF: A LUXURY AND NEED
by Maria Alice Stock from Bonjour Geneva
In the second of a series of articles for Thingstodoingeneva.ch – Maria has some advice for expat partners – NOT trailing spouses! We love the idea of owning your own story.
Also read our very first OPINION piece on the same subject of trailing spouses: Eat cake, drink bubbly, but don’t lose yourself!
LOSING YOUR IDENTITY
There’s nothing you can take for granted in a new country, as you may have experienced in everyday situations such as ordering coffee (it took me a while to get used to the fact that “un café” does not mean espresso in Geneva).
Not even (or perhaps most of all) your identity.
Leaving your job behind to follow your partner into life in a new country brings not just the opportunity, but in many cases the de facto need to reinvent yourself.
While the opportunity to take a step back and think things over for a few months is a luxury many people would love to have, it can quickly feel like a trap. Combine the pressure you may put on yourself with the feeling of isolation in your new home and you get the perfect recipe for going round in circles in mounting frustration.
We are so used to defining ourselves through our jobs that it can be hard to tell what’s left when you’re not working.
It’s that uncomfortable feeling when you meet new people and they ask “what do you do” and don’t quite know what to answer.
YOU ARE NOT POWERLESS- NO TRAILING SPOUSES!
Applying to a job similar to the one you held before may not be an immediate option, especially for activities for which Switzerland has specific regulations, as is the case for many health practitioners, for instance.
In such cases, you may have to go through further training or the validation of your diploma.
For some people, myself included, quitting your job to move abroad for your partner’s career represents the perfect excuse to make a dignified exit when you feel you’re not where you’re meant to be.
What’s fascinating about moving to a new country is that you are confronted with your default choices and thus have the chance to transform the way you live, from trivial things such as what to cook for dinner to the significant question of how you define yourself.
The key here is resisting the temptation to adopt a storyline in which you are powerless.
I cannot say how much I detest the expression trailing spouse. It feels condescending, like you are trailing behind, struggling to keep up. When in fact, this move is just as much about your choices as it is about your partner’s.
Since you decided to take part in this (yes, you did), you might as well take ownership of your choices and your experience as an expat. And to find your very own way of living this experience, whether you are here for a year or for life.
Your ideal option may not be available at the moment, but that does not mean you have to sit and wait until it does. Even when options are limited, you still get to choose and, from those choices, gradually expand possibilities.
OWN YOUR OWN STORY
Think of it this way: you are the lucky one, because you get to “mettre tout à plat”, as they say in French. To dismantle the whole thing, look at each element in your story and identity and see what still fits, what you would like to let go, what you want to embrace.
Storytelling is a powerful tool to make sense of your experience and find answers within. We tell stories all the time, sometimes without noticing it. It is the way we give meaning to facts, and the way we create and cultivate the field of possibilities.
We can tell different stories about our experience as expats (and our lives in general).
Deliberately reinventing yourself involves retelling your story in your own terms. I call this process Own Your Story and I love doing this with my clients.
YOU OWN THE LEADING ROLE
The goal is to create a narrative in which you have the leading role, built around your choices, strategies and intentions. This does not mean making things up or painting them rose. Instead, it means finding the golden thread underlying your experiences, identifying elements that were perhaps left aside in the story you created, or questioning the way you linked those different elements.
This typically involves reviewing moments when you played a key role that you may tend to minimize (“oh it was not a big deal”) and revisiting the meaning of your contribution to those around you.
Together, we question the interpretation of your story to which you’ve been clinging and the labels you’ve been carrying around so that you can embrace the changes and decide how you want to live them.