For many of us, the expat decision of whether to stay or to leave our host countries can lead to many sleepless nights, stressful conversations with your beloved family members and a general build up of anxiety. Many expats obviously move due to the needs of the company they work for but for those of us who have the choice to make for ourselves it can be a tough one. I recently went through the process of counselling to help with that decision-making process and wanted to share how helpful I found it for any expats out there in the same situation.

We can all understand that it isn’t easy to leave behind the lifestyle afforded by the expat life (particularly in the Middle East where we are located) – the help in the house, the extra disposable income and the freedom that allows, not to mention the vacations to interesting places that many of us take. These are the things that help ease the difficulties that you find living in sometimes challenging environments, away from the support of family and old friends. But after some time the bigger life issues begin to make you question the need to repatriate to your home country.

 

 

As with many people, we arrived in the Middle East expecting to be here for 2-4 years but 8 years later the debate really began!  The last 2 years my husband and I have talked around and around the repatriation question long and hard. Obviously, there are huge benefits to our expat life and package here but we always intended to return to our home country and family. We aren’t in an industry where we can move to another expat posting easily – so for us, the question is host country v home country.

We made many pro’s and con’s lists but we usually found our lists even and unfairly weighted – how do compare the needs of elderly parents versus the costs of schooling your young children? Or having home help versus not being guaranteed work in our home country? International holidays versus two parents working fulltime and trying to juggle the school holidays? It’s very easy for it to become so emotional and incredibly stressful leading to expat anxiety. Not helped by so many people leaving our host country as with every goodbye you question your own decision to stay. 

Our decision making has also not been helped by having family members who put enormous amounts of guilt and pressure on me for living away from family, for not being around on a daily basis for our elderly parents. It is hard for them to understand as they have never travelled and led very different lives to mine and although on the one hand, it is easy to dismiss on the other hand, in the middle of the night, I can’t help but wonder if they are right?

After a very stressful 6 months, when we really had to make some firm decisions if we were going to make the move back to our home country and get the kids into a school, I decided to go get some counselling with the specific aim of having someone else be part of the decision making the process.  I had 10 sessions and I have to say it really helped and I would recommend it to anyone. The counsellor both helped me sort out the emotional baggage around my family as well as help me clarify what we really wanted in life, and why we started to discuss moving in the first place. It also helped me to feel less crazy and overly emotional – just having someone else tell you your experience was very normal was helpful.

Key things I learnt from the expat counseling

You get to make your own decisions

You don’t owe anyone an explanation for the decisions you and your partner make for your expat family – it just isn’t anyone else’s business. The thoughts and feelings of your extended family should not affect your judgement. I know I am not the only person who has a lot of demands from the family back home. Many of us have families who don’t travel, who have no desire to leave their home country, and who absolutely have no understanding of what choices we have made. Although this wasn’t the sole reason I went to counselling it really did help me realise how the cloud of guilt I’m often feeling was helping skew the decisions on what is most important for my immediate family. 

Together with the counsellor, I worked out ways to talk to my family more openly about the decisions we make and how we can offer support both from here and on our return journeys twice a year. It also helped for an outside party to be really surprised about what my family members feel is appropriate to say to me. It did make me realise that having boundaries are important and valid and at the end of the day the decisions you make are not anyone else’s business – not even if they are family!

Family life and well being is important

I also clarified that your children and what is ‘best’ for them (in terms of schooling and lifestyle) is only one part of the puzzle – that the life and wellbeing of the whole expat family is important. Decisions regarding staying together as a family unit or separating to take the children back to the home country for schooling are different for every family and circumstances – but this process helped reiterate that either decision is ok, that they are different pathways with different outcomes but that the children will be fine no matter what you decide. 

As important as it is not to judge other people and the decisions they make for their families, it is also really important not to judge yourself so harshly. I am one of those women who take other people’s judgements very much to heart, particularly for decisions we make around our children and the counselling really helped me to let go of some of that especially, as noted above, it is none of their business! I have to make the decision that is right for my expat family.

Be open and honest with your partner

Make sure you are talking honestly and openly with your partner so you are both very clear on what you are both wanting. My husband and I are pretty good at communicating but partly it’s a Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus situation – the things I worry about are simply not the same as what he worries about and it is important to be able to really hear and think about the concerns of your partner. 

My husband has a very different family to mine, including many family members spread out across the globe so he also doesn’t have any of the issues regarding expat guilt from the family that I do. The counsellor stressed the need to go on date nights away from the kids, to have some fun and not spend all our free time focused on these major life issues – which was great advice.

Take your time

Slow down and take some time out – realise they are big life decisions and that takes energy and can’t be done in 5 minutes. I have gone to counselling several times now as an adult – always to deal with one specific issue and each time it has been incredibly helpful.  I do get why people don’t embrace the process, especially if they haven’t done it before, as it always feels like a major hassle to just take the time out from your day, get across town and sit and talk to a total stranger, not to mention the cost. 

My theory is that when you are clear about what the issue is and you are sitting down for the first session you are halfway there already to solving the problem. Getting a different perspective from a person unrelated to you, and having a place to release all your thoughts and the muddled thinking that keeps you awake each night – is totally worth it, each and every time. 

 

 

Do what makes you happy

You only have one life!! We all know this but it was very useful to be reminded. You don’t want to live your life with regrets, do what makes you and your family happy and if that means staying in your host country and continuing to travel the world, then that is ok.  

It has now been around 8 months since I had the counselling, we decided to stay in our host country, and I have to say it’s been one of the best years here that I have ever had and I really do credit the counselling with that. I had no idea how much anxiety it had been causing, not to say I don’t still feel it but now I have some extra tools to deal with it. 

My biggest takeaway from the sessions was that there are no right or wrong choices for these kinds of expat life decisions. To go or to stay are different roads and are going to lead to different journeys for you and your family, but neither of them will be wrong, just different. You will know when the timing is right when your pro’s and con’s list is no longer even, but for anyone in the struggle, I really recommend going to find someone to talk to in the hope of getting the clarity it afforded me.


We don’t usually publish articles anonymously but sometimes we need to in order to protect the identity of the writer for their own wellbeing and safety. This is one of those times. We have also changed some minor details to help preserve privacy.