Don’t deny your relocation experience – own it!

In this month's column, relocation expert Melanie Haynes reminds those struggling that they are not alone.

Don’t deny your relocation experience – own it!
Relocation is often difficult, especially for parents of small children. Photo: Iris
“Your experience wasn't unique.” This was some negative feedback I received about a chapter I wrote in my book about my miserable relocation experience in Berlin. 
This is the reaction many people fear they will receive if they say they are struggling with their new life abroad. Thousands of people relocate every year and they manage fine, right? Well, not always. Relocation can be a hard and isolating experience, and many people, especially women, don’t talk about the troubles they are having, for fear of a dismissive response. 
They don’t want to be seen as complaining about something as small as the struggle to find the right breakfast cereal for their kids, even though this is actually not a trivial problem at all when put into the context of trying to provide some sort of continuity for children who have been transplanted to a new country and a new school without their friends.
Or not being able to find the right bus stop when taking a buggy-bound toddler to a music class where they hope to connect with some like-minded people and finally have an adult conversation with the first person who gets it. 
Or the difficulty of calling the bank and finding someone who can speak English to help you actually buy that aforementioned cereal without getting hit with big bank charges by using your cards from home.
Or worrying all the time and constantly checking the latest exchange rates on the kroner, as your income depends on a favourable rate.
Or finding a place to rent in an overheated rental market whilst stuck in temporary housing with a suitcase worth of clothes and toys and a confused child who just wants their old room back.
Perhaps none of these things seem that big a deal and there are people much worse off (but then there is always someone worse off no matter what your situation). But as they start to pile up, they do start to be a bigger deal and can lead to health issues both mental and physical. If everyday activities become a struggle or take a lot longer than they usually do, it leaves precious little time for truly starting to live in your new home. 
Scientists often talk about two types of thinking. There is the type in which we very actively think and this uses up a ton of energy and then there is the automatic thinking we do, which is about 90 percent of all our thinking, and take very little energy. Usually activities such as food shopping, driving and repetitious everyday activities fall into the latter category. But when we move to a new place, everyday things can start to fall into active thinking and drain our energy reserves. Which explains how stressful life can become when you move to a new place full of the unknown.
For every person who says this is typical for moving and you should simply get on with it, there are plenty who know how it feels and will be willing to talk and help you.  But what can you do to make this easier?
The very first thing is to give yourself a strict talking to and I don’t mean one of the ‘pull yourself together’ variety. Be kind to yourself. It’s okay to be miserable and to find things hard. Moving to a whole new city in a completely new country is a massive deal, especially if it's the first time. The sooner you stop denying or suppressing feelings, the sooner you can start to move on.
Now is the time for asking for help. Join some online forums of people in a similar situation. Expat forums can be notorious for windup merchants (as we say in the UK) but there are a lot of people willing to help out with questions. Join some expat groups.
Here in Copenhagen, the Ladies' International Network København (LINK) is a good place to start especially if you have kids. But the biggest piece of advice is to ask in places you go: coffee shops, pharmacy or supermarkets. When you are picking up something at the counter in the pharmacy take the time to ask more about things you may need in the future — such as cold relief.  Or to find paid services where you can book time with an experienced expat to help you out.
Finally, take control. Even if it is of a tiny part of your new life, feeling you are in control of something really helps. If you have a relocation consultant looking for a new home for you, make sure you are driving things forward and not waiting for them. Make a list of five things that are difficult right now, no matter how trivial, and tackle each one by making a plan for each. Figure out what you need to do, who can help and then work towards each one.
But always remember no matter how many people have been through this before, your experience is yours and yours alone. 
Melanie HaynesMelanie Haynes is originally from the UK and has lived in Copenhagen for eight years. She writes about life in Copenhagen on her blog Dejlige Days and after experiencing relocation to Copenhagen and Berlin, she runs a settling-in service aimed at expats called Dejlige Days Welcome and works with Copenhagen Housing to offer an integrated settling-in and home search service. Her ebook, 'Dejlige Days: A Guide to Relocation', is available now.

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Moving to Denmark: The emotional challenges faced by mixed-culture couples

If you are living in a new culture or are in a relationship that crosses between cultures, you might be facing challenges you've not met before. But there are plenty of ways to tackle them, writes our guest columnist Hanne-Berit Hahnemann.

Moving to Denmark: The emotional challenges faced by mixed-culture couples
File photo: Christian Als / Ritzau Scanpix

It’s hard enough being a couple in a world loaded with responsibilities and stressors about children, finances, work, family obligations, etc. As a therapist, I often see couples of mixed cultures who have to withstand the difficulties of one or both adjusting to a new life with numerous challenges, such as having to create new social networks, learning a new language, and adjusting to new cultural norms.

The many small social cues that we become so accustomed to we take for granted, until we find ourselves in a new culture where the rules are completely different. When we are thrust into new cultural situations, we often misread the signals. For instance, small talk is generally much less prevalent in Denmark than in the U.S. This we may perceive as people being inaccessible and unfriendly.

It is similar within the “mixed couple”. Couples with partners from different countries can find themselves struggling with some of the same issues inside their relationship.

Different native languages within a couple can limit the couple’s deeper understanding of each other. The feelings of alienation or being “other” in a different culture can be transferred to the relationship and feed misunderstanding and a lack of connection.

Consider – for instance – the ongoing effects on the couple which differs significantly on levels of independence-interdependence.

One aspect of interdependence is an assumption that our partner should understand and react to our needs without being asked. A more independent person, on the other hand, may assume that the only reasonable way of behaving is to clearly communicate your needs, and to then negotiate around how to get these needs met.

Such a combination of traits can often cause confusion and disappointment when you feel unheard or misunderstood. We tend to expect our partners to at least hear us, to at least try to understand what we are communicating.

In my practice, I often see that such frustrations can lead to anger and judgment of the other.

Over time, cultural differences can wear on a couple in ways that are quite unique to the mixed couples’ situation. Even slight differences in beliefs can cause couples to repeatedly argue over apparently mundane things, like who does the dishes or who picks up the kids from daycare. Or less mundane disagreements, such as those related to religious and spiritual beliefs. Culture influences us in ways we often are quite unaware of.


There is a significant upside to these difficulties, however. Much like living abroad, living with a partner from a different culture can help you open yourself up to new possibilities and a deeper understanding and appreciation of others. Mixed culture couples must discover that the set of rules they learned growing up is just one of many.

The effort and mutual respect it takes to successfully make room for the other person’s values is often rewarded with a closer and deeper relationship that can better withstand life’s trials and tribulations.

It does require work to get there. You must be willing to look both at yourself and your partner with openness to the differences and a willingness to explore. As an expat, perhaps you already have these qualities?

If you and your partner struggle with cultural differences, here are some things you can do. Being as aware of the conflicts as possible is really useful. Only when you have identified the problem can you do something about it. This means becoming aware of your own values, as well as your partners.

I often give couples the following homework: Set aside at least one hour a week to spend together without distractions. During this hour, you are to practice listening to the other without judgment or disagreement. So, you can ask questions, you can repeat and you can reflect. This means asking questions to explore and deepen your understanding, not to voice your judgment or disagreement. Repeat what the person said, but in your own words, then wait for them to respond and add more to their message. Finally, reflect on what the other person has expressed, and see if you can express this reflection without judgment or condescension.

It takes practice and effort, but with time you can begin to change the way you communicate!

Hanne-Berit Hahnemann has a Master's degree in clinical counselling with a supervisory license from Cleveland State University and many years of experience in private practice in the United States. As an expat herself, she specialises in internationals and the challenges that come with moving to another country. She sees clients at the MacFarlane Psychology Group, a Copenhagen practice offering psychotherapy in English.


READ ALSO: Why moving to Denmark can cause feelings of loneliness – and what you can do to feel better