Why international relocation can put a strain on relationships - and how 'purpose' can help

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Why international relocation can put a strain on relationships - and how 'purpose' can help
File photo: Henning Bagger/Ritzau Scanpix

Finding a sense of purpose for relocation to a new country is key for happy relationships and good mental health amongst internationals, writes our guest columnist Hanne-Berit Hahnemann.


We mainly see internationals in our private practice at MacFarlane Psychology Group. The red thread that connects nearly all our expat clients is that they moved to Copenhagen and Denmark with a clear purpose in mind.

For some, the purpose is to pursue their studies, take on a job opportunity, or move for the sake of a loved one, while for others the purpose has political or religious implications. What my two colleagues and I are learning is that if an expat has a purpose to their stay in Denmark, they also feel a greater sense of meaning and satisfaction.

Evidence suggests a strong relationship between happiness and having purpose in life. It seems to create a buffer from stress and negative emotions and makes us more resilient when faced with difficult situations. Without it, we expose ourselves more readily to boredom, depression, anxiety, and addictive behaviours: with no real purpose to occupy our minds, we may give in to negative thinking and psychological discord.

This may be especially true for internationals, who have uprooted and relocated away from the old routines that perhaps offered direction and meaning. Many struggle to find their footing in a new country as it is not easy to leave family, friends, and all the familiar places behind. It takes time to feel at home in a new place.

Having a purpose means different things for different people. For some it means having a family to go home to, for some it is work that gives them reason to get up in the morning. For all of us it means that we matter, that there is reason to ‘be here’. Without a purpose, there is often a void that gets filled up with emptiness and lack of direction.

Some of the expats who reach out to us and seek therapeutic guidance seem to have lost this very important sense of purpose. What initially felt meaningful and offered both energy and resilience to the inevitable bumps and bruises of life has for some of them turned into a chore, something to just get through without engagement or joy.

The loss of purpose is often a major theme for couples where only one partner is an international. We sometimes find that the expat in the couple feels unsettled, empty and lonely. These feelings can be difficult to share with a partner when he or she does not have the same extra-cultural experience.

READ ALSO: Moving to Denmark: The link between international relocation and depression

Such problems in understanding often cause disconnection in communication and intimacy, and combined with the many other difficulties and challenges in relationships, it can be hard for the couple not to drift apart. Finding a way back to closeness and a shared understanding of goals and meaning can then be a challenge that requires substantial time and effort.

Couples often meet and fall in love on ‘neutral ground’ in another country and move back to Denmark due to one partner’s job or family. As time goes on, what was once an equal adventure becomes lopsided and problematic for one partner who struggles with the new language, as well as with finding work, friends, and meaningful ways to fill up time. Often, the partner suffers in silence, and consequently feels more and more depressed and lonely.

What can be done

  • Be open and share with your partner, and perhaps share this article with him or her.
  • Validate each other’s feelings and viewpoints.
  • Explore what truly offers meaning to you, be it making money, changing the world, sharing your creations, or cooking for your family.
  • Revisit the shared meanings that connected you to each other in the first place.
  • Setup interesting dates and spend as much personal time together as possible.
  • For the Danish partner, it is important to attempt to view Denmark through the eyes of the partner who came here from another country, in order to make it a common experience and an adventure that connects you, instead of pulling you apart.
  • The partner who is here from abroad must put his or her focus on finding joy and interest, whether it is through social clubs, education, or other ventures.

Above all, remember that isolating and withholding are sure ways of drifting away from your partner, so make sure that you talk about how this is affecting you each on a personal level. These are crucial aspects to staying close and maintaining an understanding for one another.

However, if you feel that talking to your partner is not enough, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. Sharing with our partner or friends is crucial to connect and feel an emotional closeness, but many expats experience that this is not enough to move them forward to next step in their individual process of finding true purpose within themselves.

Being guided by a professional enables many to go into depth and explore underlying causes that might be creating the everyday obstacles. It can also be comforting knowing that the therapist has met many before you who experienced similar issues, and who has both practical and clinical experience in guiding individuals towards finding purpose and peace.

Remember that it takes a long time to feel a real sense of belonging in a new country, and that your feelings of unsettlement are perfectly normal.

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 expats and the challenges that come with moving to another country.


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



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