The Challenge of Relocation and risk for Depression
(6 Minute Read)
Relocating from one part of the world or country to another is both exciting and challenging. The dating and career landscape of today inspires many to pursue a life in distant parts of the country or world. Love and employment can catapult us to great distances. But why do some people seem to thrive after relocating while others struggle to adapt? Is it normal to go through a period of feeling homesick or depressed? Is it culture shock or something more serious?
While the focus here is on corporate relocation, the issues in this article apply to any person moving away from their home town.
Relocation brings Adventure and Anxiety
Overseas assignments can provide significant occupational or educational opportunities. For many, they provide career advancement and an increase in salary. Those involved in government or missionary work find they can make a meaningful impact on communities and interests they hold dear. To all, they provide a chance to experience another culture and open up the possibility of travel to different parts of the world.
There is a familiar cycle to all who relocate, whether through military, government, a multinational corporation, missionary work or marriage. Once a move is confirmed, there is a whirlwind of logistics – selling possessions, packing, saying goodbye, and moving into a new home. A honeymoon period of novelty and adventure soon gives way to a reality that can sometimes be surprisingly difficult.
As an expat myself who has moved country three times, I understand the upheaval. Many international clients come to therapy describing anxiety and workplace stress. Family members often report feelings of despair, disconnection, and marital problems. Usually, these symptoms are short-term, but they may need work to resolve.
4 Areas of Impact
The impact of relocation can be broken down into four areas: Loss, Self-identity, Culture Shock, and Relationships. Understanding these can help make sense of where you may be struggling with this process and identify when to seek help.
We readily understand that relocating may involve saying farewell to people and places. But transferring great distances is different. It means saying goodbye to familiar routines, parts of ourselves, and a sense of control over our destiny. Moving abruptly ends our physical proximity to friends, neighbors, work colleagues, and acquaintances. And until these are restored, we live without a community that bolsters self-worth, reflects who we are, and helps us recharge.
For a time, we are unable to enjoy familiar surroundings, places, or activities that were once available. Moving may involve letting go of clubs and positions we held in the community. Children must also say goodbye to friends and after-school activities.
In a majority of cases, spouses must end their jobs to accompany their partner, and an equivalent career may not be possible in the new country or state. This can be due to a variety of reasons: visa restrictions, credentials not recognized, partner’s business travel, or child care. A survey of 3,300 expats in 117 countries found the unemployment rate of partners increase from 11% prior to expatriation to 65% afterwards. Transitioning from a dual-career couple can also intensify the sense of responsibility felt by the partner who is now the sole financial provider.
Those who frequently relocate may also feel that they have lost control over their destiny. Unable to know where you will be living in five years makes it hard to plan a future and feel settled. When partners are of different nationalities, there can be conflicts around which country to settle in. And feelings about this change over time. Positions held at one stage in life might not carry into others, particularly when children, aging parents, or retirement enter the picture.
Relocating immerses us in an unfamiliar environment. Workplace politics and social norms are different. A new office culture can lead to difficulty performing job functions. At other times, we might struggle to follow the rules for socializing or understand the behavior of our partners extended family. Activities that seem simple in one part of the world, such as hiring help or dealing with the local government, can seem complex in another.
Many people approach these challenges with curiosity and optimism at first. But over time, the difficulty integrating can lead to feeling alienated. Some individuals experience anxiety symptoms that resemble depersonalization, causing them to feel detached from their body and surroundings.
Repatriating families can also experience adjustment difficulties. After acquiring a rich appreciation of different cultures or a greater awareness of hardships abroad, certain aspects of the home culture may seem distasteful.
Self-identity is one of the most central aspects to be affected. Our role, sense of purpose, and how others perceive us, can change drastically in a new country. Relocation often requires accompanying spouses who lose their career to find a new role. Since a lot of satisfaction is derived from our careers, it can be discouraging to opt for ill-fitting jobs or withdraw from the workforce. An aspiring professional now working as a full-time parent may feel unfulfilled in life, and guilty for it, despite improvements to their standard of living.
Research conducted in 2018 involving several hundred HR departments, found the number one reason for failed assignments were partners’ feeling unhappy. They also reported that the number one reason for not accepting an assignment was partner’s unwillingness to relocate their own career.
Dr. Barbara Schaetti, an expert on intercultural relations, describes how self-identity requires a sense of continuation. Meaning there needs to be a natural progression from who we were to who we are. Sudden breaks to this progression, caused by circumstances that fail to reflect how we see ourselves, can lead to feelings of disorientation, anxiety, and dissatisfaction.
Relationships and Marriage
Extra work hours and travel are a frequent consequence of job promotions. The result is less time with our spouse and family. Both partners can develop a false impression of what life is like for the other. Unchecked, it can lead to resentment and distance. The partner who stays home imagines business-class travel, catered meals, and a stimulating work environment. The reality is often extreme exhaustion, anxiety over looming deadlines, loneliness while traveling, and missing out on family life. The traveling partner imagines their spouse enjoying a lavish lifestyle at home or in part-time work. Again, reality can be quite different. Without familiar routines and close friends to help us unwind, marital problems can intensify.
When social relationships are short-lived, it is necessary to develop them quickly. Some are more suited to high social turnover than others.
Relations with extended family can also be affected. The perception of having chosen an overseas adventure can result in guilt over the ones we left behind. Such feelings are difficult to handle when they include aging parents or other family struggles.
Managing the Impact of Relocation
Understanding the effects of relocation can help us adapt more favorably. Losses must be recognized and rebuilt where possible. Restoring some will take longer than others. Focusing on the lack of progress with big goals, such as finding a best friend or career, will lead to discouragement. It is more helpful to focus on short term goals, such as exploring new roles and developing healthy routines. Doing so will help build and bolster self-identity. Immersion and involvement will help overcome culture shock. Finally, couples must discuss how they feel toward, and are coping with, the many changes taking place. Doing so will help you both get the most out of an exciting journey together.
Where to Find Help
If difficulties relating to relocation are affecting you or your marriage, please consider contacting myself or another therapist familiar with international clients. One helpful resource is the International Therapist Directory which lists therapists across the globe who specialize in serving the international community. The UK-based newspaper The Telegraph also runs a quality series of blogs covering expat issues and useful resources.
NetExpat. (2018). Relocating partner Survey Report.
Permits Foundation. (2008). International mobility and dual career survey. The Hague.