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Emigration: Fractured Relationships After Moving Abroad

Moving from your home is a hard step. This is even harder when you’re moving with a loved one or as a family group. Truth be told, however, such sudden change can often be catastrophic for relationships.

Rand Rescue takes a look at the ‘Why’s’ and what you can do to mitigate the impact of relationship or familial fractures after emigration and immigration.

Why does moving change relationships?

When individuals move abroad there are many factors that drive their anxiety and fears, but the impact of these factors are compounded when moving abroad as couples or family groups.

The fact of the matter is that most people who move abroad as couples or family groups have generally discussed ‘moving’ for quite a while before the event occurs.

Denial of pre-existing conflict

Moving – whether immigration or emigration – is often seen as a tool to solve problems which existed before the fact. The truth of it is that moving away from certain conditions can certainly strengthen certain relationships, but relationships which are already under strain may simply become more strained once the couple or family moves away.

Moving away from one’s home demands that the people who move together maintain a tether between them – they are bound to reminisce about their good times together and to reiterate those things that made them move away from their previous home.

Problematically, however, they are bound to ignore those issues which pushed them away from the places they lived together until they experience stresses in their new home. Statistically, most stresses like these don’t present until the second or third year of emigration. The problem is that most people won’t have formed any external relationships within this timeframe which can carry them through any conflict on new shores.

During such periods, spouses are prone to both blaming each other for their relationships, children will lash out at parents, and both adults and children are known for seeking out alternate routes for coping such as alcohol, volatile friendships or reaching out to past friends and family who were harmful in the past to conflate matters.

People should acknowledge the pre-existing conflicts in their relationship that played into emigration and not use these as weapons to blame each other.

Grief is different for everyone

When people mutually choose to move abroad, they are usually committed to the task for the immediate future, but few people realise how long it takes to acclimatise and even fewer allow each other the necessary grieving to get over what they’d given up.

Parties who were less willing to move would often call those out who pushed for emigration by stating that they have no right to grieve. In healthy relationships, partners and parents would discuss these matters with each other, but emigration is more often than not driven by duress and motivated by emotions such as fear, anger and anxiety.

Partners and family members should each recognise that grief is inevitable for all who leave their homes – it’s prevalent in persons who move houses within their own neighbourhood, even more so for those who move abroad.

Making a choice to move doesn’t mean that those who made the choice aren’t grieving. Likewise, those who make the choice to move cannot fast-track the grieving of those they made the choice for.

It’s imperative that everyone communicate their losses, encourage each other to grieve and allow each other to grieve at their own pace.

Animosity at delayed action

Many spouses as well as parents and children blame each other for the delayed action of moving. Spouses often tell each other that certain problems after emigration may have been overcome had they moved sooner, while children may blame parents for having moved at a later date than they preferred.

This blaming has no value, unlike other points mentioned here – it is merely a tit-for-tat accusation used to bully others for things not going someone’s way.

There is absolutely no way to control the past. There is no way to blame anyone for past actions when they’ve already committed to these actions. Such reactions are harmful and not helpful as no one can change that which had already occurred – no matter the pace of that occurrence.

Spouses, children or parents may also blame each other for the pace at which moving or administration occurs due to someone’s past fumbles or actions.

Seek help from therapists, support groups and/or psychologists when your partner, children or parents blame you for things that are transpiring now due to past inaction. This is not within anyone’s control in the present and blame games aren’t beneficial to anyone involved.

Friction due to changed behaviours

When people move away from their homes and those who know they are more likely to change their existing behaviours. This comes down to two things:

They may have been prohibited from acting the way they do or investing their time in certain activities due to the environment in which they lived previously, or
They may be compelled to change their behaviours and interests to cope in their new environment.

Judging which one of the previous points is the most pivotal is hard when there are so many factors at play, but the fact is that most people change when they need to thrive in a new environment.

Such changed habits and behaviours are often seen as problematic to people around the individual, especially when change and acceptance of the new environment occurs at different paces.

Partners and family members of those who move abroad should allow each other time to acclimatise at different paces and understand that they will develop new personality traits and interests as they explore their new home environment.

Resentment due to alienation

In line with the previous point, people often blame each other for feelings of alienation after moving abroad.

Such feelings of resentment may well be highly valid, but are often delayed due to the sheer volume of administrative and other tasks involved with the move. These feelings often rear their heads long after couples have moved – as everyone is too preoccupied within the first few months or years to concern themselves with lost time with loved ones.

Many people also tend to bolster their resolve initially by telling their loved ones how happy they are abroad, that it becomes harder to tell them what struggles they face. The easiest way to wound your beloved  is undoubtedly to alienate them in turn by telling them how they had ripped you from your life or home. This isn’t necessarily sadistic, but if the trend continues it may be an indication of unresolved issues.

Talk about those you miss, long for and wish to see throughout your emigration journey, even if you can’t see them. Don’t blame each other for alienation, and don’t make it a tit-for-tat business – whether your spouse or child has contact with one or 100 people from back home, it’s not a competition.

Socio-economic and cultural disparities

When people move to a new home and dream, they often envision lives which will be easier and less challenging.

People who move from South Africa often believe foreign shores to be more safe and agree beforehand that financial or social losses are acceptable as long as they have stability and security. While people usually do find safer and more stable home and work environments, this often comes at a loss of some kind.

Whether you’re giving up space, work, rights or some other variable – the world is hardly equal in any measure globally. Some spouses become homemakers, children live in smaller yards, you can’t braai, you can’t party, you can’t play, you can’t move around, you can’t talk your language, you can’t walk barefoot etc. These changes can create vast craters between couples and families when the reality does not represent the dream that was envisioned.

One party in a relationship may feel entirely robbed of their social or economic power, while having agreed to the arrangement beforehand, while another party may feel entirely disgusted by their spouse or children’s purported unwillingness to engage or contribute.

Identify how all people emigrating in a group or duo’s ideals and dreams transpire throughout the process. What people perceive and commit to before moving usually doesn’t transpire in reality. Consult therapists or mediators the moment one party starts blaming another for lack of engagement.

Need help?

Rand Rescue may be specialists in cross-border financial transactions – but we’re all South African emigrants. Our team of people based across the world are people like you who have had to make hard choices and move abroad.  We can’t provide any psychological support, but we understand where you’re coming from and know how to talk your talk.

If you’re a South African who wants to move abroad, get in touch and we’ll get back to you to discuss the options for your financial portfolio.

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  3. “Couples Handling Immigration And The Ensuing Changes In Their Relationship”. 2023. Canadian Immigrant.
  4. [DOWNLOAD] “The Economic and Social Aspects of Migration” 2003. OECD.