Vivian is the founder of Expat Nest, an online counselling service for internationals. She is a registered psychologist with Master’s degrees in both Child & Adolescent Psychology and Health Psychology. She was recognised in 2020 as one of the 100 most influential women in the world by Women appreciating Women. She is bicultural with family all over the world, Vivian is familiar with the international community and inspired by its diversity.
Welcome to Holding the Fort Abroad, the podcast for expats with travelling partners. My name is Rhoda Bangerter, I am a certified coach and the author of the book Holding the Fort Abroad. In this podcast, I interview men and women who live abroad and have travelling partners so that we can all benefit from their wisdom and experience, I also invite relationship experts to apply their expertise to this topic.hology. She was recognised in:
Vivian welcome to the show!(:
Thank you for having me, Rhoda, very happy to be here and welcome to everybody who is listening to us right now.(:
Thank you so much, Vivian, tell us a bit about your practice and who you serve.(:
Okay. I'm the founder of Expat Nest, which is an online counseling service for expats, and we serve our clients in several languages, such as English, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Chinese, Arabic, and our Portuguese website will be launched within the next two months. This is something I mentioned for the first time, but it will be up live in about two months. Of course our counselors are expat specialized and they speak the universal language shared by those who lead an international life. We serve global teens, parents of children, of all ages, like individual adults and couples. So pretty much we can serve the whole international family.mic. I had the vision back in: (:
Oh my word! And congratulations to you and the whole team. Wow, that is incredible!(:
Thank you. I was over the moon with the news and I'm so grateful for my colleagues at Expat Nest for our clients, the readers of our blog, the whole community of Expat Nest. Because it's a team effort and all of this made Expat Nest the best online counseling service. I never thought a moment like this would come and it was such a pleasure to receive the trophy yesterday. I haven't posted on social media yet. It will, it will come. So many news for you today Rhoda.(:
Wow. Wow. That's amazing. So that means that anybody anywhere in the world can go online and connect with you. And then how does it work? They find a therapist or have like an initial conversation about whatever they're struggling with?(:
Yes. The book a free 15-minute call, when we have a screening process. I always see our clients and welcome them. And then with some of them I work personally, or then I link them with the right counselor for them, depending on their specialization, what is the issue concerned, and also the language they speak.
So it's quite simple. We don't have waiting lines. We have created a system that works so we can support expats, no matter where they are, immediately. Because for me, that was one of the reasons I decided to start a practice as such, because I realized there was a need: too many challenges, so many wrong diagnoses. Like for example, I was receiving requests for people with depression, when in reality, they had a culture shock and all of that made me think, okay, this needs to stop. We need to have high standard counseling services and I will do it online because that's the best way to serve everyone who needs it no matter where they are. And also that we can travel with them no matter where they go next.(:
Right. Because people who are globally mobile have specific pressures, stresses, experiences that maybe therapists who aren't familiar might not recognize. Is that right?(:
Yes. Yes. And actually I was discussing this with Ruth Useem, who's the author of Third Culture Kids and the founder of FIGT and we were talking about how in her experience, in my experience, we have seen so many people actually have more harm by doing the wrong intervention and not having someone extra-specialized helping them. I told you the example of depression when in reality it was culture shock. So you can imagine what can go wrong in the intervention, if the diagnosis is wrong in the first place.(:
Wow. Yeah. One of the first books I read when I was looking at intercultural and multiculturalness was also Belonging Everywhere in Nowhere by Lois Bushong. And that was also aimed at therapists.(:
Indeed. A fantastic book by a great therapist.(:
But you speak multiple languages too, right?(:
Yes. I speak four.(:
What do you speak?(:
I speak English, Greek, which is my native language, French, and Dutch. Actually there is a fifth one because my mom is Assyrian. Assyrian is a minority in the middle east with no country. I understand Assyrian, but I don't speak as Assyrian.(:
Okay. Well, I think there's something special about opening up your heart to someone in your own language, right?(:
Yes, indeed. And that's why I wanted also to have a multilingual counseling service. Because I think if you can have someone extra specialized, but also at the same time speaking the language that you feel comfortable with, and that is your native one, I think that's the best combination. But if we cannot find someone in your native language and we have to choose, that would go for the expat specialization though, because as I said, the expat-specialized counselor speaks the universal language shared by those who lead an international life. For example, the pain of goodbyes and a variety of other challenges.(:
Right. So you're it's better to choose a therapist who specializes in expats rather than necessarily in your own language.(:
Right. If you cannot have both, which is the ideal combination.(:
Okay. Okay. You kindly wrote the forward to my book. And you mentioned, at the time when we were talking, that you see expats in your practice that live in split locations, or have a spouse who is away a lot. What kind of difficulties do you see experienced over and over again?(:
First of all, I want to say I'm very glad and honored that we presented together at the Families in Global Transition Conference on this topic of split locations. And also it's a great honor to have forwarded your book. I love it. And I really believe in the message it has. Um, I think it will help so many people globally and I'm so proud of you Rhoda and that you're stepping up as a pioneer in this field.(:
Thank you so much.(:
I'm very honored that you're taking me with you into this field and on this journey.
Regarding the challenges, it's hard to have found someone worth holding onto, you shared dreams and a life together, but through certain circumstances, you find yourself separated from one another, because of distance and miles and miles of distance.
This can get even more complicated if you find yourself parenting abroad. Expat parenting can bring its own unique challenges, let alone when it's solo parenting. So in our work we often see challenges such as high levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness, helplessness, sadness, because you may miss your partner or children miss their parent. Also what I see often in the topic of split locations is that one of the partners develops the psychological mechanisms as like detachment. Which can put relationship on a strain because they use this as a survival mechanism, like as a defense mechanism. But the other partner thinks that ‘oh, there's something wrong in our relationship, and he's detaching’ when, in reality, it has nothing to do with the relationship.(:
So for example, the partner who's working away might seem distant and feel like they're not that interested in what's going on at home, but that's because they're focusing on what they have to do. Is that what you're saying?(:
Yes, but also because detachment is one of the psychological defense mechanisms. For example, we see that a lot before someone moves to another country just before their relocation, they start detaching from their environment because that makes it easier for them to say the goodbye, to have the transition. So it's a defense mechanism, so it can even happen in their relationship, but this has nothing to do with the relationship. It's just how someone is processing that separation because it's hard for them. They put that defense mechanism, detachment, in order to make that whole situation easier for them.(:
Right. That came up in quite a few interviews actually, when I was writing my book. And even now, when I speak to people before the person goes on a trip, like we had it with my husband a few days before, sometimes up to a week before, I would see that his brain was elsewhere. He wasn't really engaging and he was, yeah, detaching. And I think being aware of that can be really helpful for couples because then they can give the person the space, but know that it's not something that they've done.(:
Right. Not to take it personally because it has nothing to do with you. It's just a normal psychological mechanism.
Also on a practical level, another challenge is that time zones can be a major struggle because it makes it hard to communicate. So there are little practical things that can also be challenging for partners who live in split locations.(:
Yeah. I put up a poll in the Facebook group, Solo Parenting Expat Moms. And I said to people to add challenges as you see fit. And one of the moms put that she's always the bad guy as the solo and the person who's left is the hero. And then loads of other moms started clicking ‘Yes’. That was one of their top challenges that the parent who stays is the one who's nagging who's or who's sort of putting the pressure on the children a little bit, or at least kind of keeping the boundaries. Maybe that's a better way of saying it: they're keeping the boundaries. So the children are constantly hitting the boundaries of the parents who's staying. And the parent who's gone doesn't have to keep as many boundaries. And so they're not seen as annoying!(:
I see that also very often in my work.(:
Great. Well, what about teens? What is it like?(:
You mean in terms of challenges?(:
Yeah. In terms of challenges.(:
What I see is that usually they feel only because they miss their parent and also in their minds, they cannot understand why their parent is away. Because for them, what matters is to have their parents close to them. So they don't care if they live in the best, like the biggest house or everything, deep down, what they want is just their parents to be around. And what I see sometimes is that they can feel very angry with the parent who is far away.(:
And we work a lot in therapy about the anger. Because in psychology, anger is a mask emotion, deep down there is pain or sadness. So we have to work with the primary emotion.(:
Right. So what would you say to someone who is globally mobile and who has a partner who's away from home, and then what would you say to the partner, the one who's away?(:
Ok. I have lots of tips to share Rhoda. Okay. Actually, I'm gonna try to answer both at the same time, because I love this question and I would love to share some tips for both of them, in order to strengthen their emotional connection and ease the ache of geographic separation.
First of all, I would like to say to everyone who is listening to us right now to be comforted in knowing that long distance living in split locations can absolutely succeed. Although it may not feel like this at times. This challenge is a struggle. I understand, but it could also be the cornerstone of a stronger relationship. So I say that because what you believe about your relationship, it can be a great indicator of how things will unfold in the future. So believe and have faith in your relationship that it can absolutely succeed.(:
Okay. A very important point.(:
And we see it all the time. There are struggles and that's what we are here for, but it can work. And have faith in your relationship.(:
So you're saying, if you say it's not gonna work, then the likelihood is it might not work.(:
If you're going into it like that.(:
Okay. And I see it also with clients before they start couples counseling, or in individual counseling. When I ask this question ‘Do you believe, do you have faith in your relationship that you'll make it work?’ Those who answer ‘I don't know. I'm not sure if this person is the one for me, etc’. Usually you see that things are not going that great. Those who answer ‘I don't know how I feel. We're in a dead end, but I believe that we can make this work.’ They always find the solution one way or the other.(:
Okay. Very important.(:
So that's why I mentioned this as a first step, because that's huge because sometimes you may feel that ‘I'm giving up, I'm losing hope. This will never change.’ But it can always change if you have faith in your relationship. Both of you, of course.(:
Another tip is to stay connected, talking on the phone, do video calls. Seeing each other's faces helps a lot. And because so much can get lost in translation via text.(:
Keep the communication line open as regularly as possible. You can communicate as much or as little (because sometimes ‘as much’ is not possible). Whatever you need to feel connected, by respecting each other's schedule and by taking into account time zone differences. I think it's important to manage expectations and to discuss with each other what works for the general frequency and length of time you'll spend texting, talking on phone or video chatting per day or per week. Because we have to be open to modify and be flexible as life creates new and unexpected demands. And I say that because this can be a source of frustration that ‘Oh, we had agreed to speak, let's say for an hour per day, but then this happened and we just speak 10 minutes.’ That's okay. Sometimes this can happen, as long as you manage expectations.(:
Another tip that I would like to give is to be honest and transparent, if something feels off. And in general, to be honest and transparent on your thoughts and feelings about your relationship. And also to remind your partner, what you love about them and about the relationship. I think that's important because the other person needs to hear from you that you're committed to the relationship. If you are, of course, if not, if you don't communicate that message to your partner, they may feel that they have doubts, insecurities or even jealousy. So I think the verbal assurance helps a lot.(:
I'm gonna have to put a warning before the podcast ‘take a pen and paper’ because there's so much good stuff in here!! I'm taking notes as well.(:
Okay, great. Great.(:
Yes. I love this topic and I know you have lots of love and passion for it as well. So I'm sure whoever is listening to us, at least if they can get one tip that will help them, that will be useful.(:
Super. And reminding your partner, what you like about them and how you, how you're committed to your relationship. I think is something that slips our mind very often, because we are focused on logistics. We're focused on topics we need to discuss. And we forget to actually just have a conversation that's complimenting the other person or saying something nice to them.(:
Right. As most likely you would do in person when you hug them, you would say something nice, you can still do the same online.(:
Very, very true.(:
Because yes, you can get a cut up in the business of everyday life. And then we don't mention the most important stuff.(:
Exactly. So reaffirming the relationship?(:
Yes. Yes. Because it's normal sometimes to feel insecure.(:
That's true. Especially when they're far.(:
Yes. Or you haven't seen them for months.(:
Yeah. Another tip is learn how to address important issues, both remotely and in person. What I see a lot is that sometimes people see that there is an issue, but then they say ‘Okay, it's better not to talk about this over the phone. I will wait until this person comes back. And when they come back, they say ‘I don't wanna ruin the moment by having a difficult conversation.’ So at the end, they never really talk about what really bothers them. And then bigger problems can arise if you ignore little struggles. So that's why I think that's one of the most important tips, is to learn how to address important issues, both remotely and in person.(:
That is a very good point. I think there is wisdom in choosing your time, like not being both exhausted, but I don't know how you get to not being both exhausted in the lifestyle that we have, but maybe doing it at a time where there is more energy, or planning it. What do you think would be most helpful for a difficult conversation to think about?(:
I mean, about the planning it, I don't know, because some people can get stressed knowing that they will have a difficult conversation coming up. It depends on the couple and I cannot predict that for every person who is listening to us. Every couple is different, and they have their own way of communicating. But I think it's always important to ask them, you know, is this a good time to talk right now?(:
Just to be sure that they're available for that.(:
And also doesn't have to be a heavy discussion. We can start again about some lighter topics about how important this person is to you and the relationship, how important it is to you. And then to mention that, how about maybe trying to improve that?(:
Yeah. And sometimes I know with my husband, if we're having a difficult conversation, one of us will say ‘Do you know what, why don't we just stop there?’ And then we'll pick it up another time…(:
Timeout always helps!(:
Timeout always helps. But for me, what matters is whoever is listening to us right now, not to ignore the elephant in the room by not finding the right time to talk about it because of the distance.(:
Um, so another tip that I would like to share is to surprise one another with gifts. Like I think it's beautiful to use creative ways, like flowers, cards, photos, letters, or if they feel sick, they can get food delivered to them as if you were there taking care of them. And I think that makes a big difference because you show you care and it's that thoughtfulness, it makes a difference. And especially when they're sick. The food delivery, I think that's one of my most favorite surprises actually. Because you know what they like, if possible.(:
In general, I think creating a feeling of togetherness, trying to do things together, is huge. It makes a difference in the relationship. Because okay, you can be continents apart, but you're still a couple. You can still, for example, plan a movie date, or watch a movie at the same time over a video call, play online games, discuss news, do online shopping together, or plan your next trip together. Or I love in your book, the tip that you have mentioned, Rhoda, about creating a feeling of togetherness by holding two clocks on the wall, one for the time zone you are in and one for the time zone of your partner.(:
Yes, it creates a joint story, then a joint life.(:
Yes. I love that tip in your book. Well, your book has so many wisdom nuggets, but this was one of my favorites. Thank you. Another tip that I would like to share is to respect the reason why you are apart.(:
Oooh, whoah, okay…(:
Would you like to tell something about it because your reaction was like ‘Yeah, there was more to this’, I think?(:
Yeah well because I was talking to a couple here that I met recently and you know, I've done tips for dangerous locations. And so he's in a country that is at war and she's here. And so they were both at the table. So I said ‘Oh guys, can I show you my top tips and have your input?’ Because I've been inviting different people who have lived this to input in that. That's how I put it together. And that's one of the points that she raised and that she underlined is ‘We have to respect the choices of the other person and our choice and support our partner and they support us.’ But it's exactly what you said, the reason you are apart. That's very well put.(:
Sometimes that's one of the reasons that people come to counseling, because one of them is not clear about why they're apart or children are very upset. As I said earlier about the parent who chooses to be away, either for family reasons, financial reasons, professional reasons. So it's important to have clarity why this is happening right now. But at the same time, it's also important maybe when the time is right to create a long-term plan for merging your worlds. For example, have a goal in mind because having the hope of being together in the long term can help you right at the toughest days of being apart from one another, there are two worlds that need to be one at some point. And, you know, feeling that there is a light at the end of the tunnel makes a difference if possible. Because that's not always possible.(:
Yeah. I've often said ‘Don't do an open-ended posting. Or if it is open-ended, maybe set a time for a review because we change, they change. And then 2, 3, 4 years down the road, we might make different choices. What would you say to that?(:
I agree. I agree. We need to be flexible and also with the children involved, depending on the age of the children, maybe having a long-term plan of actually, or a short-term plan, depending on the situation. Like when we're gonna be reunited as a family could be helpful, especially for teenagers.
I think it's good to know that this won't be like this forever, unless the circumstances are like this, because in some cases, it will be like this for years and years. And then you have to say ‘What's the best plan for our family to make this work?’ Especially when, because I mentioned the parenting, it's important to mention that there is a difference between solo parenting and single parenting, because you may feel at times that it's the same, but you are not a single parent. You are a solo parent. You don't have to take all the responsibilities on you. You can share responsibilities as you would do in person. Of course, it's not exactly the same. I get that, but you're not alone. And I love you have explored that topic a lot in your book Rhoda and I love that.(:
Yeah. And it's true, we forget to include the other parent because we're just used to getting on with it ourselves. When there are plenty of things that they can be involved with. And then eventually the risk is that that when the children become adults, they don't have a relationship with the parent who's traveled. Whereas I've also met a lot of people who have adult children now and who have a great relationship with their children, because even if they were physically absent, they were emotionally present and they intentionally develop that relationship with their children.
The other thing I was gonna to say was the reason that you're apart, it's easier to explain, or at least to kind of withstand the family, the extended family, or the people around you who are questioning it and who think you're completely crazy for doing it. But if you and your partner have decided, and you know why you're doing it, it's more like viewed as a family project, I think it helps when it gets difficult. And it also helps when people question and say, why are you guys doing it? You know? But you have good reasons.(:
Yes. I love this point, Rhoda, because also sometimes the couple can get even more pressure because their extended family or friends may think that something is not going well in their relationship, and that's why they're making this choice right now. And then you feel you have to justify the whole decision. So you can be great in your relationship, but still making this choice for various reasons.(:
Exactly, exactly. And I think that's part of the work that I wanna do is kind of telling people ‘Hey, you know, this isn't crazy, other families do it. And it doesn't mean that you don't love each other. It's just there are some good reasons sometimes.’ And the top reasons are children's education, the career of one or of the two people being able to do dual careers, being closer to an elderly parent, security in the country. So there are good reasons to choose.(:
Yes, absolutely. I agree with that. Another tip I would like to share is to learn to enjoy now when you're together and also to enjoy the benefits of the long distance, because this could also be an opportunity for your relationship.
For example, when your partner is not there, you have more time to spend with family and friends. And when you're together, it has that excitement of we're back together again. And we need to enjoy now because sometimes you forget to enjoy now because you're thinking they will go back again.
And sometimes people focus on ‘but we have to have another goodbye in a couple of days or in a couple of weeks’, but then we forget to enjoy now. And that's the most important because that's all we have.
And lastly, my favorite tip from your book, and I have mentioned that when I forward your book and I keep saying that to you, when we speak the two of us about when you miss your partner or when your child is missing their parent, just connect with them heart to heart by pulling that invisible rope that connects heart to heart.(:
Yes. Yes. It's such a lovely image, isn't it? of being connected.(:
How did you come up with that tip in your book Rhoda? Because that's my favorite.(:
Yeah. When I was researching for the book, I asked some of the moms that I knew to share some tips about how they foster the relationship between the traveling parent and the children. And one of the moms put that in one of the lists that she sent.(:
Wonderful, wonderful tip.(:
That's great. Someone else, the other day, they said that her partner has a Teddy bear and then the child has a Teddy bear. And so when the traveling partner's traveling, they each have the same Teddy bear. And when they see each other on zoom or WhatsApp, they kind of hug their Teddy bear and stuff. So there there's ways of connecting.(:
Yes. Or when a parent travels globally, to take photos of the Teddy bear.(:
Wherever they travel they send the photos to their kids. That also helps.(:
Yes. So how, how can a therapist help this lifestyle? I mean, you've shared a lot of tips and they're informed by both what you know of the lifestyle and what you've experienced, but also from your professional background and your training, which I think is beautiful because you know how emotions work, you know how relationships, you know about behaviors and choices. So at one point, would you advise someone to contact a therapist, and how can a one on one help someone more?(:
I think some of the signs or the challenges I mentioned earlier, like when you feel high levels of anxiety or depressive stress or loneliness, sadness, or when you feel that something is not right. You know yourself best, so when something feels off, it doesn't have to become a bigger issue to reach out for help. The sooner you intervene, the better of course. We can help you at any stage, either it's a small issue or a big one. We can help with individual counseling or couples counseling. Because in some cases, couples counseling could also be a good way forward for the couple living in split locations.
I mean, I've shared about 10 tips right now, I could share much more. But I think what is important is to offer them a safe place to talk, either individual or couples counseling. And especially because we offer exclusively online counseling, we can help no matter where they are.And the time zones they are, we can travel with them regardless of their location. And we can help them with a variety of all these topics.
One of the things that I also love in the intervention we make is when we identify what's their love language, because it’s important to understand how you show love and how you wanna receive love. And especially when distance is involved, this can get more complicated. So I think it's very important to know ‘Okay, that's my love language. That's how I wanna be loved. And can you please do this and that for me?’ And above help them with the communication. But I think individual counseling, having the safe place and also finding solution to whatever the issue is, the combination of both is very important.
Yes. But also someone who understands you, because this lifestyle can also be complicated and someone who is not specialized in that, they may simply not fully get it.(:
Yes. I know I reached out to a therapist a few years ago because I wanted to understand what was going on and what was going on with the children and how I could help them and understand some of their behaviors. And I needed a place to download safely without… Cause if you say it to a friend, then maybe it might leak, or they might start viewing your partner in a different way. Or it's uncomfortable, you know, you're saying private things, but if you say it to a therapist, I think then you know that conversation is confidential. It's not gonna be anywhere else. And I think sometimes talking as well helps to get it out. To get the weight of your shoulders.(:
Definitely. And also think of partners who live in small knit communities, pretty much the only people around them are their colleagues. For example, if you're on a missionary field, etc, it's not easy to talk about these problems with your colleagues at the same time, because there are also boundaries between personal and professional life. That’s just one example. So having someone who is neutral, who can be there with good intentions to help you and specialize with their knowledge and their experience to help you, it can be a great help and it doesn't have to be this way, you know, the way you feel right now, doesn't have to be this way. There's so many things we can do to change it for the better.(:
Wow. So sometimes you don't need to change your circumstances to feel better.(:
Not always. It depends on the issue involved. But not always. Sometimes you just have to accept the circumstances and get the most out of them. Because really you cannot change them. And not everything is controlled by us.
I think one of the most important skills in life is to know what we can control and what we cannot control. Because we can waste a lot of energy by focusing on what we cannot control. And then we end up feeling overwhelmed. Whereas if you focus on what you can control, you get empowered that this can change. And we go to the energy, we go to the action level. We shift the focus from the energy to the action and we do something about it. And this is where we start feeling better because the solution always lies in taking action.(:
Right. I love it. I think that's a brilliant place to conclude. Is there anything else that you would like to add?(:
Yeah. That they're not alone. You're not alone. If you're listening to us right now, there's so many people that can help you. So many resources available to you out there. We understand you. And remember that love knows no borders. You are blessed to have a partner that loves you and you love them. And you have shared the life together and dreams together about your future. It's the distance that can complicate things. But this doesn't change the fact that you're blessed to have your personal life that you have chosen to build your life with.(:
Yes. That's brilliant. It's beautiful. Thank you so much, Vivian, for sharing so much. And one last question that I ask all my guests is a favorite resource that has been useful in your life that you could share with listeners. It doesn't have to be on this topic. It could just be a life topic or something that you found useful.(:
Okay. I will mention a little bit more than one if that's okay, Rhoda. First, I love your book. I would highly recommend your book as the go-to resource when it comes to this topic. It's a wonderful book and I know your website is coming up, so I'm sure it's gonna be full of resources that are such a wealth that we're pioneer in this field and well done.
Another favorite resource for me is the Families in Global Transition. I love this organization. I have served as a board member for years. I love Ruth van Reken, who's one of the founders of it, the author of the Third Culture Kids book. So definitely that would be another one.
Then Tandem Nomads podcast by Amal Derragui. And the Expat Happy Hour by Sunday Bean. Now it's now named In Transit podcast, but that's one of my favorite as well.
And of course I would like to mention the Expat Nest blog, which is full of free resources for our community.(:
Yep. So it's www.expatnest.com.(:
Yes. And we have a blog there with 10 different categories for people to read different articles on the topics, etc.(:
Super, thank you so much, Vivian. Thank you for your encouragement throughout these years, as I've been working on this as well. Thank you for your availability to do this podcast, but also present at FIGT with me. And also at different moments to encourage when I launched my books and all that. I know you're very, very busy and I really appreciate your time. Thank you so much for the nuggets of wisdom that you've shared with us today and to all who've listened to this episode.
Thank you so much. I hope that it has been helpful and encouraging for you. Please share it in your communities and with your friends.(:
Thank you so much to everyone and thank you so much, Rhoda.