Expat Spouse Integration: Successfully adjust abroad with your partner
Moving to another country for love is romantic, adventurous and very, very hard. As the spouse of a local, you do have a leg up in many ways: A partner who speaks the language and understands the culture. You don’t have to find a place to live on your own. Your visa process is pretty straightforward.
But you still have to adjust to a foreign land, create a new life and integrate into a society unlike what you’re used to. Not an easy task.
When I first moved to Paris, I thought I had mentally prepared for these challenges. I’d been honest with myself that the adjustment wasn’t going to be all fun and games. But there are certain things in life you can’t really grasp until you’re in the thick of it.
A year and a half in, I’m still learning something new everyday. But I have a firm understanding of what I did right before boarding the plane for France, and what else I wish I had known.
BEFORE YOU GO
Have a serious talk with your partner about the level of support you will need
In the excitement of moving, its easy to get caught up in the daydreams of walking along the Seine, hand-in-hand with your spouse as the Eiffel tower twinkles in the distance. You’re not thinking about what happens when you can’t find a job or you try to exchange something at Monoprix and the process goes awry and you cry in the store (I speak from experience).
These are also the moments that will make up your new expat life. Doing an assessment of where you will need help and how you are going to handle it as a team is a must. Some questions to discuss:
- How much help will I need with the language? Will I be able to get through day-to-day life alone? Do visa or employment paperwork alone? Work in the language? Are you prepared to help me with all that if needed?
- How much support will I need financially? How will the balance of our financial responsibility change once we are there? How long could I potentially go without working? Will I be making less money?
- How much of a social support system will I have? Do I have my own friends or family there? How much are we going to see your family? How often will we travel back to my home country?
- How much emotional support will I need? Will my level of independence be much different there? How could that balance of power change our relationship?
Give yourself a timeline
Set an amount of time you are going to stick it out no matter how hard it gets. I told myself (and my husband) I was committing to 2-3 years and if after that I still didn’t like it, or couldn’t build a life, we could broach the subject of moving back. I knew from moving to NYC in my 20s that it takes years to really feel like you live in a city. So I wasn’t going to make an assessment until I had given it enough time to really know Paris.
The purpose of this commitment is two-fold. First, there will be many times, especially in the first year, that you will want to give up. Where it all feels too hard. Where it feels like you will never learn the language. Where it feels like the loneliness is unbearable. In those moments, booking yourself a one-way ticket home and saying au revoir to all that will be immensely tempting.
The second is that if you have in your head that you can or will leave, you’re not going to give it the same effort as if you’ve committed to this being your life for at least the near future. You won’t work as hard to make friends, or learn the language or even learn your way around the city. If you go into it believing you have an escape hatch, you will reach for the emergency brake instead of pushing through the hard times.
Understand it is a lot of hard work and be ready
Time for a come to Jesus moment with yourself. Moving abroad is not all ponies and unicorns. It will change you, it will change your relationship, and it will be a lot of hard work. The sooner you get the fantasy of wine on terraces all day out of your head, the better.
The idea many people have about life in France can make you feel guilty if the reality isn’t a dream. Friends back home will tell you you are so lucky to live here (true!), but therefore may not be receptive to hearing about your struggles.
For a better idea of what to expect, I recommend reading up a bit on French culture, history and the intricacies of the language — as well as the tales of expats who came before you. Here is a list of books I read before moving.
I don’t regret moving to Paris at all, but immigrating and adjusting hasn’t been easy. The amount of payoff you get is directly related to how much work you put in. If you don’t put in the effort, you will fail to integrate, period.
ONCE YOU ARRIVE
After you move into your new home, unpack, and memorize your own telephone number in French (took me longer than it should have) — the work of building your new life and identity begins.
Don’t rely on your partner for your entire social life
Most expat husbands and wives find it is important to their happiness that they don’t feel completely dependent on their partner. This requires putting yourself out there, and getting yourself out of the house a lot.
If you have even remote connections in your new country, use them. I found that when I announced I was moving to France, friends and acquaintances happily offered to connect me with anyone they knew here. It can feel awkward to have to meet so many people, many of whom you won’t “click” with, but there is no shortcut to making friends.
Other ways to meet people:
- There are a ton of resources online — from MeetUp events to Facebook groups for expats based on country of origin, interests or reason you’re in the country (such as for au pairs or spouse groups).
- In Paris, there are dozens of organizations that cater to expats — from theater groups to libraries to church groups to sports clubs.
- Try getting involved in a hobby you had in your new country. Become a regular at a yoga studio, sign up for an art class or another activity you loved back home that could attract like-minded people.
Even if you participate with your partner, it will feel good to be leading rather than following their plans. It’s also okay if your personal social life is in your comfort zone. While I do speak French with my husband’s friends and family, my personal social circle is almost entirely in English.
Give your days structure
Be disciplined about getting out of the house, studying and looking for opportunities to meet people. Get out of the normal touristy bubble and learn about local events you can add to your calendar. You will learn very little about your new home by sitting on your couch, as tempting as it is sometimes.
If you don’t have a job yet, I recommend using language school as a way to give yourself a set schedule. This worked great for me.
If you are searching for a job, be open-minded and get creative about the opportunities you look for. Dedicate time everyday to searching, applying and building a network. For more tips on finding English-language work in France, check out this article.
Language, language, language
It may seem obvious, but still needs to be said: Make learning the language a priority. If you can afford to and need to, take a few months when you arrive to dedicate to language courses and giving yourself time to learn your new environment. Classes don’t have to break the bank, and this can give you some adjustment time.
For those of us living in our foreign spouses’ homeland, the language is integral to connecting with your partner’s family and friends and becoming more independent. Personally I don’t enjoy the process of learning French much, and feel dumb much of the time, but the change it makes in your quality of life is immense.
Avoid playing the comparison game
The guy you read about who was “fluent” in three months. The woman who created a blog and now makes a living off her Instagram account. The friend-of-a-friend who landed a job in a week. These stories aren’t the reality for the vast majority of people who move to another country, so try not to use them as a yardstick.
Part of moving is figuring out who YOU are in this new environment. You may not have the job, family, friends and social structure you had back at home — and it can be hard to know yourself without all that. Focus on learning what works for you, not comparing yourself to others (who probably aren’t sharing all their struggles).
Don’t take it personally and move forward
Cultural differences will sometimes make you feel like people are being rude, when in fact they are just being French. There will be times when you feel like an alien because your normal ways of communicating don’t translate. Try not to take it to heart (easier said than done, I know).
You live in France, and you’re going to have to adjust to the way things are done here — the country is not going to change for you. So the sooner you accept that and learn how to deal with it, the better your life will become. You can spend all day comparing how things were done back in your country — but deciphering the culture and moving forward will be more productive.
Don’t forget to enjoy yourself
In the whirlwind of setting up your life, the pressure can feel overwhelming. Remember to still take time to do things you love, discover new places and take care of yourself.
Find the parts of the culture that really interest you and do a deep dive — maybe it is the language, food, regional differences, design or history. Or just give yourself a “day off” every once in a while to take a break from learning and treat yourself.
MARK YOUR MILESTONES
When you’re in the day-to-day struggle of building a new life, it can be hard to accurately assess your progress. Sometimes I beat myself up about my language skills, the number of friends I’ve made, or how I don’t know the names of the streets in my own neighborhood. But when I compare my life now to when I arrived, or even six months ago, I feel proud of myself.
Every few months (or whenever you’re feeling discouraged), check back in on some of the milestones you’ve hit with language, social life, work and learning about France.
Set goals, but don’t judge yourself too harshly if you don’t hit all of them exactly on time. The reality is, it will likely take you longer than you expect to adjust to your new country. Give yourself time to make it work, and cut yourself some slack.
Integration and adjustment must be measured in months and years, not days and weeks. By having realistic expectations, you and your relationship will be more likely to succeed. And of course, each person’s process is different, so please leave a comment and share what worked for you if you have additional advice!