Tips to Surviving the First Year as an Expat/Trailing Spouse


Jump In!

Lake art. Vevey, Switzerland

Lake art. Vevey, Switzerland

You may be on an expatriation of limited duration or an indefinite time; however, the truth is that no one knows certainly what the future holds. The fact that you are living in a different country from the one in which you were raised is a testament to this reality. Sometimes an employment assignment continues for longer than expected or is cut short unexpectedly. Therefore, jump all the way into your new home and location.  As a child, I moved often in the United States with my parents. Exasperated at one point, I asked my Mom in a sarcastic manner “well, how long are we going to live here . . .two years?”.  Her wise response, “you will only be happy if you act as if you will live here for the rest of your life”.

     Relocating to a new country can be like trying to get into the cold water of Lake Geneva also known as Lac Léman (I currently live in Lausanne, Switzerland on Lake Geneva) . . you finally just have to jump in and go all the way under . . . then your body adapts relatively quickly to the cold temperature! This is especially true in building a support system and friendships. You could spend a lot of time tip toeing, standing at knee level and miss out in the joy of really connecting with new friends and colleagues.  Without those new connections, you might feel like you are as John Prine would say “drowning in a half an inch of water” (www.facebook/pages/john-prine).  In her insightful book , The Space Between Us: Exploring the Dimensions of Human Relationships,  Janet Josselson states that “from the beginning of life to the end, we must be held, or we fall”. Building a support system in your new location will help you keep standing tall.

Learn Survival Phrases ASAP


     If you are relocating to a country with a differing primary language, learn survival phrases as soon as possible. If you are the trailing spouse or partner chances are you will be out and about trying to conduct business in the local language . . . a daunting task! Making a true effort to speak the local language goes a long way.  Begin first with the basic phrases such as “hello”, “good-bye”, “thank-you”, “please”, “excuse me”, “I don’t understand”, and “do you speak English” (German, French, Italian, etc.)?” Check out these excellent free websites for basic language learning :,, or  These are excellent resources to begin the process of learning survival phrases.

     You will find that conducting business in person is far easier than on the phone. Remember, communication is only 7% words, the remainder is tone of voice, facial expression and gesturing. Time to sharpen your skills in the real life game of “Charades”!

Live in the Heart of  Your New Location

Place St. Français, Lausanne, Switzerland

Place St. François, Lausanne, Switzerland

     We humans are highly dependent on one another, so living in a remote area can prove to be a disaster for an expatriate especially if you don’t know many people if any! If you are relocating from the US, you may find yourself in a much smaller living space and the four walls may start to move in on you. Getting out each day and being around people (even complete strangers) will help keep your mood up. When you are closer to the center of your new town, village or city, you can get a true sense of your new location. If you ever feel lonely, which is bound to happen, you can find a coffee shop, buy a brew and people watch.  Once you are established with a strong support system and an understanding of transportation, the culture and the native language you might consider living more remotely.

Make New Friends but Keep the Old; One is Silver and the other Gold

View from our balcony in Pully, Switzerland.

View from our balcony in Pully, Switzerland.

You can’t wait in your corner of the Forest for people to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”  Winnie the Pooh

     Finding ways to make new acquaintances and possible friends quickly is extremely important when relocating anywhere but especially to another country. Almost every major city will have expatriate groups for you to consider joining (,, or In these groups, you will find other individuals in similar situations which may cause you to bond rather quickly. Your spouse’s or partner’s place of employment will must likely have support for you and suggestions about integrating into your new location. This is a time to take some chances and socialize with all types of people. Perhaps finding an organisation  with whom you could volunteer or you might be able to find a place of worship which caters to expatriates if this is an option for you. You might meet someone in your similar situation at the market, a yoga class or an intensive language  course . . . ask your acquaintance to go for a coffee, a walk or lunch . . . be respectful yet bold!

“We’ll be friends until forever, just you wait and see!” Winnie the Pooh

     Through wonderful technology, you can keep in contact with you friends and family easily. Others may disagree, but I believe that keeping contact with your friends and family from your originating home is certainly helpful. You don’t want to let communicating with friends from your originating home to take the place of meeting new people; however, talking with your friends and family who already know you well and love you can be extremely comforting during this wonderful  yet undoubtedly stressful transition. Friendship includes the connecting feeling of being understood and understanding someone else. . . ahhh, sweet validation! In addition, you may be returning to your originating home and you will want to keep those contacts strong.

Unable to Work? Focus on What You Can Do

     Many trailing life partners are college degreed with successful careers who make the choice relinquish their current position to support their partners in an expatriation. According to a recent article in the New York Times, in 2011 only 15 % of trailing spouses where able to find employment in their new location. Language barriers, difficulty with licensing and obtaining work permits all make securing employment in the trailing life partner’s field elusive to say the least.

     If you find yourself in this position, what next? Time to be creative! Start with thinking about what you might have dreamed of doing if you only had the time. After you are settled in your new location, you will have time to focus on fulfilling some of those dreams. No one can stop you from writing. Is there a topic or two that have been rolling around in your brain? Learning a new language is challenging and of course, will be exceedingly helpful. Maybe you want to try an art class, engage yourself in a new sport or volunteer. You might be able to start an on-line business that has no restrictions. Like me, you may long to return to your career; however, utilising your time during your expatriation for something positive and rewarding will help you live in the moment.

Stay Close to Your Co-Conspirator


     A transition of this magnitude can either bring you closer to your spouse/partner or have the opposite effect. Hopefully, you can reflect on previous successful transitions and realise that some of the most heightened transitional times in your relationship have actually brought you closer as a couple. The first year of marriage, domestic moves, job changes, addition of pets, birth of children, death of loved ones often add a new level of depth to our relationship with our partners. Bravely ‘standing in the fire together’ while painful at the time creates a bond that can not be broken. T. Barry Brazelton, M.D. and Pediatric Psychologist states: “anything you really appreciate was hard work, it did not come easy.” You can look back with joy at your victory shouting “we made it through that crazy first year as expats together!” Relocating to a new country will require effective team work, brain storming together for solutions and significant mutual support.  Being honest with your partner about both your personal struggles as well exciting adventures in a new world will keep your love real and alive.

     Of course, although the transition is significant, the spirit of adventure makes this transition completely worth it. It has been proven that experiencing new food, new scenery, new activities, new friends and even the most challenging, a new language all greatly improve brain functioning. Being open to a different culture and a different way of life will enrich your life in ways you never expected.

Bring Your Pet!


     This is the day of my arrival to Lausanne with my Grace. Although it was a little scary to bring our dog, Grace, I am so glad we did. All the things you love about having a pet are accentuated during an expatriation. A pet can bring comfort when you have had a rough day, feel lonely or simply out of sorts. If you have a dog, you will be out walking or running him or her providing opportunity to be around people. In public, dogs are a topic of conversation and you can practice your new language skills and/or charades!

Gratitude and a Moment of Zen

     Finally and most importantly, staying positive during your adventure as an expatriate. One way to stay positive is to keep a daily gratitude journal. Simply write what you are grateful for that day and the smallest things are the most important.  In the words of Winnie the Pooh: “Sometimes the smallest things take up the largest portion of your heart.” You can also journal about your favourite memory of the day. It is also okay to process any negative feelings or events that may have happened through writing or talking. This will help you to move forward to a more positive state of mind.

     Find your moment of Zen which can be something really strange or funny that you witness.  It can also be a really wonderful, serendipitous moment. One day I saw an accordion player in Lausanne, Switzerland wearing a bear outfit . . .  oh là là. . .my moment of Zen! There is a musician who is often in our town square of Pully, Switzerland who plays the song, Moon River, which you may know from the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This was my parent’s love song and always makes my heart happy. . . wonderfully serendipitous.

Bear clad accordion player. Lausanne, Switzerland.

Bear clad accordion player. Lausanne, Switzerland.

Helen H. Thomas, Licensed Clinical Social Worker providing E-therapy via


“You express your own divinity by being alive and by loving yourself and others.”
― Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom


About HelenHThomas

As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I am honored to work at Cook Children's Medical Center as a Clinical Therapist providing supportive counseling for the parents of our tiniest patients in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. I feel infinitely thankful to share my life with my best friend and life partner, Dr. Charles R. Thomas (Chuck). Spending time with my wildly fantastic adult children, their spouses and our exceptionally wonderful friends makes my life complete. Life is good!
This entry was posted in Expatriation, Transisitons and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Tips to Surviving the First Year as an Expat/Trailing Spouse

  1. Reblogged this on charlesrthomasjr and commented:
    Jump in!

  2. Rhonda Hailes Maylett says:

    Bless you for providing sensational resources plus wonderful thoughts about beginning new adventures! Your journey has been amazing because of your positive spirit and zest for learning. Treasure yourself forever because you possess the light of true giving…☼

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