I’m in an expat long distance relationship. With my husband. He is in Paris during the week and home in Germany with me, the kids and the dog at the weekend. So part-time long-distance.
Of course, this was never in our plan – but as we all know, our expat plans rarely ever go to plan.
Why are you living in a different country to your husband?!
Before I go any further with this: my husband and I like each other. Honestly. The fact that he is spending most of his time living in a different country is not because he is trying to get away from me. I hope…
My husband is in Paris because the company he moved to Germany for was sold. Not the best timing on our part. He was offered another job here but it wasn’t right for him. And then he was offered a perfect job for him, the fly in the ointment was that it was based in Paris.
As we had only moved to Germany 18 months previously, we decided to go the distance. There were two main reasons for this. The first was that our children were really happy and settled at school. The second reason was timing: he accepted the job at the start of summer which would have given us 8 weeks to pack up, move out, and find somewhere to live. Doable, yes. But desirable? No.
Bottom line – I wasn’t ready to go. And so I didn’t.
At some point, many of us will have an expat long distance relationship
At some point or other, many of us experience an expat long-distance relationship. The few months you stay in a country to see out the school year while your partner moves to get a head start on the new job. When you go back to your home country for schooling while your partner commutes and comes home for the weekend. Or they get offered their dream job somewhere but you have to finish your contract. So many scenarios.
So I guess that’s why this situation seemed possible to us. I think, had we been living at home, the thought of one of us working away and flying back just for the weekend would have seemed crazy.
But as expats we have seen this happen a lot – and seen it work.
How do you make an expat long distance relationship work?
First up, I am slightly nervous that by writing ‘tips’ I might jinx myself! I am NO authority on relationships, but I can tell you the things that have made this choice easier for us. And the things that we have found hard.
Have a deadline
This may not always be possible, but knowing how long you have to ‘survive’ being apart makes it a lot easier to manage. Even if you can’t call an end date, you can agree on a date that you will review things.
Make your priorities and expectations clear
How are things going to work? Every relationship is different, but if you are going to make a long-distance one work you need to talk about how you will manage it.
For us, family time is key so that is a priority. Weekends are about doing things together, and we have planned our holidays to make sure we have things to look forward to.
Schedule in time to talk
Time differences and commitments can make it easy for days to slip by without talking…and text messages just don’t cut it. I realise it sounds very business-like, but sometimes you have to schedule in when you are going to talk to each other, because otherwise you invariably call while the other one is busy. And it doesn’t take many ‘Sorry, can’t talk right now’ responses to make you feel disconnected.
We speak in the morning when I am driving the kids to school – they can chat to dad on the speakerphone and it’s become part of our routine. We FaceTime in the evening…it doesn’t always happen, but we try and ensure at least a quick ‘Goodnight’ before we go to bed.
Plan time to be together
Yep, date nights! Long distance means more planning in my experience. Like any relationship, it’s so easy to fall into the habit of not making an effort…especially when you’re both tired out.
But, as they say, a change is as good as a rest (not sure if that’s actually true….with all these changes we’ve made I NEVER feel rested). I digress…basically, date nights are a good idea. Being out of the house, away from chores, iPads, to-do lists and, of course, kids, gives you time to focus on each other and actually talk.
So book a babysitter (if you need one…) and get those special dates in the diary.
Have a shared calendar
Gah. I am NOT a super-organised person, but we have a shared calendar. I’m embarrassed to admit it is a paper calendar hung by the kettle. But it works for us because I make sure everything is written down here. And, as I am a true Brit and therefore constantly making cups of tea, it gets checked regularly.
But I think we will upgrade to an electronic shared calendar because it does get so hard to keep track of who is doing what and when. In fact, this would be perfect as well for adding in what the kids are doing, so it gives the partner who is away a prompt when they chat to the kids. Ok, I have convinced myself…I will go digital in the New Year!
I know I am a stuck record on this. But be kind to yourself, and each other (wait – did I just quote Jerry Springer?!). Because this is tough. Give yourself a break. And give your partner a break too.
Part-time Lone Parenting
This is the hardest part of doing a long distance relationship. It means that, for the majority of the time one of you is solely responsible for the kids.
This is especially hard when you’re an expat – you can’t rely on family to help out, and it can feel very pressured. And these past few months have made me want to take my hat off to all the full-time single parents out there – because this is a tough gig. Rewarding, of course, but tough.
And while my hat is off…to all the military spouses, I salute you.
But while writing this post I realised that a lot of my friends are in this situation, even if their partner is living in the same house as them. So many of us have partners who travel non-stop. Or work such long hours that they are out the door before anyone else is up and back way past the kids’ bedtime.
So I think I will write in more detail on the subject of being a part-time lone parent. But in terms of long distance relationships, we have to acknowledge that the kids are also having in long distance relationship with a parent.
My kids found it really tough at first. The morning chats and regular Face Time slots have helped. We also try to make sure they each have ‘Dad time’ at the weekend on their own (easier said than done).
One thing that works for us is rituals…which we try to stick to. We now bake (or buy) a cake on Thursdays. On Fridays after school we sit and have tea and cake together. My husband takes a break from working. No phones. No TV. No, it doesn’t always work out, but it’s something we all look forward to.
Lower your expectations
It’s not often that I say this – but really, lower your expectations! I had visions of my husband coming home and us all being cosy and happy together. The reality? It was like a war zone. We were all too hyped up, with too much to say to each other and it was like we had some kind of attention deficit.
We are lucky in that we are together at the weekends. But when my husband comes back in the early evening it’s a disaster. He came back one Friday afternoon and the kids went crazy with excitement and then both ended up crying for one reason or another. So now he gets back late Thursday. We get to download everything to each other while the kids are asleep (it means we invariable have a very late night) and then the kids are excited to see him on a Friday morning. It works for us and gives us all a bit of space to readjust to being back together.
Because when you are on your own, you get into your own rhythm of doing things. You become so competent at getting everything done by yourself that when your partner comes home there can be a feeling of…hmmmm. Where exactly do you fit in? Why do you hype the kids up before bedtime when my routine works so well? Why are your shirts in a pile in the corner of the room?
And the returning partner can suffer from what I call ‘hotel mentality’. You know, thinking that everything will get sorted cleaned up, tidied away by magic. Those shirts will just get picked up. Everything should be in the exact right place, all the time. (Anyone else’s partner occasionally suffer from this?!)
It’s not easy for either of you to slot back in to being together again. But being together is about just that – being physically and emotionally present, together.
You probably won’t have the perfect family days out. Your homely afternoon doing board games together might end in tears and tantrums (just us? Every. Single. Time). But that’s ok. Don’t put pressure on yourselves.
But that hotel mentality? That definitely has to go…
Mark occasions, even the smallest of things. Make an effort. From anniversaries to a great school project to the passing of the seasons. It doesn’t have to be a party, but take a moment to show recognition. Life moves so fast, and living apart means you have to work harder at staying in the present.
Celebrate everything, even if you aren’t together. And when you are together…celebrate some more.
Remember the big picture
Keep in mind the reason why you are doing this – especially when you are finding things tough. Ultimately the reason people embark on long-distance relationship is usually because there will be something better at the end of it.
I am just looking forward to us all being together as a family. And, while I will miss Germany and my friends here SO much, this time apart has actually made me realise that the cliché is true: home is wherever the four of us are together.