The Top 4 Stressors in Expat Life, and What to Do

Casablanca Highway Photo by  Edouard TAMBA  on  Unsplash

Casablanca Highway Photo by Edouard TAMBA on Unsplash

I stepped off a plane into the summer heat of Casablanca, Morocco with my two boys (3 and 5 years old). It was August of 1997. My boss and his welcome committee all ended up on vacation the week we arrived. 

“That’s ok, we can do this!”

We were excited for the adventure before us and easily sloughed off getting lost in a taxi with no cell phone. We didn’t get outwardly frustrated trying to find food in a store where we couldn’t read the labels. Even trying to find our own housing with no native English speaker to help was ok . . . for about a month. 

We started off with the honeymoon excitement and joy that you may remember. But over time, the stress of cross-cultural living settled in, and we began to carry around the weight of it. Now, after all these years, we can look back and identify the stressors we faced, and we can more easily see them in the new people that arrive each year. 

So, what are the common stressors we see?


Photo by  Flying Carpet  on  Unsplash

The Top Four Stressors 

  1. Unrealistic Expectations. We come with high hopes and dreams about what our life overseas will look like. This can be good—no one would ever make this transition without some hopes. However, we often get weighed down by too many unreasonable expectations. One of the things that causes underlying stress for those working cross-culturally is discouragement in their work. We just aren’t able to accomplish our goals like we thought we could. We can’t meet the expectations of those who sent us here. The plan takes longer, or the ideal resources aren’t available, or we didn’t plan on all the bureaucracy. 

  2. Too Much Change. Not only are we changing, but time zones, climates, geography, homes, food, and maybe even clothing and language are too. We also are living among people with a different worldview, who play everyday life by different rules. It’s like being magically transported from playing American football to the middle of an ongoing soccer game—without knowing the rules or having the right equipment.

  3. Relationship Strain. The weight of our expectations and the amount of changes our body and psyche are having to manage can throw us into a self-preservation mode. Inevitably, this can put strain on our relationships. Like everyone else, marriage partners feel the pull of sustaining themselves and start to pull away from their spouse in an effort to self-protect—making things even worse! Parents can also tend to lash out in anger at their children under the weight of stress. From struggles with teammates of any nationality, to fights with apartment mates, our relationships suffer when all our energy is going towards managing strain from all the changes. 

  4. Loneliness. Our 2018 survey of needs among expats working in North Africa showed that loneliness, or a sense of isolation, was mentioned twice as often as any other need. The way we naturally react to unmet expectations, too much change, and relationship struggles is to isolate from those things and those people that add more to that weight.

    Which of these do you struggle with most?


Here are some ideas to help with each one:

1. Tips For Unrealistic Expectations.   

Obviously, it’s best to uncover expectations in advance whenever we can. One way to do this is by filling in the blank for this statement: “It would be bad if ________ happened.” Fill in the blank with crazy thoughts to start with, but keep going until you start hearing things that actually could happen.  

Think about what you loved about similar past experiences (a previous team you were on, for example) and write those things down. Now, consider if you might have hopes or expectations that those things might be true again. 

Uncover expectations with others. Read our e-book 4 Ways to Uncover Expectations to use with your spouse, partner, or your team.  When unmet expectations have already occured, you can learn “how to deconstruct your expectations and find your true needs” in this article.

2. Ideas for Dealing With Too Much Change.

Transport some of your “normal habits” from “back home” to this new situation.  Whether that’s eating pizza on Friday nights, wearing your normal clothing around the house, or calling your mom Sunday afternoons, keep some “normal” rituals as part of your new routine.

Take note of what hasn’t changed, even the small things—spaghetti noodles here are similar to home, my husband still has his corny sense of humor, I still can journal each morning, people here have the same basic needs as people back home.

3. Steps for Relationship Strain

Identify your relationship needs and desires. You can even use your unmet expectations to uncover those needs. This helps them become visible so you can notice when they are calling out for attention and may be tripping you up in your ability to care for others. 

Learn to be the person you wish others were. Take time to develop your listening skills. Learn how to ask better questions and care about people self-sacrificially. 

Read a great book on relationships. Two favorites are: Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most and Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well.    

Ask for help from others. Sometimes we can’t dig out of relationship strain on our own, and we need help to navigate what can be very dark and turbulent waters. Choose someone who has great, well-practiced, interpersonal skills and has been trained to help others safely navigate the process. Ask them what training and experience they’ve had before inviting someone to help—untrained people can actually make things worse.


4. Help for Loneliness 

We’ve got a series of great articles on this subject designed to help you better understand the problem and give you some practical help to move you forward.

Did You Know? 10 Interesting Things About Loneliness

This is your brain. This is your brain on loneliness

Loneliness in all seasons of life.

Finding friends in the desert of life.

Lonely? What to do to combat the emptiness.

Are you dried up and alone in the desert? 

We hope these suggestions help. However, maybe you feel you just don’t want to walk this road alone.  You’d like to have someone walk alongside you, someone who has already been down this road. If that’s you, please check out our Personalized Care options. 

We know first-hand the stress and strain that living cross-culturally can bring to us as individuals, couples, families, and teams. We also know that there is hope. We can help you adjust your vision and find ways to move toward your goal of doing better, staying longer in North Africa.