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Dealing with expat problems: Living costs, distant marriages and family helpers

Parts of the expat experience are too good to be believed – princely packages, travel galore and affordable home help. But sometimes these so-called perks have unintended consequences. We asked a few mental health experts to weigh on what to do when a good thing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

My wife and I thought that our expat package would allow us to save money hand over fist once we arrived. But the cost of living is much higher than we expected, and we now fight weekly about finances. How can we work through this? 

Steve Kay and Amber Kay of Expats in Crisis


Firstly, what might be the deeper, underlying issues? For example, “money” may mean security to one person, yet freedom to another. Insight into each person’s beliefs and values will lead to understanding and respect for each other’s needs. The pressures, stresses and losses incurred in the transition on each member of the family, together with the strangeness of the expat world for the newcomer, may quickly overwhelm and evoke resentment and blame.

Whether it’s truly about money or not, you’ll achieve the most resourceful resolution by taking a collaborative and respectful approach. This may involve creating budgets to meet individual needs and values, or by inviting the advice of a financial expert.

Identifying and resolving any deeper issues is key as is developing respectful communication skills that model resourceful behaviours for children, reduce conflict, and enable ongoing, solution-focused dialogue. This is where professional assistance can be most useful.

I have a wonderful helper whom my kids adore. Recently my oldest son asked for her to walk him to school, even though I have walked with him every day for the past two years. I was crushed, to say the least. Is it wrong for me to want them to spend less time together now?  

Martine Hill of Alliance Professional Counselling says:

There are often times when it seems like your helper is more popular with your children than you are. That hurts. No matter how often you tell yourself you want your children to like the helper, it still hurts.

It is normal to feel jealous or threatened – it may not be often discussed but it is a normal reaction.  Rest assured that the bond a parent has with a child is stronger than you may realize. Children know the difference between you and the helper. They know who is the parent and – because they feel safe with you – might even give you a hard time because they know you will always be there. It is a powerful thing for a child to know that they are safe.

Don’t discourage the relationship with the helper. Take solace in knowing that your helper is doing a spectacular job and that your children are safe and happy.

My husband travels as much as three weeks out of every month. He really dislikes his job, so the only way I know how to be supportive is to not complain. But his frequent absences are driving a wedge between us. How do I support him while not enabling a situation that is damaging to our relationship? 

Rachel McKenna of The Counselling Place advises:

Many things over the course of a marriage place strain on a relationship. Work, illness and commitments to care for others are all times that we are called on to “work” to sustain a marriage. During difficult times due to work impositions it is important to ask: why we are doing this? Perhaps it is for a future financial goal, to pay for expenses such as children’s education, or to obtain greater job opportunities with less travel in the future.

Secondly, ask youself: do the sacrifices being made warrant the end goal? If not, what can be done differently? What is the time line or process for change to take place? If it is worth the sacrifice, how can we hold onto this shared goal for the future in the present time when travel is straining the relationship? How do we find ways to appreciate or acknowledge the steps taken by each of us towards our future goal? Together think of what you can do to help support each other in this interim period.