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January 2000
THE STRESSES OF RELOCATION
By Alan M. Solomon, Ph.D.

Related Articles by Alan Solomon, Ph.D.:
January 2000 - Psych Bytes RELOCATION STRESS: THE WARNING SIGNS
February 2000 - Psych Bytes COPING WITH THE STRESS OF RELOCATION

Relocating for a new job is exciting, indeed. New work, new city, new country perhaps, travel, different and intriguing life styles, new people to meet, hopefully greater economic benefits. All of this can be so positive, so much an improvement in your life. Yet, it can still be stressful.

Research demonstrates that many positive changes are stressful. The birth of a child is often a joyous, long-awaited, planned for blessing, but any parent can tell you about the stress. Daily schedules completely change, you feel sleep deprived, and struggle to maintain energy and focus on work while enjoying and engaging with the baby. The same is true with moving your family for a job change.

In a fundamental way, most everything that forms the foundation of your lives changes. The routines of life change: shopping, banking, transportation around town. Social and recreational events and patterns change: movies, plays, sporting events, exercise possibilities, social organizations. Educational arrangements for the children change. So much of your routine - things that you have done on automatic pilot for years - has to be re-learned, and adjusted. Some of these adjustments are far from comfortable or easy, at least at first.

So much of what you have easily established, comfortably lived with, and routinely depended upon has to be re-arranged, deliberately decided upon, and executed in ways that may not be easy, comfortable, or familiar. While many of these new circumstances might actually be improvements, the process of adjusting can be quite stressful.

In other words, much of the excitement and benefits of job relocation is often complicated by stresses. In most cases, these stresses are short-term and temporary, but you want to find ways to manage the stress or it can affect your adjustment. The difficulties can be more problematic and critical - serious enough to threaten your success if adequate help is not found. In addition to the changes in routine mentioned above, people commonly face challenges in a few other areas: support networks, work related issues, and meeting their children's needs. Marriages can suffer. Family relationships can be damaged. Individual family members can experience serious and long-lasting psychological wounds. There are some telltale signs to watch for, just as there are some remedial steps to take, which we'll discuss later.

What Happens to Your Support Network?
Relocation means a significant change in social support for all family members. The employee making the job change may know some of the people on the new job, perhaps some of them quite well, but many of the people will be new and perhaps initially a bit difficult to relate to. At least for awhile, the employee will be less certain about who to turn to for help with challenging situations, who to share an easy few moments of conversation with, who to joke with, and who is receptive to his efforts on the job. The employee will need some time to figure out office politics as well as office logistics.

All family members will be leaving their long-time support group: neighbors, friends, and extended family. Some of these relationships can span years, decades, and entire lifetimes. Children may have lived their entire lives with loving, supportive grandparents nearby who have had frequent contact and caretaking involvement, for example. The employee and/or spouse may be leaving childhood friends and lifelong family relationships that have been central to their lives. A child may be leaving a "best friend" with whom they have had daily contact and/or playtime for a crucial period of time in their life.

The sense of loss and loneliness is sometimes acute and painful, especially after the initial excitement of the new life situation wears off to be replaced by the daily routine of living. Holidays and special occasions (e.g. birthdays, anniversaries) can be mixed with sadness about not having contact with close friends and family members with whom these special days have been celebrated in the past. Even more, living in a foreign country means that some holidays have to be celebrated in a totally different way. Christmas and New Years may be celebrated in some different ways, or not at all, if you are living in a primarily non-Christian country for example.

While new relationships are powerfully helpful, cultural barriers can complicate these efforts. It can be difficult to develop friendships of sufficient depth, closeness, understanding, and ease with people who come from different backgrounds and cultures. Misunderstandings can easily result in distance, alienation, and hurt feelings. Americans, who frequently entertain people in their homes, can be put off for example in a culture in which socializing is rarely done in one's home, but in restaurants, bars, or other venues instead. The newcomer may wonder, "Why are we never invited to someone's home? Are we being excluded?" It is difficult and yet crucial to understand the meaning of these interactions within the cultural context of the new location

How Your Marriage Can Be Affected
The employee starting a new job, perhaps at a new company, is likely to face many challenges - much to learn, new relationships to develop, major responsibilities to tackle. Long hours on the job, weekend work, significant travel (perhaps more than in the past) may be needed. The employee's excitement about all this, as well as some worry, distractibility, and necessary work commitments may make the employee less available for his spouse and family. This reduced availability may be precisely at a time when they need him to be more available and involved in everyone's efforts to adapt, adjust, and build a new life.

Spouses may feel neglected, unimportant, hurt, sad, and angry if this pattern is continued for any length of time. Children may feel much the same if bedtime stories are not read, soccer coaches disappear, homework help is less available, weekend outings dry up. The seeds of marital and/or family difficulties can be sown, to be harvested surprisingly soon sometimes.

Spouses may have particular difficulties around job issues. Many spouses leave a meaningful job of their own to support the relocation. Career momentum, independent and additional income, a sense of purpose can be disrupted. The spouse's sense of worth can suffer when a major part of their identity has been founded on their own work. Feeling more dependent on their partner than they have previously can also foster difficulties. Work opportunities for the spouse may be limited or non-existent; ex-patriots may not be able to secure work permits/visa's needed for any work at all due to government restrictions. Significant time spent in ways that can feel less productive, even empty, can raise risks of depression, anxiety, and resentment towards the employed spouse. The individual's well being, as well as the relationship's health, can be at risk in this scenario.

Challenges with Children
Children face special challenges when they move to a new location. Finding a school that matches your child's talents, abilities, and any special needs is extremely important. Children spend so much time in school and it plays such a crucial role in their development, it's obvious they need the best school possible terrible price can be paid if academic services are poorly matched for a child. You'll probably want to investigate schools on your pre-visit, or at least gather all the information you can before you arrive.

Developing new friends can be daunting if a child is breaking into a well-established system of relationships at a school, facing cultural differences that can be mystifying and off-putting, especially if the child is shy or introverted. Parents may need to help by setting up "play dates" for younger children, arranging family outings with other students and their parents, or enrolling their children in extra curricular activities in the community as soon as possible.

New caretakers/adults, as well as peers, may present values, expectations, and interactions that diverge from the family's core beliefs and practices. Teachers, for example, may expect a degree of quiet submissiveness and compliance that contradicts a family's tolerance for independence and freedom of expression. The result can be confusion, conflict, and uneasiness for both children and their parents.

If one or both parents are preoccupied distracted, and less available because of job-related duties and/or spousal struggles, children may lack support, structure, and guidance at a time when they need it most. This can greatly increase their sense of isolation, as well as their vulnerability to developing problems.

These risks are more serious for adolescents, who are going through a period of greater turmoil and potential risks even without the additional stresses of a family relocation. If adolescents lack support within the family, in addition to moderating influences of extended family, friends, and neighbors, they are more vulnerable to acting-out behavior. This can take the form of peers chosen as friends, violation of family norms/expectations, social struggles, school difficulties, and experimentation with drugs/alcohol to a more serious degree.

Relocating can indeed be a great adventure that enriches everyone in the family, if stress is recognized and responded to effectively. Life experiences are there for the taking.

©copyright by Sandy Plone, Ph.D. 2000

Dr. Solomon is a psychotherapist in practice in Torrance. He is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.

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