Staying connected with your family and friends when you live overseas

by Lisa McKay on July 19, 2013

I’d be willing to bet that most of you reading this post are in a long distance relationship of some sort or another. At some point in their careers, most development workers and missionaries find themselves living far away from friends and family. Some even find themselves enduring long stints apart from those they’re dating or married to. Learning how to live with some of your loved ones half a country (or a world) away is an essential skill for coping well with international living.

This post kicks off a three-part series on long distance relationships that will run in the next week on A Life Overseas.

Today we’ll look at staying connected with your family and friends when you live overseas. In my experience, this is usually foundational to thriving while living abroad. Especially early in their careers, missionaries and humanitarian workers can be much more intentional and energetic about forging new relationships with people in their host countries than they are about maintaining good relationships with those back home. I know some may disagree with me on this point, but I believe that doing this is a mistake. For many, allowing important relational networks back home to significantly degrade will, over time, compromise their health, happiness, and effectiveness in their work.

Monday’s post will focus on long distance romantic relationships, and I’ll tell you about a new website I’m launching that day called Modern Love Long Distance. This site will provide quality resources and tools for those in long distance relationships. I’ve been working on this behind the scenes for a year and I’m really excited to see this project go live!

Next Wednesday we’ll discuss helping children stay connected with family and friends back home while living abroad.

So without further ado, let’s get to it …

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Staying connected with your family and friends when you live overseas

When you live in a country other than the one you would have considered home throughout your childhood, chances are that part of you will always feel divided. No matter how eagerly you embrace learning about your new culture and forging new relationships, those new friends will probably never completely replace the friends and family you’ve left behind.

Nor should they. I don’t use the word should very often, but I’m about to now. As uncomfortable as it can be to straddle two worlds, missionaries and development workers should work to maintain important relationships “back home” even as they’re working to integrate into a “new home”.

This is perhaps easier said than done. It can be tough to stay meaningfully connected to family and friends back home when you’re living half a world away. There’s no doubt that Skype and other technological wonders have made things easier in recent years, but myriad tricky questions remain surrounding the issue of how to stay in touch with parents and siblings, and how to help children (if you have any) grow up feeling meaningfully connected to their relatives.

Questions like: What are my parents/relatives expectations and hopes about the frequency, type, and duration of contact we’ll have? What are mine? How can I help my children feel connected to my home culture and their overseas relatives? What friends am I hoping to stay in contact with? How? How can we share parts of our life on the field with those back home in ways that they’ll understand and appreciate? How can we demonstrate sincere interest in their lives when our daily realities often differ dramatically?

As I’ll share in more detail on Monday, I have a lot of experience trying to answer these questions. However, if you were hoping for a definitive how-to manual on this topic, I’m sorry. One thing that all that experience has taught me is that there is no one-size fits all on this topic. There is no one “right” set of answers. And what might work well for you in one phase of life may not work at all well five years later.

Figuring out how you want to (and can) stay connected with your family and friends long distance is a continual process of reflection, dialogue, and adjustment. It’s also, often, learning to live with the feeling that nothing you’re doing on this front is working perfectly.

With that disclaimer, here are some thoughts on ways to stay connected with family and friends.

1.     Realize and accept that many of your friends (and even your family) back home will not be proactive about staying in touch with you when you move overseas. Many people, especially those who haven’t lived overseas themselves, are not good at reaching out to distant friends. Some of your closest friends won’t email or call you regularly, read your blog, or keep up with all of your newsletters. Try not to take this too personally or get too hurt. Just accept that if you want to stay in contact with key family and friends you will have to initiate most of the contact and make the lion’s share of the effort to keep these relationships going.

2.     Help those back home “see” your life: When your friends and family back home talk about their lives, you’ll largely be able to imagine what they’re discussing. When you move overseas, your friends and family won’t have that luxury. Try to help them “see” your life by through photos, stories, and short videos. Consider starting a blog. This will allow people to dip into your story when they have time and energy and will save you from sending lots of individual “update” emails. If you’re worried about privacy you can always program your blog so that only approved viewers can log in. If you’re not a blogger, think about sending out a monthly newsletter to a mailing list of friends and family. (Hint, keep these newsletters to 1000 words or less and include one or two stories and some photos.)

3.     Talk: Emails, blogs, newsletters and the like are great, but actually talking to someone is important too. When it comes to family or others you want to stay closely connected to, you might find that it works to catch up via Skype or phone “when you have time”. If, however, you find that you never “have time” and months are slipping past between calls, think about how often you would ideally like to talk to various family members or important friends. Then try to work out a rough schedule. For example, you may want to plan to talk to your parents weekly or twice a month. As a side benefit, setting up a routine like this can also help manage your family’s expectations about how often and when you’ll get to talk. Finally, don’t forget to give close friends the occasional call. You might only talk once every four to six months, but those infrequent chats can go a long way towards maintaining your relationship in between visits.

4.     Visit: Nothing beats face-to-face time for building relationships. Travelling back and forth from many places in this world is still a time-consuming and expensive prospect. However, if you live overseas and relationships back home are important to you, budgeting time and money to go home regularly is a must (and frankly, I don’t think that “once every four years”, although regular, is often enough). Also, encourage family and friends to visit you if they can. You’ll be able to spend more relaxed quality time with them when you’re “at home” and in your own routine without all the distractions that come with vacations or home leave. They’ll also leave feeling much more connected to your life overseas.

I know I’ve just scratched the surface with this topic, but I don’t want to drown you with a 50-page post. Instead, I’d love to hear from you about this.

What do you do to stay connected with family and friends?
Get specific – we’d all love to learn from your tips, tricks, and stories.

Join us back here on Monday to learn more about Modern Love Long Distance and how it’ll serve the ever-growing number of us who spend significant time apart from their significant “other”.

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Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Blog: www.lisamckaywriting.com      Books: Love At The Speed Of Email and My Hands Came Away Red

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About Lisa McKay

Lisa McKay is a psychologist and the award-winning author of the memoir Love At The Speed Of Email, the novel My Hands Came Away Red, and several books on long distance relationships. She lives in Laos with her husband and their two sons.

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