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 …


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”.


Lisa McKayauthor, psychologist, sojourner in Laos

Blog:      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.
  • Thanks for the tips, Lisa. It’s good to be reminded that it’s important to keep close friendships intact, even when far away. I make a point to schedule Skype chats with friends, and at the end of the Skype chat to set up a time to chat next. This seems to work well, especially for friends with busy schedules. And it’s been helpful for me to know I have “face-to-face” time with a close friend to share about my struggles and to hear about what’s going on in her life.

    • Thanks for that suggestion. Good one. And I’ve learned that it’s really OK to say “great talk. Let’s talk again in three months” without feeling bad that we’re not talking again next Wednesday.

  • Karen

    We use Skype, email and Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends.

    One thing I would like to point out is that there is at times a negative “someone” who feels like they never hear from you. We try to keep up with our parents, our kids, our sending church and our supporters more often, so usually it’s our siblings, nieces and nephews, and prayer partners that hear from us less often. While we are the ones who moved overseas and need to keep in touch regularly with our family and friends back home, someone is going to feel slighted about how often you keep in touch. It doesn’t seem to do any good to point out that communication goes both ways. I just wanted to point out that it does happen, as it has happened to us.

    • Thanks for that excellent point. Yeah, I didn’t even “skim the surface” of that issue – that sometimes whatever you do will never seem to be enough for some people. This can be particularly troubling when those “some people” are close family members who want to hear from you (for example) on a daily basis etc.

    • Richelle Wright

      i’ve found i have to be careful not to place my own “communication” expectations on my friends back in the States or elsewhere as well. just because i work at staying in touch in a particular way doesn’t mean those efforts will be returned and it also doesn’t mean that that sister who never writes doesn’t love or care about my family…

  • Liz K

    I have friends who are computer illiterate…but they text. You can get a free Google Voice number and text from your computer to the US!!! A.Mazing! So I do that a lot. And it’s a huge help! Also, we use magic jack to make phone calls to the US. This also makes it so our computer illiterate friends can just pick of their phone and call a US number and get a hold of us! Life overseas isn’t what it was even 10 years ago!

    • Ohhh… never thought of that because I’ve never been a big texter. Thanks for those two tips!!

  • Thanks for your tips it is such a good reminder. I agree with visiting that once every four years “isn’t enough” in theory but in practice it is so difficult to travel more often on several counts for us. One is the break in relationships where we are serving but the greater one is the tax it is on our young children (four ages 7-1). International travel and breaks in routine (and schooling) become an issue for our immediate family. Right now we are on a three year rotation it is hard to imagine making the big time zone change, location change, and break in routine more often then that and be healthy as a family unit. I think it is not quantity of time spent in one place (or another) but rather quality. Are you loving well when you are present and away? If so location becomes less important.

    • Good point!! It’s such a hard issue to navigate, isn’t it? Now we’re adding kids to the scene this is becoming even more problematic for us, too. Frankly, we’re trying to decide whether to to the States ourselves next year and I’d rather now. The thought of the 36 hour transit x2 and being out of routine with two kids under three makes me cringe.

  • Marilyn Gardner

    This is a great conversation and series to have. I’ve had an interesting perspective from my mom. She of course went overseas when there was no email, definitely no skype, and even telephone calls were difficult. She learned to communicate through long aerogramme letters to her family and to us – her kids in boarding school. As she watches people in this era she has had two observations: One is that it’s great. She would have loved to have some of the tools available. Amazing ways of keeping connected. And then she sees the down side – the side where you’re so connected that you fail to adjust and are unable to connect emotionally with those around you. Skype is always waiting and if that doesn’t work you have google hangout and you have Facebook and a myriad of other virtual ways to connect. That makes it hard to live in the ‘here and now’. It’s a hard call as well and that’s why I think the questions you pose at the beginning of the post are so critical! 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? Those are so important to establish parameters and think it through.
    Again thanks for beginning this vital conversation.

    • Great observations!! It’s funny. When I went to university there was no email/fb/etc either. We wrote letters and had a once weekly phone call. And THOSE calls were a step up from when my parents moved to Bangladesh. I think they called Australia twice or three times in two years. Things have changed so drastically in this area, and while I think the changes are mostly for the better I definitely agree with your Mum that there can be a shadow side.

    • Richelle Wright

      my first longer term, overseas trip included weekly letters and booking 2-3 phone calls over the course of a year.

      my observations were that then, as now, people can disappear into writing letters home, etc. and that good communication required work and planning and discipline. in some ways, it is the same thing, only different. GOOD communication and staying connected with folks back home still requires both planning and a determined effort and technology has given us tools that can make it efficient and easier. But it is also just as easy to get lost in the entertainment side of those tools and make bad choices about how to use them which don’t really benefit the “communication/connection” we think/say we are trying to forge.

      we are also finding that tools like facebook and email make it possible to continue to encourage our national friends from a distance and to continue to work on those relationships even though God may have moved us elsewhere for a season or for good.

  • Dawn F.

    I am excited about this series – thank you for beginning such a great conversation! I am fairly new at living overseas, so I am still trying to figure out the balance of investing in relationships back home but also trying to be emotionally “here” (as Marilyn referenced) and invest in relationships in my new home culture. I am really grateful for all the technology that I can use to keep up with friends and family back in the States, but have to be careful at times to not use it merely as an escape from what I find uncomfortable about living in a new culture. I’m not saying this “escape” is always wrong, but I know my heart enough to know when I am running to comfortable relationships instead of being ok with the discomfort, the lack of deep local relationships here, etc., if that makes sense.

    I keep a private blog for friends and family, skype, and will text with the apps “Viber” or “WhatsApp” with friends who also have smartphones. I also recently discovered an app called “Voxer” that I think it will be huge for me – it allows you to leave voicemails (but no actual phone calls) to people with smartphones who also have the app. Some of my closest friends and I all have small children and don’t always have the time or energy to sit and compose long emails, so we can leave each other voicemails (of up to around 10 minutes in length) regarding what’s going on in our lives, hearts, minds, etc. – it’s a beautiful thing b/c we then also get to hear each others’ voices on a more regular basis.

    Thanks again for this series – I look forward to the next posts!

    • Oooooh! I don’t have a smartphone so I’m so out of the loop when it comes to apps. I’ve heard of Viber, but never Voxer, so thanks for that. Sounds intriguing. Also think your point about knowing when you’re running to comfortable relationships instead of sitting with discomfort is a really good one!

  • Janneke

    Thanks a lot, looking forward to this series. We live literally half a world away from our family, so thankful for skype. It’s great to read the different options of communications in the comments, very helpful. Good to start thinking again how to improve my communication. One thing i’m struggling with: what to do with people you want to stay in contact with and it seems one( my ) sided contact. No answer to emails etc or very rarely while they say they often think of you and i truly believe they do and read our blogs. (Dare i even ask,) how much effort do you put in? Your comment about not to take it personally is very true and very hard also. Thanks again for this series!

    • Yeah, it is really hard. I was just thinking of this again today in regards to one friend in particular and rolling my eyes a little at her lack of effort at contact. I really don’t know. In her case I’ll keep trying because it’s a long term relationship I really don’t want to lose, and just keep reminding myself that this is part of the way she is and I need to see her face to face to actually get much out of her. And because she is who she is, I’ll keep trying to build in that time to periodically see her face to face. It’s a tough one though!

  • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

    This is a bit different, but an example of something my dad started, to keep us all in touch. Of course I’m thankful for email and Skype and FB and blogs but we still miss out on experiencing, on building shared moments and memories and actually DOING something together. So this is something my dad thought up that give us that experiential connection. We did a ‘family Olympics.’ Here’s a link on FamilyFun where I wrote about it:

    • LOVED this!! It also reminded me of one of our more unorthodox family bonding competitions … a family “biggest loser” over six months. There was real incentive here. We each put in $100 and the winner got all $500. As I recall, my youngest sister won the first time (yes, we’ve done this twice) and at the time of the weigh in she was 12 weeks pregnant. Talk about demoralizing :). I’d like to do a biggest family loser starting NOW, because I reckon if I can’t win that when I start at 36 weeks pregnant, then there’s something seriously wrong.

      • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

        That’s a great idea too! i love these kinds of things, like I wrote, that connect experientially. And yes, you should be able to win!!

  • Liz

    My experience is that it is really hard. We didn’t go overseas as aid workers or missionaries, we just moved. However we live in England, and the rest of the family is half a world away, and the double whammy is that some are in Australia and some in the US. As the kids have got older, there is more and more pressure not to take them out of school, and travelling in the holidays can be astronomical in price. The way we’ve coped is to accept that it is really important to keep up with family and that we can’t keep up with all the friends we’d like to, and so we’ve had to choose only some of those friends to put effort into (sounds brutal I know). But I couldn’t cope with the guilt of not keeping up properly with everyone unless I did this. I’m really looking forward to the section about keeping kids in touch as I grew up seeing my cousins a lot more often than my kids are able to.

    • Gosh, lots of parallels in your story for me. My husband is American, I’m Australian, and we live in Laos at the moment. So we, too, have family anchored on the opposite sides of the world and oh-so-far-apart from each other. And we don’t have the pressure of having kids in school yet, but to be honest, I really don’t want to travel any more than I HAVE to with (soon to be) two kids under three. That’s just crazy-making.

  • Lauren

    Thank you for this post! I am very excited to read the series as my husband and I continue our journey of long distance relationships and as we move internationally in a few months. We have already experienced the struggles of dating internationally, friends forgetting and having to put all the work into a one-sided relationship, grandparents who feel we will never see them again or that they will never meet our kids, and siblings skeptical of future relationships with us. Honestly, it can be very disheartening and easy to let it all fall to the wayside. I desire to do better and keep the relationships up and eager to hear your perspective and stories.

    • Hey Lauren, hope you do get something out of this. I feel like even with three significant posts I barely scratched the surface with these topics. They’re so big, and so important. If it’s any consolation – I know it can be hard on family who aren’t used to living this way, but it IS possible to have very close, meaningful relationships with family in particular across the miles, even if it doesn’t look exactly like what they had hoped and planned for.

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  • Ashley

    I find there is such a fine line to walk between guilt and being stubborn. I feel guilty my children don’t get summers with grandparents or friday night games with cousins….but I also tend to dig my heels in and think this is our life, why can’t “others” realize this? And how do you help your kids find attachment in both places? And Skype, we have a love/hate relationship. Does anyone else bribe their children to sit in front of the computer to talk to extended family?

  • Wini

    This is a very interesting post. I’ve been having long-distance relationships since I was a child. My family is spread all over Europe and my favorite cousin and I became pen-pals at the age of 9. We didn’t even share any common languages except for the English we learned as a second language in school, but managed to communicate our thoughts on random issues in life.
    Later my parents moved to another country and I moved to England where my sister was living (allbeit in a city 7 train hours away from mine). In the beginning I experiened just what you said about wanting to connect with the locals more than keeping in touch with home. But it was partly because I consciously wanted to leave my past behind and didn’t feel very connected with my hometown friends long before I went abroad. However, I got a lot of criticism from many family members who were upset that I never called or emailed and I hated that. I’m just not the type who felt comfortable with answering to “So what have you been up to lately?”. My answer was always “Nothing much.” I cannot explain what about those conversations gave me social anxiety but it just did.
    Then came whatsapp.
    And somehow my favorite cousin managed to get me talking. She would just write me random thoughts throughout the day. And I loved it! She would make remarks about our favorite tv show or about some strange weirdo in the bus and put a smile on my face. And that’s how I’ve been dealing with the situation from then on. I just call or text randomly when I have a thought that I want to share with the important people in my life (and it helps me filter out who the most important people in my life are). The other day I called my dad at 8:30 am just to tell him that I had gone to the elections before work and that I missed him cause it was a family thing we used to do. We had a nice chat and a good laugh. Tomorrow I skype with my sister and we will watch the newest episode of modern family while skyping so we can laugh together and imitate the characters together. Just this morning I took a photo of myself lying sick in bed and sent it to a friend and she answered me “I’m sending you a mental hug!” And the newest thing is that my friends and my cousin and I send each other pictures of a kiss instead of writing “Kisses!” at the end of a goodbye line in whatsapp. That way we get a little blink of where the other person was just the moment we stopped chatting.
    So that’s my decades-long take on long-distance-connections and the tricks that helped me through it.
    Ta, Wini

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  • L

    Thank you for posting this article. Over the years, I’ve become increasingly frustrated with the level of apathy that my family has about keeping in touch. They pretty much don’t. And when I do reach out, they’re pretty disconnected or act like the communication is “bothersome” and yet when I don’t keep in touch, they give me a hard time about it with rumors or gossip. This article popped up at a time that I needed it most to better understand it from their perspective. Much easier to swallow!

  • m

    I just found this post . My sister and family have been in China for 2 years (they came back lady summer for a visit ). We have not gone to see them but we have gone on other beach vacations for spring break. My sister is hurt that we did not go to see her. It might be hard for people to Remember that we are going on living and is not easy and we are not pampered expats so sometimes a vacation rather than an adventure is needed. It’s not about you. Ofcourse, everybody would love to have the time and money to do it all but not everybody does. We do not live or care about you less just because we have not gone to see you even when other family has. I’m sure others have had this too.

  • Debbie

    Very interesting and useful post. Staying in touch is so hard, even though we could always call the ones we love in time the long distance takes its toll. I for example can sometimes be overemotional and then my nostalgia moments can be triggered even by something small – a smell, a food, a song… it’s just unbelievable! I know there are many other people like me, does anyone has those super emotional periods of time? Cheers, my website

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