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  • Writer's pictureREA Staff


MANAGING THE CHALLENGES OF CHANGE "It is when we are in transition that we are most completely alive." ~ William Bridges

Together, through this article, we'll examine the process of international relocation and explore constructive strategies and techniques for managing relocation change and stress. As your coaches, we are concerned with the entire family, and especially with the person who has traditionally been labeled the "trailing spouse," the spouse or partner of the assignee whose job change precipitated the relocation. While in the past the "trailer" was nearly always a woman, this has changed. We now prefer to call this person the "accompanying partner."

Every year hundreds of thousands of people move internationally. These relocations, most precipitated by job changes, are so common - many families move routinely every two or three years - that society often overlooks or minimizes the strain of moving.

But few people would disagree - MOVING IS stressful

  • There is a lot of hard, sometimes nerve-wracking work that often includes selling a home, securing housing in a new country, packing and transporting family goods, and the endless necessary tasks of "settling in."

  • Children need extra attention of various kinds, depending on their age.

  • It is painful to say goodbye to friends and to familiar places.

  • The entire family needs to adjust to everything being different in the new locale.

  • Nearly every aspect of common family life changes daily routines, schools, the sense of belonging, friendships, and plans for the future.

  • Family members in transition can experience anxiety, depression, lack of focus, anger, exhaustion, and demoralization. To make matters worse, the sometimes overwhelming and confusing nature of these feelings collides with "stiff upper lip" social norms and our desire to appear comfortably in control.

  • A working, expatriate partner, who is able to work in the host country, faces the added challenge of finding a new job while handling the anxiety of temporary unemployment.


While most of us have heard the quip that the only thing that remains constant in life is change, for many people this does not make a major change like relocation easier to manage. But, international movers have discovered a few principles that apply not only to their relocation but also to other changes in life:

When change is happening quickly, take time to consider what aspects of your situation can be influenced by taking action and which can’t. Then, apply energy and focus to the former and accept the latter. This helps to ensure that your energy goes in productive directions and is not squandered by trying to alter the unalterable. Acceptance doesn’t mean liking a situation; it simply means that we don’t squander our limited resources of time and energy on what is beyond our control to change.

Share your feelings, but move forward. Burying or hiding our pain because it embarrasses us or makes us feel vulnerable is counterproductive. Sharing our feelings with trusted others helps lessen our sense of being burdened and prevents us from getting stuck.

Practice withholding judgment on what is alien and unfamiliar in the new location. Nothing is going to be the way it was in the old location, but that doesn’t make it wrong or bad. If you make rush judgments about the new area, it will be harder to appreciate what is positive.

Take responsibility for acting in accordance with your goals and values on those matters over which you do have some control. Most happy and fulfilled people discover that they have more control over their own actions than over those of other people.

Acknowledge your losses, but celebrate your gains. The advice to "think positively" might sound simplistic, but sometimes the happiness and fulfillment we all want depends on bravely facing what is painful while giving the wealth of our attention to what makes life worth living.


The only enduring quality of human life that does not change is the fact of change itself; relocation is only one of many changes we encounter, but it is among the most significant. William Bridges, an expert on the healthy management of change, distinguishes between change and transition. Change, he suggests, consists of the shifting nature of external events and circumstances, while the transition is our inner process of mental and emotional adjustment to these changes.

Bridges believes that people in transition go through three distinct stages — Endings, the Neutral Zone, and New Beginnings. People achieve successful transitions when they adjust to change through the healthy navigation of each of the transition stages. When we fail to accomplish the essential tasks of each stage, we can get stuck in an incomplete and unsatisfying transition. Bridge's tri-part segmentation of transition is especially useful for looking at how we adapt to the changes of relocation in which the end - leaving one place - and the beginning - settling into a new area - are dramatically delineated.


Our trouble in making entirely successful transitions can frequently start with our failure to begin the process of change at the beginning — that is, with the Ending. The Ending phase typically begins when we first learn about an impending move. Right away we begin to think about the approaching upheaval. Long before the actual move, people typically feel a sense of loss over the life they will leave behind, though planning and pre-move preparation can mask such feelings. International Relocation involves a temporary loss of our place in the world and can awaken our awareness of the impermanence of everything we hold dear. The prospect of this loss can trigger feelings of grief and include an array of emotions including shock, anger, anxiety, sadness, and fear.

Of course, few people have all of these feelings, and some people experience loss more acutely than others. It is also common for people to suppress their feelings, not even realizing they have them. But suppressed feelings usually find a way to express themselves, through overwhelming stress, physical ailments, or emotional blankness.

We sometimes label painful feelings “negative.” But there are no negative feelings, just as there are no feelings that are “wrong.” We are not responsible for how we feel, only for what we do. The best thing to do with uncomfortable feelings is to recognize them for what they are, and then experience them. We may be afraid this will make the feelings stronger. Perhaps if we ignore them, they will go away. But they don’t. Instead, they hide and harden and damage us in ways we are not aware of. And contrary to our fears, acknowledging and speaking about our emotions doesn’t make them more powerful. On the contrary, it weakens them and helps us move through them.

In sum, when beset with distressing emotions we can react in several ways:

  • The feelings are so threatening or unpleasant that we do not allow ourselves to know they exist.

  • We are aware of the emotions, yet we do our best to push them away and behave as though they do not exist.

  • Our feelings are conscious and they disrupt our mental and emotional balance, but we try to "be strong" and deal with them on our own.

  • We accept emotions as normal and real, partly by acknowledging and discussing them with others who will listen with compassion and understanding.

This fourth alternative is the best path to follow in managing change and in negotiating the inner transitions brought about by relocation. One factor that can inhibit us from embracing this fourth alternative is the presence of children in the family. Adults with children often shy away from honest family discussions about moving and the feelings around leave-taking. As adults, we do not want to seem vulnerable in front of our children, worrying that an honest sharing of emotions will make it harder for our children to accept the move. We may also worry that the mere news of an impending move will distress our children. So it is best for everybody, the reasoning goes, to leave any uncomfortable feelings unspoken.

These understandable adult assumptions are not always accurate. Children of all ages feel the strain of moving and any child old enough to talk about it will benefit from doing so. This is true even when children do become upset. There is nothing bad or wrong about either children or adults experiencing and voicing emotional hurt. Moreover, this gives parents the opportunity to empathize with their child and to stress the protective buffer of family togetherness. Families that openly talk together about the ending phase of relocation make a smoother transition to their new home and environment.

A significant benefit of the whole family knowing about a move well in advance is that it allows time for people to make their goodbyes. Goodbyes often come in the form of informal rituals. Rituals are valuable for both adults and children as a way of marking the significance of what is ending in order to open up to what is coming. Parting rituals can include a last dinner at a favorite restaurant, final good-bye visits to important sites like schools and playgrounds, and special good-bye time with friends. Here are several tips for "closure" at the beginning of your transition:

  • Before the move, take the time to say goodbye to people and places. This is especially important for children to do. It provides people with a sense of completion and allows them the chance to anticipate and ease their way into the transition.

  • Mark both Endings and New Beginnings with events and celebrations. A child can make a scrapbook with pictures of the community he is leaving. Inaugurate your home or apartment in your new country with a special welcome dinner.

  • Take breaks from the swirl of activities surrounding relocation at both ends. Periods of relaxation and time spent alone will help keep you sane and focused.

  • Whenever possible, bring children to the new location before the actual move. Take them to their new area; show them their future school and any other sites of importance and interest.

  • Since international relocation is stressful, it is doubly important during this time to maintain regular habits and discipline and care for yourself physically and emotionally. If you do not already eat nutritionally, sleep on a regular cycle, and exercise, this is a good time to start.

  • Have reasonable expectations of yourself and others. There are bound to be days filled with aggravation, days of feeling overwhelmed, and times when you wish you could turn the clock back. Recognize these periods as normal, and do not be hard on yourself for not handling the relocation perfectly. Even the best managers of change are imperfect masters of their inner state.

  • Don't be afraid to ask for help. Relocation is a time when it is necessary and expected that you ask for help at both ends of the move. Most people are delighted to be asked, whether it is to help pack the fine china at one end or to explain the new transportation system at the other. By asking for help, you connect — and the connection is the key to a healthy adjustment to your new home.


The Neutral Zone occupies the middle stage of transition; it begins with the departure from the old home and extends into the initial period of settling in. While in the Neutral Zone people often feel in limbo; they miss their familiar surroundings and have not yet established firm roots in the new area. During this period family members are especially vulnerable to disappointment as they find that their new location does not offer the same features, attractions, and apparent advantages they had appreciated in their old environment.

When it comes to international relocation, it is difficult to fit the Neutral Zone into a time sequence. It comes between endings and beginnings but naturally encompasses more time than it takes to make the physical journey from one country to another. The Neutral Zone is where most people find themselves during the weeks and months just after their move. During this period they may miss their former country, while at the same time not having a feeling of belonging in their new one. The Neutral Zone is often characterized by a sense that there is something missing — it is an in-between stage of letting go without something else to grab onto. William Bridges says of this middle stage, "It is, as they say, a great place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.

The expatriate partner is likely to spend more time in the Neutral Zone than the assignee or children. The assignee has a new job to tackle and children have the excitement of new surroundings, new friends, and a new school. The expat partner, on the other hand, may not have any easy ways of establishing connections in the new neighborhood and community or may miss a former job and the sense of belonging and purpose it gave.

At the same time that the accompanying partner is consumed with all the practicalities of getting settled, he or she may also feel pressure to launch a job search during a time of readjustment and fatigue. Expat/repat partners can find themselves suddenly taking on added responsibilities while feeling adrift in the unfamiliar world of unemployment. The accompanying partner is the member of the family most vulnerable to anxiety and the sense of identity loss.

Despite its unsettling aspects, the Neutral Zone also provides time for rejuvenation, reorientation, and renewed and redirected focus. Family members may find that a move presents them with an opportunity to make desirable personal and vocational changes.

Expat partners may discover that their forced career and employment hiatus stimulates them to rethink their vocational identity and direction. While many remain in their field, others make changes, some with a career change and others by going back to school.

The Neutral Zone has no uniform boundaries that mark every person's journey from endings to beginnings. For accompanying partners, Neutral Zones come in as many shapes and sizes as the personal temperaments and inclinations of the individuals themselves. Some move so quickly from one job to the next that their Neutral Zone appears almost nonexistent. Others spend several months or more in their new country before feeling ready to launch themselves into new projects. Those who fall into this second group sometimes feel guilty for "wasting time" and chastise themselves for not getting busy. But they later look back to realize that their "neutral time" was an essential launching pad for the next chapter in their life.

So, the Neutral Zone, though sometimes unsettling, can be a constructive period for adjustment, self-examination, and creativity. One change and transition consultant has even remarked that it is an interlude that deserves to be "savored." The Neutral Zone cannot be rushed; it is a perfect time to question the status quo, to ask the big questions:

  • How do I want to spend my time?

  • Is this the kind of work I want to do for the rest of my career?

  • Am I satisfied with my balance between work and family?

  • Is this the opportunity I have been waiting for to move from full-time to part-time or from part-time to full-time work?

  • Is it time to look at that life-long avocation to see whether I can make it my profession?

In sum, the Neutral Zone is a time of uncertainty, but also one of potential personal and vocational growth.


Families that are veteran movers learn that the arrival and unpacking of their belongings scarcely conclude their relocation. Experience teaches them that it can take a year or more to fully acclimate to their new world. It is not unusual for family members to still feel lonely and disoriented a number of months after the move. During this period they may find themselves either more defensive or more open, prone to make snap judgments or unable to make up their mind, less confident or more assertive and vulnerable to unforeseen attacks of sadness or outbursts of anger. These shifts can be accentuated by dramatic cultural changes and by moves that leave behind beloved family members such as siblings, parents and grandparents, and even pets.

So it can be difficult to pinpoint where the Neutral Zone merges into New Beginnings, but at some point, people look back and realize that they have made the shift. Families that have successfully relocated report that the key to making a good beginning after moving internationally is to form connections quickly in their new environment. Here are a few of their suggestions:

  • If your neighbors do not come over to welcome you, take the initiative to introduce yourselves.

  • If you are religious, begin attending services as soon as possible.

  • Explore your new town or area sometime during the first week.

  • If you plan to join a community group or voluntary association — don't waste time or procrastinate.

Whatever phase of transition you may be experiencing at the moment, an REA coach, is here to help you navigate through this challenging time. Learn more about REA's 1:1 Professional Coaching services here.

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