If you’re leading a globally mobile life, you probably know how hard it is to stay connected with your loved ones across distance, time zones, different lifestyles and routines. This becomes especially challenging when loved ones are scattered across the globe, as is often the case for expats. However, it is possible to nurture your relationships from a distance; you just need to be intentional about it. The tips below will help you do that.
Consciously prioritize your relationships
The most important lesson I have learned in my 25 years as an expat is that it is up to me to prioritize my relationships and be proactive about maintaining connections. Don’t wait for others to do the reaching-out. Make a conscious decision to set aside the time and invest the effort necessary to stay in touch and be present with the people that matter to you.
Build routines and manage expectations around communication
Once you’ve decided to prioritize your relationships, set up the structures and routines that will allow you to stay connected. Specifically:
Before you move to a new location, figure out how you will keep in touch and proactively set up the technology infrastructure for doing so. This may mean, for instance, equipping your parents with a tablet or laptop, setting up email, social media or video-communication accounts and teaching them how to use them. It also could be as simple as making sure that your friends and family have your new contact details and that you’ve updated everyone’s contacts.
Once you’ve moved, make sure you establish communication routines early on. Make a list of the people who are important to you and schedule the first few catch-up calls. Then, set expectations for how often you will be in touch with them. This could range from scheduling a regular Sunday morning call with your parents or siblings to starting a family blog to keep your friends and family updated. Even if you have to set reminders, connect with your loved ones at least once every couple of weeks. As the one who leaves, you should take the initiative to keep in touch, share news, and ask for and offer support. Call, email, remember birthdays and milestones, actively show interest, share what’s going on in your world and make an effort to keep up with what’s going on in theirs.
Routines are key. Every morning, as soon as I drop off my youngest at school, I call my mother to connect with her, even if it’s only for a few minutes. I know that’s an unusual frequency for most people, but the point I’m trying to make is that it’s our ritual and a way of staying present in each other’s life. It’s similar with friends, I try to not go longer than a couple of weeks without checking in with my closest ones. You can do this too!
Help your children, especially the young ones, stay in touch with their friends
Children, especially at a young age, experience distances as significantly greater than adults do. This is because distance makes it so much more difficult for them to keep in touch with their loved ones (often because of time difference, infrastructure or other barriers). This may leave them feeling isolated and homesick when they already are likely to be unhappy about leaving behind their loved ones and friends.
The younger they are, the more children need support to maintain their relationships. There are many ways for parents to support our children in long-distance relationship-building by providing them with support and resources to stay in touch. For younger kids, this can mean coordinating with the other parents and encouraging them to also support that communication. For teenagers, close friends are a valuable source of support when they go through transitions. Try to balance your parental urge to limit your teens’ time on social media with the knowledge that these apps can be a lifeline in terms of allowing them to stay connected with their friends. It also helps to model the importance of nurturing friendships by making an effort to stay connected with your own friends.
That said, some relationships won’t last, especially in young ages – and that’s ok. It’s also part of life to learn to let go. Besides, they’re highly likely to cross paths with many of those early friends later in life on Facebook or Snapchat.
Don’t forget that real, in-person connection is a must – to the extent possible
While modern technology has made it easier to stay in touch, it cannot replace real-time relationships. We are fortunate to have so many options for connecting with our loved ones virtually, but virtual communication is not enough. Actual in-person contact is crucial.
That’s why it’s important to encourage your loved ones to come visit you and try to visit them yourself as much as is realistic. Again, not all relationships you invest in will stand the test of time and distance – and you will learn to discern that with experience – but for those that do, every time you see each other, it will be like you never left. That’s worth a lot.
Finally, it’s not the quantity or frequency of communication that matters, but the depth of the connections you sustain. Every relationship is different in that aspect. So, seek to understand what you (and your loved ones) need to stay connected.
I used to get upset or disappointed when someone did not make the effort to stay in touch regularly with me. Over the years I learned that, while regular contact is wonderful, it’s not everyone’s style. I realized that even when someone did not call me every week, month or even every year, they still could care very deeply about me and we could have a very strong bond. Focusing on quality (of the relationship) rather than quantity (of communication) was key in coping with what felt very frustrating initially.
It also helps to let go of the guilt of ‘not being there’ when it comes to milestones and major events in the lives of your family and friends. Even trying to take part virtually is a gift.
Katia Vlachos is an expat writer and coach. She writes on cross-cultural adaptation and the rewards and challenges of expatriate life. She is the author of A Great Move: Surviving and Thriving in Your Expat Assignment (LID Publishing, 2018) and numerous articles, published in the Harvard Business Review, the Huffington Post and Thrive Global, among others. Katia coaches expatriates and globally mobile professionals going through geographical, career or relationship transitions.