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  • Writer's pictureHenriette Johnsen

Expat spouse dependency - Anna's story

I met my Danish husband while we were both working abroad. The nature of our work was not such that we would stay there permanently. We were both very young. I had adjusted better to living abroad and so, rather by chance, I came to Denmark. We didn’t consider that by moving to his homeland the balance that existed while abroad would change. He would be at a huge advantage.

It didn’t make much sense; I spoke no Danish – my husband spoke my language. Denmark was rather insular at the time whereas my country was in many ways more accepting of internationals and eager to embrace difference.

In fact, that lack of curiosity and interest in others was one of the hardest things for me to understand. The famous Scandinavian reserve. I met people my husband knew, both in daily life but also in social settings and wasn’t introduced. It was incredibly awkward for me to know how to interact- I didn’t speak their language and beyond a polite hello, nobody took an initiative to get to know me. Everybody, including my husband, thought this was normal, and actually felt embarrassed making introductions and asking the simplest of questions. I still don’t understand that.

Cultural norms in general were challenging. Perhaps, as a western European national, culturally I am not that different. I get the humour, I recognise food sorts, I don’t look particularly foreign. Holidays and basic family and social structures are comparable.

However, they are not identical. Initially, this variation is interesting. However, as time passed, my interest in my new homelands’ norms, was seldom met by interest in mine and I began to feel lonely and marginalised.

I came to dislike the Danish phrase “Vi plejer” – We normally ….I began to question a lot of things. Things Danes “plejer” and things I “ Plejer”. Why, in Denmark, do you have to provide your own birthday cake? Why do you have to ring in advance if you want to pop in and visit someone? Why do people on the street avoid eye contact? Why do you have to eat everything in a certain order at a Christmas lunch? Etc etc etc. I think ultimately, it’s made me more inquisitive- more flexible and more aware that there are many ways of living a good life. However, I have often been met by an inflexibility, a “when in Rome” attitude.

We lived close to his family; we saw them several times a week. Air travel and phone calls were expensive at the time. I saw my family on average once a year. I am close to my family so that was hard. It is always an issue with international families how to use holiday time. Do we visit family? Is visiting family a proper holiday? It takes extra effort to engage with a family abroad, in a different language zone. This was an issue. When highlighted in this way the difference between birth family and in-laws became very clear. My husband didn’t need to be with my family as much as I did, and I didn’t have the unreserved love and support from his family which I badly needed.

It came more into focus when we had children. My children have two good families and rich heritages. However, it has been challenging establishing a balance between the two. I am in a unique position being the only member of the family who has lived both places. Very little of my culture rubbed off on my husband.

The language was challenging. I was educated, travelled, outgoing and in every respect capable and suddenly I couldn’t buy a bus ticket. It demands a lot of effort from a native speaker spouse to support the language acquisition process. My husband was good at this, but again, how could he possibly understand how exhausting total immersion in another language is?

Our relationship was of course affected by all this. He didn’t feel the challenges and when pointed out couldn’t really relate. He was at home I was abroad. Everything was normal for him- nothing for me. The ex-pats longing for contact with the familiar and common reference points was totally lost on him. Being able to speak freely with people in one’s native tongue, being able to read signposts and books understand everything on TV, finding chocolate you like etc. didn’t register as major issues for him. I’m not sure anyone can truly understand any of this if they haven’t lived abroad permanently. However, ignoring someone else’s cultural needs because they are different from one’s own, is in effect undervaluing their back ground and inadvertently under valuing them.

It was exhausting. I remember the physical relief I felt when I travelled home. Just hearing someone speaking – the smells- the air – my shoulders would drop, I’d feel safe, I slept better.

When Danish neighbours, colleagues and friends have met my birth family they have always told me afterwards that they understand me better having a context to put me in. We are a result of the experiences, the people and the places we’ve been. I came to Denmark fully grown and totally foreign. I am well integrated now, but I still feel that there is a large portion of my personality and life experience which is hidden from those I associate with. I don’t think locals really understand that about ex-pats.

Bringing a “foreigner” home demands a certain maturity and insight.

Thank you to Anna for sharing her experiences; they are much appreciated :-)

Couple with balloons



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