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  • Writer's pictureHenriette Johnsen

Divorcing abroad, and what is a stuck parent?

Expat life can be testing on any marriage, and studies show that nearly 70% of all failed international assignments are due to “marital breakdown”.

Breaking up a marriage is always an emotional challenge, and the reasons may vary from having grown apart or having different life goals to infidelity, violence and/or verbal abuse, disagreements over children, lack of intimacy as well as not being able to support each other through life’s curve balls.

In that respect expat divorce is not that different to non-expat divorces, but as with many other aspects of expat life, divorcing abroad comes with an extra layer of practical and emotional challenges and is often more intense than had you divorced in your home country.

Lack of support systems

If divorcing in your home country, you will have an understanding of as well as access to the support system in place: To name a few, how to seek legal advice on separation and divorce, mediation, how to find accommodation, who to contact if you can’t agree on the children and so forth. You speak the language and as such may understand legal and practical matters better.

Perhaps most important, you have your family and friends around you for emotional and practical support and can rely on these for help.

When divorcing abroad all of this may be lacking, and at a time where you are vulnerable, perhaps in a state of shock and confused, you must find inner resources to deal with the challenges of not only your break up, but also heaps of practical matters.

What questions typically arise?

  • Perhaps, the first question that comes to mind is: Should I stay, or should I go home?

  • If you have children, the next will be: Can I take my children with me?

  • You will have to find out and decide where to divorce: the country you reside in, your home country or if different, the country you were married in.

  • With your (ex) spouse you need to agree on financial matters as well as division of property; and if you have children, what happens to them, and how you best support them during and after this difficult time.

The list goes on; all while you are dealing with the major loss and life crisis that a divorce is for most people as well as the life transition of setting up your new life. Adding to that, you may also be dealing with issues of work and residence permits.

What is a stuck parent?

Many trailing spouses, mostly women, are classified as “dependents” and find that they can’t stay in their host country and if they can, they may not be allowed to work and as such, they can’t support themselves or their children.

It’s not uncommon for expat divorces, that the working party, to maintain their career prospects, earning potential and current lifestyle, wants to remain in the host country, whereas the dependent party either wishes or needs to leave.

If you have shared children, this then becomes a legal matter if you are in a country which leans on the Hague Convention. This UN convention states that you can’t take your under-age-16 children away from their habitual residency country without the other parent’s consent.

According to Globalarrk, a charity supporting parents in such situation, a stuck parent is a parent who is “unable to lawfully return to live in the country they consider “home” with their children after an international residence/custody dispute”. Globalarrk goes on to say that stuck parents “often struggle with issues such as loneliness, unemployment, language barriers, visa restrictions, lack of legal status.”

I have myself been a stuck parent after divorcing abroad. Though I, at times, worked three jobs, I couldn’t make ends meet with huge outgoings towards rent and some of my work being paid minimal wages in London. The practical struggles I faced were many and often surreal; and I experienced profound loneliness, anxiety, lack of belonging and at times also found life somewhat meaningless.

After a minor breakdown, I found the inner resources to go through the process of bringing my children home to a financially secure life with better opportunities for both them and me as well as a life with friends and family closer by. If you are interested, you can read a little about my own story here.

If you find yourself in such a situation, never take matters into your own hands to remove your children from the country where they have habitual residency; this can have detrimental consequences, and you want to take legal advice on cross-border movements from a solicitor specialising in international family law.

Where to go for help?

For the above reasons, many expat couples in unhappy marriages chose to remain married as the personal price of divorce may be too high. If you are considering divorcing, here are some places to seek advice:

InterNations, a leading network and advice community for expats

Globalarrk, a charity helping stuck parents

International family law solicitors

Couples counselling and therapy The Good Expat Life

Cutting up the marriage certificate



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