21 Jun 2024
Expat Counselling: The Art of International Friendships
Expat Support General Counselling

Expat Counselling: The Art of International Friendships

In this month of Love and Friendship YLC’s mental health writer Lysanne Sizoo looks at the ways in which internationals connect with other, and how they can keep their friendships happy and healthy.

The human need for social connection and friendship is deeply rooted. Some people experience it stronger than others. While some seem designed to break down barriers quickly and connect deeply, others have more of a ‘wait and see’ attitude.

Often this is a combination of nature and nurture; the intrinsic design of your personality and the way it was conditioned as you grew up. How we connect to others doesn’t always run along the same lines and so may create confusion, especially if we factor in differing cultural backgrounds and norms. On the whole we enjoy meeting people with whom we have something in common, although it’s not unknown for an outgoing and social person to attract a shyer more introverted friend.

You understand me, don’t you?

In the past fifteen years I have run different kinds of support groups. These days internet forums fulfil much the same need, although group conflict is not always handled effectively. What all these groups had in common was the feeling of an immediate ‘click’ with others who were going through a similar experience.

The participants resonated with each other and although they came from different cultures, there was an immediate sense of intimacy.

And this is great, because it means that in those close safe groups they could explore the experience deeply, with sympathetic others, and begin to find their way through. But after a few weeks or months the differences between the participants would also surface. A support group is a great place to move from a sense of being all alike, to chaos, to unity in diversity, and most groups felt stronger and more supportive for having weathered the realisation that it was okay that they were more different than the same.

Out in the real world that process is a whole lot harder and a whole lot messier. And in international friendship groups it happens all the time.

I use this example because I think there is a similar mechanism at work when we make friends while we are abroad. Driven by the need to make friends and belong we seek out other like-minded people. If we find internationals on our path then there is often this immediate ‘click’ of recognition, which is great, but this ‘click’ can also knock out our normal ‘friendship radars’, essential to deciding who we want to play with or not. International friendships can have a kind of hit and miss quality, adding to the feelings of rejection and abandonment that we might already be experiencing.

I have also met internationals who are impatient for new friends because they think the ‘home front’ expects them to be making friends as swiftly as others expect them to learn the native tongue.

In both cases they’re wrong; languages and friendships take time, effort and patience!

And even if your mutual click went beyond the initial phase of resonating with each other’s life experience, deepening into something longer lasting, then your new friendship might suddenly be challenged by either one of you moving on to the next foreign adventure.

The effect of these additional challenges to international friendships can be two-fold; you become more and more open to friendships you would never entertained ‘back home’, or you become insure and self-conscious, believing that this roller coaster ride is somehow their fault, rather than the result of circumstance. And while the former might be an interesting experience in terms of personal growth and expectations, it can also lead to boundary shifts and entanglements that are difficult to handle because you lack the experience.

What underlies a longer lasting friendship?

If you look at the friendships that survived your travels, you might notice that they are in a deeper, more lasting phase. Time and distance will have sifted out the one or two friends that are lasting, while others faded away. Just as there are different ways of making friends, there are also different ways of staying friends and expressing what we feel for them. Since we are heading into the Love highlight of the year, Valentine’s Day, we might want to consider what the Greeks thought. They had six words for love*. Eros is the one we all seem to strive for in the Western world, the all-in-one, all-encompassing love that fires the passions, telling us we are uniquely special to that one other person.

The Greeks viewed this fiery kind of love as rather short term and dangerous.

I think this kind of ‘falling in love’ in a platonic way, can also happen when people meet who really ‘resonate’ with each other around a certain issue, like being an international. But as we also know, Eros is of a fleeting nature.

Pragma describes a longer term kind of love, one that can entertain compromises, tolerance and patience to help a relationship to work. A more communal version of that would be Philia, is the kind of love that supports a sense of camaraderie, loyalty, devotion, sacrifice and a sharing of an emotional depth. Pragma and Philia are the stuff of long term friendships and intimate relationships.

All relationships – whether from an early age or between people who move around the globe – are subject to periods of ebb and flow, just like the oceans.

The hard thing is to know if you are feeling a period of ebb with your newly acquired international friend or whether you really feel you’re coming to a full stop. Breakdowns in a friendship can deepen them if we dare. And while that is made harder by the fact that we bring different sets of cultural conditioning to the table, it is a rich ground for learning too. When in the spirit of Philia and Pragma, you allow the other to express their hurt, annoyance and confusion it creates a spirit of trust. This goes for couples as much as other kinds of friendships.


Finally, International friendships, especially if you have been living the international life from a very early age, can suffer a little from closure fatigue. Not only in the sense that we begin to feel we have said goodbye one time too many, and are too exhausted emotionally to try again, but also in the sense that we become lazy about ‘breaking up’. At some point, someone, be it you or them, will probably move on, and so pain or frustration never needs to be expressed. You just drift apart. In some cases this may be correct, in others the opportunity is missed to thresh something out and grow a little in the process.

In short, relationships are messy, painful, as well as gloriously wonderful and supportive when they work. International relationships are, if possible, even messier, and so require more of us when it comes to putting the ideals of Pragma and Philia into practise. Have a great Valentine’s Day!

* the other three are Ludus, playful love, agape, selfless love, as well as Philautia, self-love.

Copyright 2013: Lysanne Sizo

If you have any specific problem that you would like Lysanne to consider in her articles, please contact her here (anonymity will always be preserved). 


Lysanne Sizoo

Lysanne Sizoo has been working as an international counsellor and coach for the past twenty years. In 2009, she founded the first and only international counselling centre in Stockholm. She divides her time between coaching, lecturing and writing, and regularly holds workshops in Stockholm, Amsterdam and Zurich. She specializes in the field of cross cultural issues, as well as fertility, bereavement, parenting, anxiety and stress management.

These articles are a composite of my personal, my previous colleagues’ and
clients’ experiences in order to protect recognition. All therapeutic
meetings are Turning Point are confidential, and specific content would
never be shared in a public forum.

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