The number of employees heading overseas in the last 10 years has steadily increased.
A lot of people see this adventure as a way to make quick progress in their careers, to earn more money, but also to live in a foreign country for a short period of time.
Expats benefit from a special status within the company, and often enjoy financial benefits such as an official apartment, relocation expenses and assistance with children’s school fees. Companies are usually a great support when it comes to the organisation and funding of the move.
The Importance of a Trailing Spouse
On the other hand however, they still too often ignore the importance of the role of the spouse and the rest of the family in the success of this project.
Today the trend is for each partner in a couple to have their own career, so this is a situation which companies can no longer ignore.
In the majority of cases, it is men who are offered positions overseas, which means that women often must put their careers on hold in order to follow their husbands.
Surveys regarding the employment of expatriate spouses show that in two-thirds of cases it is impossible for the spouse to continue his/her career in the host country. This career abandonment can lead to psychological suffering such as depression, due to the loss of social status, and also the loss of financial independence. Together these two losses result in a new status: “to be the partner of …”.
This new status brings up problems related to identity, but also uprooting and isolation. Many studies have shown the importance of social status on identity. For many a trailing spouse, it is very difficult to build an identity without this social status and financial independence.
Other studies have also shown the importance of the opinions of others on this new status. The terms used to define the “trailing spouse” usually include: desperate housewives, woman/man of …, and portable spouse. These terms reflect a rather negative and passive image of the trailing spouse, when in fact, s/he plays a key role in the success of expatriation.
Many follower spouses, particularly women, decide to put themselves in limbo during the expatriation. In the current literature, many researchers have highlighted the crucial importance of the trailing spouse, as well as other family members such as children, in the success or failure of expatriation. The follower spouse must reinvent themselves not just on the professional and personal levels, but also in the couple’s life. All of these roles need to be redefined.
I personally know how confusing it can be, but all these challenges also have a beneficial aspect. Let’s take an example: when on a plane, during the safety demonstration the flight attendants say that you must put your own oxygen mask on first, in order to help the people around you. It’s the same thing during expatriation. In order to help your partner and the rest of your family, you need to take care of yourself first. If you are not happy, you can’t make the people around you happy.
The Advantages of Expatriation
Although it can be filled with challenges, expatriation also offers many advantages, such as:
- Learning a new language;
- Discovering a new culture;
- Getting out of your comfort zone;
- Developing your ability to adapt;
- Discovering yourself;
- Discovering your passions;
- Becoming a volunteer; and
Expatriation is like having a blank page in front of you, where you can rewrite your story and reinvent yourself. Many expats describe this experience as a second life. Expatriation is an opportunity to live your life on your own terms and to become the best version of yourself. Far from the family and societal pressure in which you grew up, you have the opportunity to do whatever you want.
Studies have shown that for the majority of expatriates it was a positive and enriching experience. Many expatriates say they have a better understanding of themselves, who they really are, but most of all what they want to achieve in their lives.
For the trailing spouse, it is necessary to overcome the prejudices that are associated with their new role, and to remember that the best way to take advantage of this new experience is to focus on you and your family.
And remember, expat counselling may help provide the support you need as you adapt to your new home – if that happens to be Brisbane, I welcome you to make an appointment with me.
To make an appointment you can call Vision Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3088 5422.
- Ali, A.J., Van der Zee, K.I., Sanders, G.J.E.M. (2003). Determinants of intercultural adjustment among expatriate spouses, International Journal of Intercultural Relations, vol. 27, p. 563-580.
- Black, J.S., Gregersen, H.B. (1991). The other half of the picture: Antecedents of spouse cross-cultural adjustment, Journal of International Business Studies, vol.22, p.461-477
- Cerdin, J-L., Dubouloy, M. (2005). Expatriation et responsabilité sociale de l’entreprise : une approche psychanalytique, Revue de Gestion des Ressources Humaines, p. 36-56.
- Harvey M. (1996). Adressing the dual-career expatriation dilemma, Human Resource Planning, vol. 19, p. 18-39.