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Expat stress and the trailing spouse

Expat stress and the trailing spouse

A couple in silhouette sitting on a sofa having an argument

Expat stress

My post on expat stress was intended to be a short one, but I obviously struck my own nerve and off it went with a life of its own!

Anyway, what prompted it shall remain my own business (it was to do with other people, not me, by the way!), but in looking online for something relatively unrelated, I discovered the paragraph below from a legal essay paper, not-so-succinctly entitled, “Reasons for the failure of an assignment abroad and the pre-return of an employee” on a law website.

The link to the full, original article is at the end of the post. [Highlights are mine]

Family Stress

Most expatriate managers are challenged and excited to be in their new postings. They need to spend a lot of time at work since they are under pressure to adapt to the new culture and their overall responsibilities are often larger than they have experienced before. As a result, the wives of expatriates spend a lot of time by themselves – and yes, trailing spouses are still usually female – and are cut-off from their own family and friends. At the same time, the wife is usually dealing with problems for which she has no previous experience. She may catch a maid stealing or get stopped by a policeman who wants a payoff for a non-existent offence. She may have been told that internet connectivity is available but then finds it takes 6 months to install. All through this, she will probably discover that suitable employment for her is next to impossible in an emerging country – seriously damaging her own long-term career.

In short, it is generally the trailing spouse who suffers the greatest culture shock in the new country. The result can be an unhappy spouse who does her best to impair the performance of the expatriate manager. Total marriage breakdown is not an uncommon result. Unofficial numbers from the Asian Development Bank (a large development organization modelled after the World Bank) are that upwards of 60% of their expatriate’s marriages fail due to the stress of offshore postings. The consequence is that many expatriate postings are either terminated early or the performance of the expatriate managers is impaired.

It was all looking fairly OK until that sentence I’ve highlighted.

Does this really happen? I certainly can’t think of anyone I know who would intentionally “impair” their partner’s performance – male OR female.

I’m actually speechless – so over to you! What do you think? An accurate portrayal or a glib excuse? Or have you experienced or seen this in any form?

Read more: Reasons for the failure of an assignment abroad and the pre-return of an employee | Law Teacher

 

 

  • Evelyn Simpson

    Carole, thanks for writing about this essay and starting an interesting discussion. The statement you highlight is extreme because it suggests that undermining the assignment is intentional and malicious which it typically isn’t (though I have seen it happen more than once). However, the reality is that an unhappy partner does undermine and assignment in many ways. Who can concentrate and be productive at work when they know that their partner is miserable at home? As a partner, if you are unhappy and have not been able to adjust, you probably rely on your partner more than usual for emotional support and are probably not happy and supportive if your partner has travel or entertaining commitments outside the work day. You may even be actively lobbying to return home or it might lead to a breakdown in your marriage if you feel that you have not really had a choice about being an accompanying partner (for some partners its a Hobson’s choice – move overseas and give up my job/life or insist on staying and jeopardise my marriage. That’s why we think it’s in a company’s interests to recognise the partner’s needs and devote resources towards helping her (or him) to adjust and build a life of fulfilment.

    • ExpatChild

      Thank you for commenting, Evelyn.
      Yes, I think my shock was from how utterly extreme that sentence was and how it indicated an ‘intention to derail’ – something that is so far form my own personality that it is hard to believe actually happens.

      It is definitely in the company’s interests to ensure that the needs of the entire family should be taken into account – something that’s sorely lacking in many companies.

  • Nicola McCall

    I constantly impair, impede and sabotage my partner’s working day….. NOT.
    I always have better things to do …. such as ruin his good name on FB
    Lawyers got to have someone to blame…..

    • ExpatChild

      Hah! Nicola, you are incorrigible.

      Agree – easy target to blame. I wonder if the writer was speaking from bitter experience?

  • Eleanor Brown

    I too am speechless – which doesn’t happen often! It certainly is hard to believe that a partner would *intentionally* undermine/derail an assignment. But then this is written by lawyers, who only get involved when people are at their worst. And I’m sure it does happen. Certainly it reads as someone speaking from bitter experience, as you suggest, Carole.
    And we all know that even with the best of intentions, an unhappy partner/family = unsuccessful assignment. That’s partly or wholly why Carole & the rest of us provide the support services that we do. The truly shocking thing is that this *still* seen as a revelation….

    • ExpatChild

      It is shocking, Eleanor. After all this time you’d think companies would have something in place but it’s only a few who have support – the rest of us have to make do on our own.

  • Laurie

    I too am shocked by that sentence. I don’t think the majority of trailing spouses specifically seek out to cause their spouse to fail at work. But from the employer’s perspective maybe it seems that way. After all, they lose a lot of money when an employee leaves post unexpectedly and they have to replace them.

    Of course the solution for a company would be to provide more support to the spouse and the family. Information is a powerful thing, and can make all the difference in a spouse’s comfort level. Providing cultural training, emergency procedure and contact information, and guidance from other expats already in-country would help enormously, yet it seems few companies offer this to spouses and/ or families.

    • ExpatChild

      Hi Laurie, yes, I guess it would seem that way – as I said before, perhaps we’re seen as an easy target to blame?
      I think the main issue holding the companies back muct boil down to money – but surely it’s cheaper to provide training than to mop up the aftermath of an unexpected and premature return home!

  • clara

    Well you know my view’s about the need for better support for expat partners and it’s why I’m writing the book. But I can’t believe there are many who would deliberately impair the performance of their partner to enable them to return home. They might unintentionally do it, which is why good spouse support should be more of a priority for employers. But surely most would just ask to go home? Very interesting though. And inspiring!

    • ExpatChild

      I too can’t believe there are people like this, and I’m pleased to see the majority of people (if not all!) find it hard to believe too. Unintentionally, yes.

  • http://twitter.com/wifeinasuitcase Judy Rickatson

    I few months ago I saw a post in a LinkedIn group about how to solve the problem of trailing spouses. Knowing how much I have contributed to the success of our expat assignments it troubles me greatly to know that many in corporate HR still see us as a problem, when in most cases we are a valuable resource. Perhaps we need to start promoting what we do more actively.

    • ExpatChild

      We’re a problem?! Outrageous! Mind you, I’ve heard us referred to as a ‘department’ to be managed and surprise expressed that we [gasp] actually talk to each other too. I guess nothing surprises me now.

      But yes, we should actively promote what we do.

      • clara

        For basically her whole working life, my mother gave up any chance of a career to support my father. This was especially true when he became a head of mission as “Wife of Ambassador” really is a full time job. But did she ever get an ounce of acknowledgement, financial or otherwise? Did she heck! Yet, considering especially how many lunch and dinner parties she had to arrange and how many trips she had to accompany him on (he covered several countries – I think they had a ball!) and how many dull conversations she must have had to have a long the way, she should have been knighted! Oh and given a pension!

        • ExpatChild

          She should have, indeed. It’s a very hard job and often thankless. Not one I could ever do, that’s for sure!

  • Eleanor Brown

    After reading the entire article though, there *may* be a more benign explanation – it’s obviously written by someone for whom English is a second language, & hasn’t been properly edited/proofread before publication. So the writer might not actually have meant to imply that an unhappy spouse screws up an assignment *on purpose*, merely that that is what ends up happening. As we were all saying. Just a thought?

    • ExpatChild

      It is of course possible. Thank you Eleanor, a useful point of view.

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