Expat stress and the trailing spouse

  • Home
  • /
  • Blog
  • /
  • Expat stress and the trailing spouse

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 while 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. [Since writing this, the link has mysteriously disappeared, but the source is listed as per protocol. Highlight is 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?

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

See also: 

Expat failure – what to do if expat life doesn’t work out for you

Why being proactive is important for the accompanying expat partner

And many more – mostly under the topic of Challenges and Difficulties in Expat Life

Need to talk 1-1 about your move and life overseas with someone who 'gets it'? Consider me your own, personal expat expert! I'm here for you.

Your one-stop-shop for a successful life abroad

Expatability Club

An expat community and advice hub where you’ll never feel alone or unsupported. With an Expat Expert in your pocket for real-time support.

Let's stay in touch!

Subscribe to my newsletter and be first to hear news and updates from Carole.

By subscribing you also agree to receive marketing emails from Carole Hallett Mobbs. You can opt-out of these emails at any time. My full privacy policy can be seen here: Privacy Policy

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

  1. The expatriats are mostly failing without a wife and family as the male manager without family isn’t well received and not taken serious. Mostly the whole family is a role model for the employees of the Company. The HR of the Company just knows that they translocate a whole family and that spouses have the main part of the work as the man is jumping in a prepared nest. If the most important person of the assignment struggles it obviously has an impact. In my opinion the companies should pay half of the salary directly to the spouse.

    1. As this ( part of the salary directly going to the trailing spouse) won’t happen, the trailing spouse really should negotiate with his partner and the spouse before trailing for a package which addresses her own risks and problems that may occur. If the package doesn’t work out well, just refuse going. Your spouse may be a narcissist who is happy to isolate you. If not, he probably will also negotiate for a package which will avoid too much disadvantage for the trailing spouse. Probably there is the book missing which helps spouses to estimate the consequences of trailing an expat assignment and help to handle them before leaving to live abroad.

      1. Many companies ignore the family entirely. Without going into personal details, I and many others no longer go on assignments due to this; meaning many positions cannot be filled by relevantly skilled staff.

        You’ve given me an idea for something, thank you SO much for taking time to comment with your considered response

  2. Shocking but not surprising. Also the assumption that it’s always a ‘wife’. In all my close to thirty years of managing and consulting in this area as well as several years as a ‘trailing spouse’ the notion of failed assignments due to family issues has never been validated by data as a huge problem. Rather, I think most in the business, and the spouses who provide such a valuable support role would acknowledge that some assignments might be less successful than others when family issues aren’t addressed. Sadly, this is a conversation that could have taken place 20 years ago!

  3. I found it quite disrespectful and belittling. What woman, or man, in their right mind would go through all the stress of moving overseas, and it is stressful, only to sabotage their spouses work and have to pack up and move home. No thanks!

    Thanks for bringing this up. I remember reading that article and being quite bothered by their assertion.

    1. Exactly, Mindy, it’s absolutely mind-boggling and very disrespectful, isn’t it?
      Nobody I have ever spoken to had even considered this, so I’m not entirely sure where the assumption came from. Bitter and very personal experience, perhaps?!

  4. 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?

  5. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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!

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

  6. 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!

    1. 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.

  7. 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.

    1. 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!

  8. 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….

    1. 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.

  9. 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…..

    1. Hah! Nicola, you are incorrigible.

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

  10. 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.

    1. 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.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Want some personalised advice?

Find out how I can help you make your expat life a success!