Extra challenges for the expat partner

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Why being the expat partner makes such a difference

Going abroad as a partner is very different from going abroad for your own job.

Unlike when you go abroad for yourself, one of the core challenges in going as a partner is that you’re not following your chosen career path. Everything about living abroad is already new and unfamiliar, which brings its own set of daily challenges. In addition, because you’re not doing your job – something that is your area of expertise and which brings the accompanying self-worth and confidence – the whole experience is much, much more challenging.

Loss of confidence

This means it’s very easy to lose confidence in your abilities. When I first moved abroad, to Japan, I had to sell a business that was just getting off the ground and which I loved. In a way, it was probably easier for me than for others as I haven’t worked for other people for decades! Self-employment has many benefits… and self-reliance being the main one. But it also means I am pretty much unable to find ‘employed’ work anywhere. For others, who have given up a much loved career to move overseas, this change can be devastating.

You have to search long and hard to find the capable person you had been. To morph from a strong career person into someone who has almost nothing to do bar the grocery shopping and school runs is a complete shock to the system and can bring up unexpected issues around confidence and self-worth.

Identity issues

What comes up commonly is the issue of identity. So many people gain affirmation of their identity from their job title. Our jobs give us a sense of fulfilment. They give us a sense of pride. They give us a sense of being an expert in something and when you take that away – this all goes. Consider this a challenge to reclaim your identity without the addition of a specific job. It’s not easy, requires a lot of confidence, but is well worth it in the end, trust me!

Also, once you’ve settled in, there is actually nothing obvious to fill your day. So you have to be both creative and proactive. In your own job there are always people around you. Even if there’s not a very active social life associated with the company, you still get to talk to people throughout the day. One of the hardest things many people have to cope with is this constant feeling of isolation. This can make you very insular and magnify whatever problems or challenges you are facing.

The ‘Trailing Spouse’

On top of that, there’s this stigma of being known as a ‘trailing spouse’. It is not only a dismal name; it’s also a very dis-empowering term. Yes, you’re following your partner but usually it’s a joint decision. And let’s be frank here, if it wasn’t for your willingness to ‘trail’, chances are, your partner wouldn’t be doing this new, overseas job anyway! It may be because it’s the best option financially, but ultimately you go as a couple. It’s not as if you tag along and get told where you’re going (well, actually, for some of us, that is the case, but we – the ‘trailing spouses’ – do have the option to veto if a destination isn’t right for the family. Honestly, you really do!). We are involved in that decision and yet often, as far as companies are concerned, you’re just an addendum or post script on their formal contract – “oh, so you’re bringing your partner, of course – of course.” So, that framing of your position from the company can be quite demoralising. Some companies help accompanying partners very well; others, well… let’s just leave that there, shall we? Otherwise this could turn into quite a rant!

And the only question we women get asked is, “What does your husband do?” You can feel like an afterthought in the whole process. Interestingly, it’s only other expats (male and female) who ask me this question… You have to be pretty pushy and assertive. And think up some intriguing answers to make light of it, because, quite honestly, it becomes very boring after a while.

Sadly, the assumption by many businesses and other expats is that women are the ‘trailing spouse’. Therefore, when I share something like this article I get a lot of complaints – often unnecessarily rude ones. From other women… not men! Yes, I know there are plenty of male accompanying partners. No, I haven’t found any who write a blog so I can share their point of view (please feel free to tell me if you know of any!). No, I cannot write well from a male point of view, so I won’t be doing that. Yes, you can complain to me all you like and as soon as I find an article written from the male point of view I share it.

There are a number of extra challenges that come with being the partner rather than being the person who’s actually posted. Yet it’s crucial for you to make it work for you, and to make sure you both keep your relationship intact. Your working partner needs to really step up to help out here.

Get ‘out there’!

Seek out some new hobbies and take courses. Make the effort to get out there in your own right so you don’t feel like a spare part in your family life. Of course, you have a vitally important ‘job’ – that of raising your children. But you must make time for yourself too, for your own self-confidence and peace of mind.

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  1. I think empowering spouse is great. Also like the term used in the 2018 NetExpat and EY survey on ‘relocating spouses’ involving 3412 respondents from 121 host locations, 81 nationalities, 320 senior HR representatives from both corporations and international governmental organizations, 2,086 mobile employees, and 1,006 expat partners. Confirms that it is tough but increasingly better supported by the posted person’s employer to offer choices to make the adjustments easier. I’m amazed by the resilience and vibrancy of people who chose this life.

  2. I think part of the issue is the term “trailing spouse”, it implies you are being dragged along in the move. In reality much of the move and your partner’s success is because of the “empowering spouse”. The person who sets up the home, kids into schools, arranges social life, maintains contacts with friends and family back on and the list goes on..

    What do other think – “empowering spouse”?

    1. Hence why I place that phrase in inverted commas. Whichever phrase or description is used, it will always cause someone to be annoyed or offended.

      The phrase ‘trailing spouse’ has been around a lot longer than any others (since 1981, at least) and is widely recognised. And yes, widely despised too. We all know and recognise that the accompanying partner, empowering spouse, STARS (Spouses that are Trailing and Relocating Successfully), male, female or other, is the one doing all the grunt work.
      However, I am more interested in reaching out and helping the individuals in this situation, than coming up with yet another new label.
      Basically, the problem is far bigger than a label.

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