With a greater network of access and an entire industry devoted to cushioning change for expats, those accompanying their other half overseas no longer need to dread the distance from their past life.
Back in 1987 Jo Parfitt was starry-eyed, smitten and on her way half way across the world to accompany the man she’d married to a place she’d fingered on a map once, and visited twice.
Her husband Ian had lived and worked in Dubai for two years prior, but Jo, mad with the edge of excitement, had made no prior preparations and had haphazardly let expectation fall to the wayside. She departed for the Middle East in a heady cloud of anticipation – antsy to begin her life in the romantic sphere of expatriate living.
Woman sitting alone on a mattress
But like so many before her, and so many still to come, Jo hadn’t foreseen the degree of difficulty and the extent of both physical and psychological hardship that this kind of move involves.
“I moved rapidly from excitement and anticipation into the big dip of culture shock and within six weeks I was very unhappy indeed. The reality of this loneliness and boredom took many years to go. Today, I know what to ask for, back then I did not,” she admits quite candidly.
Now well-published and the author of “A Career in Your Suitcase”, a book about the ins and outs of maintaining your professional identity while moving overseas, Jo is an expert in the art of the expat life and the antics of adaptation. Still, she began as part of the spousal school of past - those forced to play the role of the follower and forego individual aspirations and ambitions.
These ‘trailing spouses’, an affectionate nickname credited to Mary Bralove of the Wall Street Journal in 1981, often have little idea about how dramatically life can change when relocating internationally to support a partner’s career.
Often they’re charged with managing the logistics of finding a house, with opening bank accounts, and with arranging appropriate schooling while their other half is fully immersed in the complexitiesof a new career. Though starting a new job creates its own difficulties, it is still a relatively familiar process. Not to mention, expats employed abroad work alongside fellow expats and within a zone lined with the comfort of shared behaviour.
Trailing spouses seldom share this luxury and may have to spar openly with the big, bad monster of foreign culture. Language barriers, strange business etiquette, and in the case of the Middle East restrictive laws can be the cause of constant confusion and consternation.
Cat in a Moving Box
These days though, relocation specialists and contract stipulations usually provide adequate provision for many of these more obvious factors. For the most part, accommodation, health insurance and some form of subsidized education should be settled prior to expat’s arrival.
Still, the elimination of these stressful variables may only serve to further expose the true vulnerability of the trailing spouse’s plight.
“Having no company support, no one to turn to, no book to read and no resource. I was alone,” recounts Parfitt of her own struggle.
The most pointed issue a trailing spouse must learn to deal with is the loss of identity and the subsequent period of reshape and remodelling that ensues in the new environment. As the trailing spouse leaves friends, family, a career path or an impassioned endeavour, priorities begin to shape shift and reordering them can become chaotic in its own right.
Co-authors of “A Portable Identity”, relocation coaches Debra Bryson and Charise Hoge explain the phenomenon as a four stage process.
“The trailing spouse goes through several alterations: first, by the decision to move; second, by the actual departure from her home country; third, by the entry into the foreign country; and, finally, by the addition of new roles and relationships in her life overseas.”
This transition can result in feelings of resentment, disorientation, depression, boredom and extreme pessimism. When coupled with the problems of career abandonment, family issues, lack of support by the sponsoring employer and difficulties in maintaining meaningful work the mental landscape of the trailing spouse can become very rocky indeed.
But thanks to published accounts like that of Parfitt, expat coaches like Bryson and Hoge, and reliable research that proves just how pivotal partners can be, life for the trailing spouse no longer need be such a drag.
Brookfield Global Relocation Services found that approximately 86 percent of transferees that were relocated were accompanied by spouses or partners; numerous publications over the past 30 years have reported that the number one cause of an assignee breaking their contract was spousal unhappiness; and according to the 2010 Corporate Relocations Survey by Atlas, 40 percent of firms say that a spouse/partner’s employment “almost always” or “frequently” affects an employee’s relocation.
Such hard figures are even harder to ignore, thus relocation assistance addressing the physical needs of the trailing spouse in conjunction with those of the assignee is being increasingly used as a recruitment tactic. Some companies have taken to arranging job interviews for the spouse, flying the whole family back and forth for reconnaissance visits and even helping in the moving process.
Assignees shouldn’t be afraid to demand this type of attention, and should go as far as to make relevant inclusions in their contract.
Preparing in advance of working
Negotiating a work permit as a trailing spouse can be an issue that makes or breaks relocation.
“Spouses tend by default to be defined in their roles of partner and caregiver and people often forget to ask about career choices. It is easy to feel second-class and invisible, if professional identity is as important to you as it was to me,” explains Parfitt.
Obtaining a work permit is just one piece to the greater puzzle of taking charge of the changes associated with the mobile lifestyle and turning challenges into opportunities.
The most important thing a trailing spouse should do to take control of the expat experience is to prepare.
“Don’t guess what it will be like as I did, get online and find out for sure, build your network before you go, and ensure you have some dates in your diary ready and waiting for you,” recommends Parfitt.
Take advantage of all the resources available to find clubs, interest groups and information-dense expat websites
Making the necessary contacts in advance is very viable thanks to social media tools such as LinkedIn and expat bulletin boards and forums. Trailing spouses can also start by getting in touch with the local Chamber of Commerce, by registering with various employment agencies and by networking with friends, families your partner’s employer and other expats in the area.
Otherwise take the necessary steps to keep busy; donate time to non-profit organizations, further your studies or invest time in a hobby you’ve always wanted to pursue.
As a trailing spouse it’s vital to take the steps necessary to create a mindset that’s meaningful; reassert your identity as something portable, transient and more respectable and enriched than ever before
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