Generally speaking, when one half a couple lands a job that will require them to move abroad, they need to think about their partner’s well-being before ‘yes’. As work opportunities in today’s global village takes employees and adventure-seekers further and further away from their own countries, it is vitally important that the trailing partners wants and needs are taken into consideration.
The first few months of a move abroad are filled with activities: both partners are excited to explore their new home, one partner is adapting to a new workplace and culture and the ‘trailing spouse’ is busy setting up a home. Once the settling period is over, however, the ‘trailing spouse’ may start to wonder where he or she fits into the family’s new life. With limited work possibilities, cultural and language barriers and the inevitable homesickness, it is no wonder that trailing partners can feel alone even in the busiest cities of the world. Here are some tips to thrive when following a loved one abroad.
Necessity is the Mother of Reinvention
A 2010 survey by Brookfield Global Relocation Services found that almost 80% of expats go abroad with a partner. Moreover, almost 90% of partners or spouses were working before the move abroad, yet only 35% work after the move. And it is not for lack of desire, Brookfield’s 2011 survey also found that 75% of the partners that were not working would like to be working.
With visa and language barriers, a traditional job may not be a realistic possibility for the trailing spouse. Dave Armstrong, a seasoned expat who followed his wife to India and then Germany, believes it is important for trailing spouses to think about their CVs and remain active even if they are not working. Armstrong, an engineer by training, coached children’s rugby in India and also helped a local micro-finance charity with business administration. He most recently completed an online computer course and now leads the only English-language Rhyme Time for toddlers in Hamburg as part of the Bookstart program.
Diego Moppett, once a trailing spouse in France whose work subsequently led him and his family to the UK and Germany, recommends making an active effort to meet new people and network. ‘Networking with other expats is a good way to get clued-in on the local job market and can lead you to meet people doing surprising things you may have never thought of.’
Beware of the Expat Blues
The first few months in a new country are usually a honeymoon of sorts. Life feels full of adventure and an expat may uncritically embrace everything about her new home. After the honeymoon period, however, an expat and his family may start to dislike almost everything about the host country. Everyday activities, such as taking public transport or shopping, might feel overwhelming and homesickness can become an almost-constant companion. As Armstrong points out, culture shock is something both partners might
feel, but the trailing spouse is unlikely to have the same type of support, for example, from work colleagues or professional acquaintances.
Armstrong suggests that one way to overcome this negative phase of the expat adjustment cycle is to find a venting mechanism. Be it blogging, Skype, or Facebook, negative experiences can, at
the very least, be turned into ‘material’ for a creative outlet. Who knows? In the future, that record of international adventures and cultural mishaps might become a memoir of sorts.
Likewise, although it is counter-productive to dwell on the differences between home and the host country, sometimes a big bowl of comfort food, bad pop music or reality TV shows from back home are just what the trailing spouse needs to make the transition to a new culture easier.
Are You Bendy?
John Steinbeck quipped, ‘A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.’ The same can be said of a move abroad, where adapting to a new life, especially without the support or routine a job can provide, requires a certain degree of flexibility on the part of the trailing partner.
In Armstrong’s experience, flexibility meant accepting that he baffled Indian acquaintances: locals could not understand how an educated career man could give it all up to follow his wife. Armstrong accepted
that ‘there’s a billion people in India, I’m not going to change society,’ and would joke to other Indians that he was there as a ‘trophy husband.’
Support for the Trailing Troops
While it is natural to turn to guidebooks and culture guides to learn about a new country, it is even more important for trailing spouses to find local support networks. The internet and social media can be a trailing partner’s greatest source of support; the luckiest trailing spouses may find they acquire more insider knowledge about their new home than the working partner.
While the life of a trailing spouse is not all country club lunches and cocktail parties, it is full of opportunities for enriching experiences and relationships. Make the most of it!
This article first appeared in Issue 5 of GirlGI Magazine.