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How to Succeed as an Expat Spouse

December 8th, 2014 by Jason Hartman | Comments Off on How to Succeed as an Expat Spouse

There are a growing number of expatriates across the world and, unsurprisingly, many are married or otherwise coupled. When a spouse makes the decision to live and work abroad, they often receive training and other accommodations to make their transition overseas easier. But what about their partner?

For many, a transition to expat life when a partner makes the decision to live and work abroad can be a difficult and lonely process. When you move because your significant other has accepted work, they’ve often got a built-in community as a result of their job. As a result, you may have a hard time creating your own opportunities.

Luckily, many companies offer (at a minimum) a course or two before your travel to assist with learning the culture, language, and food. Of course, learning the language will inevitably smooth your transition, as will connected with other local expatriates. You may also be able to find pre and post relocation counseling that will ease your transition and set your expectations. You may also meet people by involving yourself with your significant other’s company events, joining parent groups, etc.–but be prepared to feel overwhelmed at first.

The reality of the situation

While various forms of cultural preparation can make you feel a little less uneasy about your new home, you should prepare to feel isolated and even lonely at first. As with any move, it can take awhile to assimilate into a place and meet people with whom you can become friends. Simple things may suddenly become difficult–purchasing clothing in your size, for example.

Often, transitional help is provided as a couple prepares for expatriation, but fades once the move is complete. It is estimated that 30% of those who chose to return early from international job assignments do so because of the inability of their significant other or family to adapt to the new culture and lifestyle.

This is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, early returns cost both the former expatriates and the company they work for money. Reputations can be damaged beyond repair and replacements must be found. This of course interferes with productivity. But there is a human cost too–such decisions can encourage resentment from one spouse and interfere with relationships. Repatriation can also be a difficult process, and the former (home) office of the employee may not be prepared to deal with the reintroduction of an employee who has been living abroad.

What’s being done

Obviously, the best solution to the problem is to find a way to accommodate expatriate spouses and significant others before it is too late. Some companies have begun to send spouses and/or children to immersion courses that begin with the initial concerns of a place–food, etiquette, language, appearance. These courses may also cover topics like gift giving, customs during births or deaths, and so on. The courses will progressively delve deeper into the country and culture, giving spouses and children a more thorough idea about what’s going on in their new country. Some companies even continue these courses, especially in language, once the family has relocated to their new country.

While these courses do cost a company money, the goal is to reduce relationship and family stress, loneliness, and culture shock to make the transition to expatriate life as easy as possible. These courses work best when they are cumulative, happening before, during, and after the move.

What spouses can do

Even in the absence of professional support, there are steps significant others can take to make things easier in their new country and culture. It is recommended that they adapt an immersive attitude–become part of the new culture by experiencing it in every way from day one. This means purchasing groceries from local stores, using local post offices, and buying supplies from the same places the locals do–basically, do everything as you normally would.

This can provide invaluable experience to a new expat–by observing the actions of others, you more easily begin to behave like them. You’ll learn the secrets the locals know, and soon you’ll be one of them. Focus on learning language, which will almost certainly act as a cultural entry point for you.

Of course, you’re going to have to deal with some major differences in culture–but there area ton of resources available, including Jason Hartman’s many podcasts. Training can help negate these differences, but do your own reading and observing too. Know that these differences can be deeper than what you see on the surface–there may be deeply held beliefs that aren’t immediately apparent (though you may still need to be aware of them). The key to assimilating will be to completely invest in being part of a culture, and a positive attitude will go a long way. Set realistic expectations for yourself and your new country and embrace change with open arms.

Pulling the plug

While some people may try to make the expatriate lifestyle work, there comes a point when you may have to call it quits. Unfortunately, living and working abroad isn’t for everyone and it can be in your best interest to go home, assuming you’ve given your new country a fair shot. A spouse may continue to feel isolated if they’re not getting support outside of their relationship.

If your spouse’s company isn’t considerate of your needs, you may end up heading home–and that’s okay too. Appreciate the opportunity to travel and explore, give life outside of your home country a change, and don’t be ashamed if (for whatever reason) it simply doesn’t work out.

Support is obviously crucial to successful spouse expatriate experiences, and when it isn’t received, things can go south pretty quickly. If you are the employed expatriate spouse for whom the family is moving, ask about options for support. If you are the spouse or significant other, seek out resources to help make your transition easier. Similarly, if you are a company who sends employees on long term international assignments, think about what you could do to make the experience a better, more productive one for your employees and their families.

photo credit: Aaron Guy Leroux via photopin cc

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