Expatriate compensation has traditionally targeted things that money can buy. What often receives far less attention, though, is formal support for the psychological adjustment of an executive’s accompanying family.
Spousal dissatisfaction is one of the major reasons for international assignment failure. Trailing husbands, wives and partners, who often give up careers and social networks to relocate with their working partner, face challenges as they struggle to adapt to their new home.
Nearly 80% of expatriates are accompanied by a spouse or partner, according to a 2010 survey by Brookfield Global Relocation Services. Furthermore, a 2008 study from the Permits Foundation found that 82% of expatriates’ spouses have a university degree, 90% were working before their partner’s assignment, while only 35% held jobs during the posting itself.
The potential for personal discontent and relationship strain is significant. The fact that spouses are often highly educated, working professionals in their home countries means that many have sacrificed their own ambitions. Meanwhile, in China language barriers accentuate difficulties for trailing spouses who struggle to find jobs in a foreign working environment.
These factors cause almost all new trailing spouses to feel a loss of identity, according to Michelle Wright, a coordinator at Community Center Shanghai (CCS), an expatriate association that runs programs to help newcomers settle in China.
"Trailing spouses feel they are here against their will and, over time, tend to be resentful – which poisons themselves, their marriage, and the whole experience," Wright said.
Leaders and followers
Julie Meyer, who moved from the US to China for her husband’s posting two years ago, said another issue that couples face is the chasm between the working spouse and trailing partner’s experiences.
Before arriving in China, Meyer worked as a nutrition consultant and freelance writer – a job which she loved but had to give up on relocation. A few months into the assignment, Meyer felt increasingly unhappy with her situation.
"For the working spouse the relocation is a widening experience where they’re constantly meeting new people, traveling to new places and getting a confidence boost from taking on an important position," she said. "But the trailing spouse is often stuck in their residence compound; they need to be there for their kids, and their world becomes small."
Many companies also require their overseas assignees to manage an entire region and travel frequently. A jet-setting lifestyle means that trailing spouses may find that the person they’re supposed to support is away most of the time.
For Meyer, things came to a head after a trip home to the US last year. When she returned to Shanghai, Meyer said she suffered three weeks of sleepless nights. "I could see the opportunities for my husband and kids, but couldn’t see the opportunity for me."
There are ways to better navigate the situation, according to Wright. In the CCS’ adjustment courses for newcomers, for example, couples are encouraged to "make a choice."
"The spouse needs to decide to think of themselves as a ‘supporting spouse’ who is vital to the assignment and here to make it work," Wright said.
Ways to regain a sense of identity and connection include being proactive in making friends, pursuing hobbies, getting involved with local groups and learning to speak Chinese.
The effort required means that expatriates on less money often fare better, Wright said. While bigger packages can pay for return trips home and expensive tuition for kids in international schools, expatriates with smaller packages tend to have an open-minded attitude – expecting to struggle and working harder to adjust.
"With that struggle, families venture out more, making them more confident and capable. Many of them network with community groups; they learn the language and get out of the expat bubble. In the end, they have a more meaningful experience in China," Wright said.
A new route
Meyer has also made an effort to seek out new opportunities in China. During one of her sleepless nights, she decided to take action and write down what she needed to be happy. The list included going out and meeting more people.
To meet her goals, she started a nutrition consultancy service. Meyer later published a guide to healthy eating, and now runs a related website and blog. Though this has assuaged her dissatisfactions to an extent, she said she still feels that personal fulfillment is elusive.
"It takes a lot of work to look into yourself and find things that bring you joy. I don’t think I’ve seen any examples in the couples around me where these imbalances have really been solved," Meyer said.
At the same time, male trailing spouses experience similar frustrations – which are made even more acute by the fact that men traditionally derive their purpose and identity from their professions.
But Ken Holloway, a stay-at-home dad from the US, said that being a trailing spouse allows him time to bond with his kids and pursue his own passions in sports and coaching. Holloway has been in China for more than five years with his wife, who works in supply chain management.
"Trailing husbands need to understand that they are the envy of all working men. How many dads can say that they spend so much quality time with their kids?" he said.
"I am with them every single day and enjoy it. It has allowed me develop a special bond with my boys that will never change."