The severity of culture shock on expats who relocate internationally for work, and their need for support to adapt, should never be underestimated. Sometimes, these expats are offered cultural awareness training. Rightly so, as the initial culture shock and the time taken to adjust to new surroundings and work can affect productivity, costing the company both time and money.
However, it is just as important, if not more so, to extend the same support and guidance to the accompanying partner who very often finds this move even more challenging. Moving away from a familiar context to quite often far away and alien surroundings can be incredibly daunting. Relationships can also be put under severe strain and this will further impact the quality of work of the expat employee. Support or lack thereof can often be the difference between making or breaking a relationship.
Leaving the partner behind is not always the answer either. Long-term separation could result in loneliness and even new relationships being formed with disastrous results to the relationship and family. If children are also in the mix they will inevitably pay the price of this separation as well. Why is it more of a struggle for the partner? The expat employee at least has some sort of familiar routine of going to work, being with colleagues, and maybe even socialising in the evenings. The partner, still in a large majority of occasions a female partner, is left behind at home facing long hours of loneliness and boredom. She is torn from her secure family and social network and finds herself in a world where everything including the language may seem new and strange.
This is further exacerbated if the partner held a satisfying job in their own country. Suddenly they find themselves bereft, lost and useless and may even feel a sudden loss of identity and self-worth. They come up against many barriers: cultural, linguistic and personal. They feel their freedom and sense of independence is restricted. Resentment and jealousy may flare up; arguments and heartache ensue. Sometimes, the partner gives up and goes back to their own country risking the relationship gradually breaking down.
So, how can they overcome this personal challenge and test of their relationship? Here are a few tips that may help.
- Talk about your feelings as bottling it up only leads to more stress.
- Instead of thinking you are “trailing” your partner, create your own life in the new country; then you won’t feel like a hanger-on.
- Appreciate the opportunity to experience a new country, culture and lifestyle.
- Meet new and like-minded people by joining clubs, associations or even voluntary organisations.
- Learn as much as possible about the local culture like the food or art and craft, and teach the locals your own.
- Take advantage of the gift of extra time by learning a new hobby, even a language – preferably the local language.
- Read, write, watch films, do exercise or yoga; anything to de-stress and take your mind off negative thoughts. It is true what they say about an idle mind.
- Above all, be open-minded and non-judgemental. You decide the quality of your thoughts.
Appreciate the paradox. Having a travelling partner means new and exciting opportunities in life. Ultimately, you have the choice of whether to languish in a sense of identity loss or use this as a golden opportunity to discover a new life, to evolve and create a new identity.