Becoming an expatriate has never been easy. Careers and everyday life undergo fundamental changes, both for the assignee and their family. Accepting an international assignment can be both exciting and terrifying with a lot of pressure to perform well on assignment. After all, the trailing partner and their family are dependent on the ongoing success of the assignee’s career.
In most locations, a newly arrived assignee will only be able to stay in their new country if they remain employed under clearly defined conditions. Daily living can be so different that it becomes overwhelming, at least at the beginning when everything from bureaucracy to learning how to shop for groceries needs to be prioritised.
Adapting to your new home: the challenges of the trailing partner
Although there are a growing number of trailing male partners, a disproportionate percentage of trailing partners are women
However, when families relocate, not all family members are likely to go through the adaptation process of integrating into a new culture the same way at the same time. Typically, the assignee makes the smoothest transition, especially if they are relocating with the same employer. Small children are usually adaptable, although this can diminish for some older children. That leaves the trailing partner.
Trailing partners are not only most likely to need to make the biggest adjustment to expatriate life. They are also the family member most likely to be giving up something substantial as a result of the relocation.
This can include not only their home but also a successful career of their own. And although there are a growing number of trailing male partners, a disproportionate percentage of trailing partners are women.
Women, who worked hard to forge a professional as well as a personal identity separate from men only a generation or two ago, often find themselves in the role of expat dependents.
The majority of expatriate assignments fail due to the inability of the trailing partner to adjust
For many women, this is their first experience as an adult where they are economically and emotionally dependent on another adult in an unequal manner. It is even more complex if the immigration rules mean that the trailing partner has no legal right to work.
This may have a significant impact on their future career – some professions require continuous service to maintain qualifications, for example in medical professions.
Change status from respected, independent professional to “trailing partner” can be a huge transition.
Avoiding a failed assignment
According to an article published in The Wall Street Journal, the majority of expatriate assignments fail due to the inability of the trailing partner to adjust. Part of the adaptation process is for the assignee, partner and other families to recognise this risk.
What to do
1. Keep busy
Relocation to another country, especially one with a vastly different culture can be overwhelming. However, you are not the first expatriates to relocate abroad.
As a trailing partner, there will be like-minded people who have faced the same challenges as you
Even the most obscure, remote locations have expatriate support communities that a new arrival can contact to start building up their own network of new friends.
Chances are excellent that, as a trailing partner, there will be like-minded people who have faced the same challenges as you are facing not long ago. They will be able to provide both practical advice and empathy.
2. Be productive
Many trailing partners accept that for the first few weeks of months of an expatriate assignment it is their responsibility to attend to their family’s needs.
However, once the family is settled and the house is running smoothly, the trailing partner may have a lot of free time. In fact, for many trailing spouses, the idea of a career of their own becomes more attractive, especially for someone who gave up a previous career they enjoyed.
Once the family is settled and the house is running smoothly, the trailing partner may have a lot of free time
There is rarely anything stopping a trailing partner from earning the legal right to work in their new country in their own right, even though it may not always be easy. This is true even in places like Saudi Arabia or Japan.
However, they may need to become expatriates in their own right as well rather than being dependant on their partner’s work visa and residency status. Most expat communities will be able to provide formal and informal advice to help you.
Other trailing spouses may welcome a career break and use their newfound time pursuing higher education. Earning another degree or studying a subject that wasn’t a possibility in the past may have an appeal. There are also plenty of opportunities to do volunteer work, whether in the charity sector or teaching languages at a local school.
Learn the local language if you don’t already speak it. Being able to communicate well in your new environment can be the difference between the success and failure of an assignment.
A new country doesn’t always mean giving up a job in the old country
With the huge steps in virtual platforms, it may be possible for some people to keep working in some role in their new country “from home” – especially if their company has representation in the host country.
There may be tax and immigration issues, so you will need to check carefully first – but a new country doesn’t always mean giving up a job in the old country.
3. Be practical
- Don’t try to do everything at once
- Don’t give up on bad days – we all have them
- Don’t think you are alone. In today’s globalised world, you are alone only if you choose to be
- Enjoy your assignment
For most trailing partners, once they have found their own identity, they may not want to leave when the assignment is over.