Not everyone outside the expat community responds positively when you talk about being an expat. Sometimes judgement is apparent; you are seen as a spoiled, stay-at-home expat partner with no material needs or wants, spending lazy afternoons at the pool-side sipping cocktails with friends. This may or may not have been true many decades ago, but this is not the norm in today’s expat world. But these old myths are still hanging around. And there is a reason for it.
The starting point of a first expatriation is very different from before. In many cases both partners are working when one is offered an overseas assignment. The couple needs to decide whether one partner, usually the wife (*), wants to give up her job.
The decision to go abroad
When this first opportunity for an overseas assignment is presented, there may be different reasons for the couple to go ahead and accept the offer.
Young couples without children may see the overseas assignment as an adventure – something exciting and a great opportunity to see something of the world. The partner who gives up their job may have plans to explore the country and also focus on something else, be it a hobby or additional study or research; something that may have been on the back of their minds.
For other young couples, this may the perfect opportunity to start a family. The family income will usually go up when sent abroad and they can afford to build a family on one income.
For families with young children an overseas assignment may be a relief for (usually) the mother to give up her job without judgement. Raising young children while both parents are working is tough but just giving up your job in your home country is often not without judgement and can be financially challenging. Again, being sent abroad by the company, the family can usually live comfortably on one income and the mother can be a stay-at-home mum and recover from the very busy early years with young children.
For couples with older children that do or do not accompany them abroad, an overseas assignment can be seen as an interesting adventure or a necessary step in a career.
Whatever the situation, in most cases one partner continues their career and the partner, more often than not, the wife, gives up her job and career and focuses on running the home, supporting working partner and children and filling her free time with something else.
Will she flourish or will she suffer?
In many places around the world there is a thriving expat community where people find support and a wide array of activities often organised specially for them. There is no need to be bored. Some expat partners flourish in this life. Their job was probably never a big part of their lives and the opportunity to focus on the family and social activities in the expat community is welcome.
Other expat partners may enjoy this life for a while, but then the feeling of emptiness starts boiling up. These are usually the partners who used to enjoy their work, had an interesting career and feel that they have lost their professional identity. This can become a real struggle.
Research by Professor Yvonne McNulty (**) of Singapore University of Social Sciences has shown that career-minded expat partners who do not work or do something else that replaces that in a satisfactory manner, experience a strong urge to return home, high stress levels, over-dependence on anti-depressants, addiction, and even thoughts of suicide.
Obviously, these expat partners are deeply unhappy, and this puts a strain on the couple’s relationship.
The stay-at-home partner may feel resentment towards the working partner who didn’t need to give up anything and is continuing their career, meeting interesting people, doing exciting projects and getting plenty of professional fulfilment while finding their home and children splendidly managed by their partner. Work in their new country in a different culture may be hard, but it doesn’t compare to the sacrifices their stay-at-home partner had to make. Feelings of resentment, anger, frustration, sense of unfairness are not uncommon among stay-at-home expat partners.
Why do we only hear the positive stories?
Strangely enough, the loss of professional identity and all the emotions around that is not a topic that is often discussed among expat partners. In an expat community, people come and go. It is common to have an active social life but many of these new friendships can be superficial. They haven’t known each other for long and therefore don’t really know much about each other. They didn’t grow up together and don’t know each other’s families. It is very different from old friends back home.
Because of these dynamics, you see many expat partners keep up a brave face and not showing their real feelings and emotions. Everybody else seems to enjoy themselves, living this expat life. There are plenty of friends, enough money to spend and many activities to get involved in. Nobody is expecting partners to work and finding work is hard. Actually, it’s more trouble than anything else if she wants to work as well. Both husband and children are probably happy to have Mum at home.
But the feeling of inadequacy, loss of self-esteem and self-worth won’t go away and the stay-at-home partner suffers in silence. And that is why the myth is still there, that expats partners live a life of luxury and relaxation. Nobody knows about the hidden suffering.
Help is out there
These expat partners have sacrificed a lot and they have the right to spend time and resources on working out how they can build a fulfilling life. They owe it to themselves. They just need to let go of the brave face and acknowledge that they want change.
They may have already decided that what they want isn’t possible. However, often more is possible than they think but they don’t need to work that all out on their own. Support is out there in the form of expat partner coaches and counsellors who understand their situation and who are dying to help.
There is no shame in asking for help to find the way to a fulfilling life. There are challenges to overcome and that is hard to deal with all alone. But it is so important to take action. It will not just save her; it will save the relationship with husband and children as well.
(*) Internations survey 2019, 81% of expat partners is female https://business.internations.org/expat-insider/
Wendela Elsen has been an expat partner for more than 20 years. She is originally from the Netherlands and has lived in Taiwan, Japan and now in the UK. She has been professionally active for most of that time in different capacities. She now works as a coach and helps expat and repat partners find meaningful and fulfilling ways of using their professional skills and experiences, be it in paid work or otherwise. You can read more about her work on her website https://openrabbit.com