I keep going on about this; if you are an expat partner and you feel professionally unfulfilled because you had to leave your job behind and are currently not working in your host country, please, please, please do something now. You can push your feelings and emotions away and keep yourself occupied with activities that give you short term enjoyment. However, they won’t lead to fulfilment and that feeling of loss is going to stay and eat into your overall mental health.
Losing your professional identity is a big deal for many expat partners but it is rarely openly discussed in expat communities. You are expected to be satisfied with your privileged life and keep yourself happy with the many social activities that are on offer. But research has shown that ignoring these feeling of loss can cause all kinds of psychological problems including depression, which often leads to marital and family challenges. Divorce is not uncommon.
You may think that you are coping, that you will be able to deal with it for a few years, until you move back to your home country. However, if your partner is doing well in their job, there is a good change that the assignment will be extended or that they will be asked to move to yet another country for the next step in their career, no matter what was agreed at the start. Things change and before you know it, you have been abroad and out of work for 10 years or more and your prospects for picking up your own professional life seem dimmer and dimmer.
There are two reasons why coping with this situation will become harder over time. One reason is menopause or midlife crisis, the second reason is empty nest syndrome.
Menopause and midlife crisis
Let’s first start with female expat partners, who are still very much the majority.
From early to mid-forties, women start the perimenopause and this process can last for about 10 years until we hit menopause in our early fifties and move into post menopause. This whole journey comes with a host of physical and emotional symptoms. Most women are aware of some of the physical symptoms of which hot flushes are the most known, but there are many more which I won’t go into in this blog. Much more unknown are the emotional symptoms of perimenopause.
Low mood, anxiety and depression, loss of confidence and lack of self-worth are common symptoms in perimenopausal women. The severity of these differ per individual but stress doesn’t help. If stress levels are already high because someone is feeling unfulfilled in their life, menopausal symptoms are likely to be stronger. One can only imagine what this does to an expat partner who is hanging in there, waiting for better times to come. The perimenopause will hit hard and will cause huge challenges for the individual woman and the family as a whole.
During perimenopause, many women, whether expat or not, start questioning their lives. They are no longer willing to go with the flow. Feelings of anger at things that are not right for them become stronger and they will challenge people around them, husband, family and possibly friends. Husbands are often completely unaware what is happening to their wives, even the wives are unaware what is causing all this anger, and the marriage is under strain. Some husbands find their entertainment elsewhere and wives are left to deal with their emotions alone. Not a pretty picture.
As mentioned, perimenopause will be different for every individual woman and it is difficult to predict how severe and unpleasant physical and emotional symptoms will be, but if a woman goes into perimenopause, already grieving over the loss of her professional identity, the feelings of sadness and regret will only increase.
For the male expat partners there is the midlife crisis that is not scientifically proven to be related to hormones, but it is a similar time in life when men question what life is all about. If they have been feeling unfulfilled, this can be a critical moment when they wonder whether they have thrown their lives away. Some desperately pretend to be younger than they are which sometimes leads to unfortunate behaviour with all the results of that.
Empty nest syndrome
The second reason why you should take action now is the empty nest syndrome which is often defined as ‘Sadness or emotional distress affecting parents whose children have grown up and left home.’ This is also not unique to expat parents but it can have an even stronger effect on them when children are moving abroad to go to University. Expat partners who felt professionally unfulfilled and tried to cope by dedicating their lives to their children will feel an even deeper hole when that part of their lives disappears as well.
What’s left? They left their careers behind and now the children no longer need them on a daily basis. They are left purposeless and they may look back at their lives and feel saddened and regretful.
Take action now
Both life events are inevitable; women will go through menopause and children will leave home at some point.
My message to expat partners is, to take action now. Coping is not good enough. If you are missing your professional identity, go and retrieve it. Even after many years abroad, it is still possible to find professional fulfilment. Perhaps not in the same type of job that you left behind many years ago, but there are many things you can do to feel professionally fulfilled. You just need to find it and there are people who can help you with this. There is no need to suffer on your own but you have to take the first step. Take action, find help and get started. If you set your mind to it and are open to possibilities, I can assure you that you will find fulfilment.
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 Human Resources Management and Consulting. 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
©Wendela Elsen, 2021, All rights reserved.