Trailing Spouses: Be More Than a Follower in International Job Assignments

By Jeanna Hardesty

I was what is referred to in the corporate relocation/HR world as a “trailing spouse” – in my case, the wife of an American health care executive who accepted an assignment at a U.S.-managed hospital in the United Arab Emirates. Four years later, and back home, I have some advice for those of you about to join your working spouse for a job abroad: do your research and get actively involved before you make the big move.

We trailing spouses are not a rare species, notwithstanding the arcane terminology: more than three-quarters of international transferees are accompanied by their spouses or partners on foreign assignments, and nearly half of those bring their children (ours, Audrey and Benjamin, came with us to the UAE). International assignments are also a major investment for the companies involved, and family concerns are a significant factor in employees assignments that are deemed failures.

So, there are incentives for all involved to make living for several years in a new, perhaps strange, country enjoyable not only for the employee, but also for his or her spouse and family. However, relying solely on the employer organization to “take care of things” is not enough. After all, you are giving up a great deal to support your partner’s career, so you should not be excluded from decision making throughout the process. Nor do you need to be relegated to the role of follower or forego your own aspirations, as you will play a large part in this adventure, be it positive or negative. It is your responsibility to take the time to educate yourself.

Setting realistic expectations regarding the extent of cultural and infrastructure differences in your host country is critical. This is especially true if you are moving to a “hardship” area, where even the fundamentals of daily life – mailing packages, grocery shopping, chock-a-block traffic, narrow streets blocked by “privileged” double-parkers – can be severely challenging. While living in Abu Dhabi, much of my energy was devoted to enduring the heat or coping with electrical and sewer malfunctions. It was my full-time job to wait for repairmen to show up barefooted with a single hammer to get the job done.

Employment restrictions and other cultural barriers also should be researched before departing on your journey. If working in the host culture is not possible, it will not change because you move there.

On a personal level, be truthful about how secure your marriage is going into the process. Relocating abroad can be traumatic, with devastating results for relationships. During just the first 12 months of the work contract in Abu Dhabi, my husband and I witnessed seven divorces among expatriate couples we knew. However, it needn’t be this way. The more you know going in, the more enjoyable your time together abroad will become.

Your role in an international relocation should not be confined strictly to family or domestic matters. Employment negotiations and compensation issues, tricky even at home in the U.S., can grow exponentially more complex for a job abroad. As a supporting spouse, take the initiative to look over and become a part of the transfer process. While packages differ by company and inside the same company, some items appear in most international employment offers: a housing allowance, help paying taxes, spousal employment help and trips home. Those extra items can make what initially appears undesirable more attractive, and can more than double total compensation.

The more information you have about your spouse’s employer – particularly if it’s a job with a new organization – the easier the transition will become. Many companies realize the importance of helping employees and their families adjust to the sometimes-tumultuous transition to a job abroad. A large number of successful international companies have made it policy to pay extra attention to the accompanying family members and to make sure that they are able to adapt. It is in their best interest, too.

Make it your duty to find out if the sponsoring company has had a successful history with international assignments. Speak with employees’ wives and children who have repatriated and listen to their stories. If you are with a company that is new to international business, you can definitely play a large part in gaining support to ensure your own success.

If your company provides cross-cultural training, consider yourself lucky and make the most of it. Training programs vary from half-day sessions to extended counseling for employees and family members. They generally include an assessment of the employee’s readiness and expectations for life abroad, education on customs and values, and advice for coping with cultural differences.

Unfortunately, not all companies offer preparation for culture shock, or cross-cultural training. If your spouse’s does not, consider constructing a program of your own, with the help of information resources and experienced expatriates on the Web.

Initially, most individuals don’t really understand the degree to which their own values collide with or are not shared by those in the host country or around the world. Justice, individual freedom, friendship, what constitutes a good neighbor – these values may not mean the same thing in Thailand or United Arab Emirates as they do in the U.S.

Conduct a self-assessment of your expectations, both for your professional and personal life abroad. What elements of life are you eager to experience? What challenges do you expect to face? Which do you expect will be the most difficult to handle – language barrier, cultural values, lack of child care, or quality schools? Several months into your assignment, what do you expect life will be like for you and your family in your new home?

Research the host country: Look to the Web for resources most likely to assist you in gaining a deeper sense of a country’s values and current affairs.

Once you’ve completed your research, look back to your expectations and assess whether they need revising. Ideally, your research will have given you a better idea of what to expect from life abroad. Mobility is the most precious gift you can give yourself; do not take it lightly. On the brighter side, it can and should be a very positive experience. One that will yield a lifetime of memories.

Jeanna Hardesty, a contributing blogger, lived in the United Arab Emirates for four years with her husband Jon, a Maini Consulting Group consultant, and their children Audrey and Benjamin.

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