Before you say yes to a move abroad
Conversations to have with your partner before going for an international assignment.
Most problems arise from assumptions and unfounded expectations. So deal with those before you agree to move.
Maybe you’re not completely 100% sure about this massive decision just yet. Maybe you’re not sure if expat life is right for you?
Maybe you have concerns about the destination? Perhaps it’s a timing issue? Have you discussed the future? What happens once the assignment is finished, or if one of you wants to stay and the other wants to leave?
There are numerous aspects of expat life that need thinking and talking about before you leap off into the wild blue yonder.
Even if you’re raring to go, there are still some discussions you need to have with yourself and with your partner. Even if you’ve said yes already, there’s still time to clear up some of the following issues.
Please scroll down for the transcript
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Welcome aboard the Expatability Chat podcast, helping expat parents navigate the challenges of moving and living overseas. With Carole Hallett Mobbs, Expat Life Mentor and Consultant and founder of ExpatChild.com
Hi, welcome back to Expatability Chat, I'm Carole, and in this episode, we're going to look at what to consider before you say yes to a move abroad. I'll also explore what may make an expat assignment unappealing to some.
There are numerous aspects of expat life that need considering and talking about before you leap off into the wild blue yonder, whether you're the one who's applying for, or who has even succeeded in getting, an international assignment or you're the potential accompanying partner, most of this episode will apply to the expat partner, however, and particularly, but not exclusively to those with kids.
Whilst it would be a great idea to discuss these points I raise before anyone even considers applying for jobs abroad, I think we can safely assume you're already way past this point. And I'm sure you've already discussed some of the points I'll raise in this episode at some point in your relationship too. So, much of this won't be entirely unexpected. But now one of you has the opportunity to move overseas for an international work assignment. Even if you're raring to go, there is still some discussions you need to have with yourself and with your partner. There's still time to clear up some of the following issues.
Mainly the discussions that you need to have boil down to destination considerations, timing concerns and the future.
Do you really want to move abroad? Is it the destination - is it the location that's bothering you? Is the timing right? And some discussions about your relationship in the future and so on?
So the first topic is, do you really want to go on this move? Maybe you're not completely 100 percent sure about this massive decision just yet. It's a huge emotional rollercoaster. There's excitement, fear, positives, negatives, planning, looking far ahead, looking to tomorrow, looking back, what ifs galore.
How are we just going to get it all done? It's amazing how quickly your brain can bounce around. I promise you. Perhaps you're feeling a bit ambiguous about a potential move abroad, though. Or you're rightly cautious about throwing everything to the winds of change. Maybe even you just don't want to go, but you feel you have to go for your partner's career or life choices or many, many other reasons why you're just not feeling it right now.
Not all overseas relocations are a welcome and exciting experience. Sometimes the news of a potential posting causes your heart to drop into your shoes, and depression and resentment can creep into its place. Reasons for this reluctance can be numerous and variable. Sometimes you don't quite know yourself why you don't want to go. There's nothing obvious or even logical that you can use to explain it either. You just know that you don't want to go there.
Not everyone enjoys expat life and not everyone enjoys every country. One person's hardship is another person's adventure paradise. Everybody is different with different problems and different ideals. And therefore one solution does not fit all.
If you're moving as a trailing spouse, you may feel that you lack control over your own life because decisions are generally taken away from you. This is something I'll take a deep dive into in future episodes. So do stick with me.
Before you agree to move abroad, and especially if you'll be dependent on your partner for your life and well-being overseas, you need to think carefully. Some of these discussions will not be easy, but you do need to have them. And besides, if you can't discuss difficult issues with your partner then perhaps you need to think carefully about other stuff too.
Is it a 'not that country, no'? Perhaps you have concerns about the location. It's possible that it just may not appeal to you. I've refused assignments due to the location for various reasons.
It's rare to know in detail what moving to a specific country entails. Even if you've lived abroad before, life changes, people change, and all destinations do not suit all people. It doesn't matter if this is your first overseas posting or your sixth, you still need to discuss everything each time. Just because you've enjoyed living in X country, the next move to Y country may just not work out for you.
Maybe you've had prior experience with that country and it wasn't great. Maybe you've just taken against the move because you've already visited or lived there and didn't like it for whatever reason. Or perhaps you're making assumptions about a relocation based on preconceived ideas.
With our situation, the office share which postings are opening up in the next year or two. My husband can then choose which, if any, he applies for. I realise that this is unusual in expat assignments and you may well have no choice where you get moved to, or you may have all the choice in the world, which can sometimes be harder.
Also, everyone has different likes and dislikes. There are certain countries that I wouldn't wish to relocate to at all, while other people think that they're the absolute bee's knees.
Some destinations are more expat friendly than others. By this, I mean that you'll be able to find plenty of things to do if your language skills aren't up to speed. It may be a popular expat destination with loads of expat groups you can mix with. I'm thinking here of places such as Dubai, Singapore, the Netherlands, etc. huge expat populations. If you like to mix with other expats, will you be living in an expat area such as on a compound, as is common in many countries?
How do you feel about that? Living in an area made up of expats only, possibly a compound connected to the workplace. So you're living side by side with colleagues. Or do you prefer to live with the locals, as it were? Maybe you'll be living out of the way somewhere. What's the commuting going to be like? For the working partner or for you to get into town? What about the school run?
Perhaps you're considering moving to a country where other expats are so well integrated into the community that they don't seem like expats; for example, Australia, the USA.
Sometimes it's harder to feel settled in these countries because you expect them to be the same as home and it isn't. And it can feel harder than moving somewhere very, very different. And of course, you won't actually know any of this until you get there. So you do need to be open.
Some countries are considered easy relocations, but not for everyone. Germany, for example, is considered easy by many. However, I really didn't enjoy my time there, whereas some expats hated living in Tokyo and I thought that that was a dream location.
Some destinations are considered more difficult, but these aren't difficult for everyone. For example, India is generally considered difficult, usually by people who haven't ever been there. And this is because of the population, the difference, the poverty... It's all relative. Everyone I've met that's actually lived in India has thoroughly enjoyed their experiences.
So some countries are difficult for some expats, but not for others. Then you have the developed versus developing countries. Some destinations are considered what's known as 'hardship' locations. This is a specific phrase that tends to refer to developing countries, where there may be a problem with infrastructure, roads, water, electricity, perhaps cultural difficulties such as recent wars or revolutions. Lots of people relish the challenge of living in these places, and they can be extremely rewarding. Other people just simply may not enjoy that life at all. How do you feel? This is about you remember, this is your life.
And what about dangerous places? Some countries are actually dangerous. I was initially very wary about moving to South Africa as the world news emphasised the daily violence. However, a friend had moved there a couple of years before us, and from her, I got the reality information. And the reality is that it's an amazing country with some of the friendliest people I've ever met in the world. And I've been to a lot of places. Yes, they have many problems there. And yes, it is dangerous, but a certain amount of awareness, actually, a lot of awareness and a lot of street smarts means that you can spend day to day life in a very straightforward manner.
As I say, it's all relative. Some people are happy in South Africa. Others are so terrified that they come home from work, close the doors and never leave the house until the next day.
Will your proposed destination work for all family members? Again, staying in South Africa is not necessarily great for older children. There's no public transport for them to exercise their independence. It's great for little kids who still need parents taking them everywhere. But for a teenager, not so good.
Japan, however, is very safe for everybody with five, six and seven year olds actually making their own way to school all by themselves.
So is your relocation reluctance based on the destination of the move? Do you know why? Can you articulate your reservations? Sometimes all you have is a somewhat distorted view of that country from the international news stories we see. Do try not to make assumptions.
Perhaps the country doesn't appeal because it's too far away from your family. Perhaps the country's too close to family. Maybe you need a bit of distance between you. If you're concerned about personal safety, research further. Only you know what your limits are. Remember, in international news, we only hear the bad stuff, we don't hear the good stuff. Try and find some local news sites so that you can see what really goes on there.
Find some genuine expat blogs where you can find out the details of day to day life in the country that you're considering moving to. Look around the Internet for as much expat information as you can. And remember that it is OK to say no if you don't want to move. Everyone in the family has to be happy with the move for it to be a success. It's so important to recognise and accept that everyone feels differently.
Will this country, will this relocation affect my personal independence? How independent do I need to be for my well-being, for my own mental health?
Will I be able to do my own thing or will I be restricted in any way? For example, in some countries, you're not even allowed to drive yourself and you have to have a driver to take you anywhere. Is that something that would make you feel restricted? Independence is very important for mental health and personal happiness.
For myself, I need a huge amount of space and every independence I can get and this has been one of the hardest parts of my own international life experience. My husband's company places a lot of restrictions on us. Where we live - we have no choice at all. We only find out where our new home is going to be when we actually arrive in that country. We only have a certain selection of schools that we can send our child to and a lot more that I won't bore you with my.
Are there any specific clothing requirements that would affect me - certain Middle Eastern countries spring to mind here? Can you live by their rules?
Is it important that you're able to work? Work permits are actually very hard to obtain, so if working is something that is vital to your well-being, please do a lot of research before agreeing to the move. Many expat partners are surprised when they can't just walk into the career that they expect. Think about what your day to day life will be like as an expat in that country. Will you be able to walk around safely? Will you be able to drive yourself to places or do you have to have a driver, and in some countries a bodyguard?
Will you be allowed to open your own bank account or do you need your husband's permission? Are there restricted areas for expats or can you visit anywhere at any time? Are there suitable education options for the kids? Do the schools where you're going to be living, follow a curriculum that you're happy with, or will your child need to swap learning styles? For example, will they go from learning the British curriculum to the International Baccalaureate or the American system? Is there even a suitable school nearby?
What about home schooling? Can you homeschool your child there? In some countries, home schooling is actually illegal, by the way. So double check if you want to home educate your child. For older children, what kind of freedoms would they be able to have? Will they be able to move around freely or only in safe areas with supervision and maybe bodyguards? Will you have to taxi them everywhere or will they be able to safely take public transport on their own?
So that's all the different possibilities about a destination worry.
Let's look at timing. Is the timing right for your move abroad? Perhaps you just feel that you don't want to move now, but you do want to move abroad at some point.
Timing is pretty crucial for any relocation, especially if you've got children. Maybe the timing of this relocation just feels wrong for you. Perhaps you're up for a promotion in your own career. Perhaps you're really enjoying your job and life and simply don't want to move abroad.
Perhaps you're really settled and will miss your family and friends. Admittedly, this is a conversation that needed to happen way before the overseas assignment came up, but, you're here now, so ask yourself, are you just too settled in your comfort zone? Is it time to stretch your wings? Perhaps your job can be done remotely. It's worth exploring all options. Just make sure you're comfortable with your decision to either stay put or go abroad.
So what about the kids?
Perhaps the education timing is all wrong right now. Educational timing is crucial and especially important if you have school aged kids. It could be the timing of their age group, especially if they're older and need to take some exams soon. Perhaps it's the timing of the relocation itself. Joining a school mid-term is not easy for children: it's better to get them into school at the beginning of preferably a new year, a new grade, or at least at the beginning of a new term.
Moving in the middle of exams is generally not a good idea. And in some countries they'll make it very hard to get a school place during certain age groups. For a 14 / 15 year old, for example, to get a school place in England will be almost impossible due to the rigid exam system here. But I'll talk a lot more about schools and expat education in later episodes. Alternatively, you can buy my book. I'll pop a link in the show notes.
And personal problems, well, this really needs to be said purely because I've seen it happen all too often. And as we're considering what to think about before saying yes to an overseas move, I am throwing it in here, too.
If you're having problems in your relationship, whether they're spoken or unspoken, an expat relocation is not going to fix that. Moving abroad puts a ton of pressure on you both. We have to rely on our partners for support as we've got nobody else.
Expat life throws you in the deep end of a very different dynamic, and it very rarely, if ever, saves a wobbly relationship. Quite the opposite, in fact. If there are problems in your relationship a move anywhere is a recipe for disaster. You don't run away from your problems. Your problems will come with you and be amplified.
Fourth topic of discussion, the future.
For example, how long will you stay in that country? What will happen when that time's up? Where will you go after that? What if one of you wants to stay there but the other one wants to leave?
Life has a habit of changing rapidly. 2020 is showing this this. I learned about it many years ago. Let me tell you my expat story briefly or as briefly as I can. My husband's place of work regularly sends people overseas for their job. Depending on the job, the country and loads of other stuff, postings are generally between two and four years long.
In 2006, we got our first posting overseas to Japan. It was fully discussed - all was fine. I was more than fine. It was amazing. We signed up for four years and we expected to do the four years there and then return to the U.K. Very few employees go from post to post and at that point his job never included that lifestyle, so we could safely say, yep, four years in Japan and then back to England. So we put our stuff into storage; quite a lot of it in my mum's attic because it's only for four years.
So after about three years in Japan, we started planning our return to the UK. Or put it this way, I started planning. So I was looking at schools for our daughter in our hometown, looking ahead to a secondary schooling as well. She would have been about nine or 10 years old on our arrival back in the UK at that point. I was getting the pet's vaccination schedule sorted out, generally winding down for the end of our expat life in Tokyo and looking to wind up our life back in England.
And suddenly my husband had the opportunity to apply for another job. And he got it. It was very unexpected, as I say people just didn't go from post to post. So we were going to move to Berlin, not going back to the U.K. for good, just for a while. The timing was very complicated, but it looked like we'd be moving to the U.K. for about six to nine months before moving on to Germany with a nine or 10 year old girl.
Not easy. I had to make different plans. Where were we going to live? Was it worth taking our home off the rental market for just a few months to live there? Or should we try and rent somewhere else in the short term, which actually was financially impossible. Where would our daughter go to school? It's tricky enough getting into schools in England without the stress of having her only in school for a few months. And would any school even accept her for that short time? Then other stuff happened with the job and personnel timings and all sorts of hideousness, and that culminated in me having to start all over again.
Now it looked like we'd only be back in the UK for between three and six months before moving to Berlin. Well, that was one week - the following week it changed again and we were going to be in England for three months. It was all a bit grim. In the end, I seriously started looking into actually living with my mother for a short time. The horror! And either sending our daughter to school in that county for a term or probably home educating her... Double horror!
Husband would be living 200 miles away with his mates near his U.K. office. Options were becoming quite catastrophic. Behind the scenes, my husband was doing his absolute best to get the posting dates amended to take schoolchildren into consideration, not just for us, but for all families moving abroad. He was relatively successful, thankfully.
Anyway, long story short, with a big earthquake in the middle, we ended up going straight to Berlin from Tokyo. And then it all started again; a secure four years posting in Berlin, planning for the move back home after that. Future school timings were getting quite tricky as our daughter was getting older and would be returning to the UK at the age when English students start taking the all important GCSE exams.
Guess what? Plans changed again. And ultimately we ended up living overseas continuously for 12 years. Luckily, my mum didn't need much attic space in that time.
So after a couple of years in Berlin, we ended up unexpectedly moving to South Africa. The thing is, pretty much all I remember of our last year in wonderful Tokyo was the panic of what's going to happen next, when plans kept changing. I simply hadn't considered any alternative other than the four years and then back to the UK.
Obviously, nobody else's fault but mine. I just hadn't thought ahead and out of the box enough. What I guess I'm getting at here is to be prepared for life to turn upside down at any point and have a clear a plan as possible for your future and try to consider all eventualities. I know. I know it's not possible to consider every possibility - I think we've certainly learned that this year. I've always said expats need a crystal ball.
Anyway, try not to respond to everything impulsively like I did. If I just left everything for a week, I would have had a better idea of what was going to happen. Things were just changing too quickly for me at that point.
OK, back to the point. Discussions to have before you say yes to a move abroad.
And the fifth and final topic of discussion, basically getting deep into the nitty gritty of what needs to be talked about before you move abroad.
Have your life goal posts changed at all? For example, your life plans and your expectations, yours, as well as your partners, your joint life goals are they all in alignment?
Look at your original agreements from when you first made the decision to get onto the expat life cycle. Do they still stand? Do they need discussing? Do they need revising? Is your career going well? How do you feel about possibly not being able to work when you move abroad? Because it's pretty difficult to get a job as an accompanying expat partner with kids.
How do you feel about leaving your career to support your partner's progression, knowing that you may never get it back? What ages are your children? For example, if you agreed to move abroad some years ago as a young couple with no kids, that's one thing. But now you're older, you have three kids and a dog... Do you still feel the same way about moving overseas? Do you feel that you have to keep the promise that you made all those years ago?
It is OK to change your mind. Many couples talk about their goals, expectations and needs before the first assignment, but then forget to agree or re-agree on many points later on in life. It's not unknown for one or other partner to assume that everyone still agrees on all points raised and discussed years and years before. Expectations and needs change as do our partners, and you need to talk about them regularly, openly.
Sometimes we need to ask questions of ourselves regarding what we really want out of life, and we need to talk with our partner about our wishes, needs and concerns, too.
If something goes wrong partners do tend to blame each other and hold the other one responsible for their own misery or failure. And of course, this has a disastrous effect on anyone. So talk, be honest before making any rash decisions. And it's always a good idea to sleep on it! Let it all sink in for a while, allow yourself time to think.
So continuing with the deep questions to ask yourself. Let's move on to some questions to ask your partner, the working partner. Ask how many hours will the new job take?
Some couples are very negatively affected by not spending lots of time together. Others relish it. Many accompanying partners are surprised at how little time they can spend with their other half, which can seem especially hard when you're trying to find your feet in a new environment. This is where self-sufficiency and being proactive to create a new circle of friends is vital. If you're independent, it won't be such a big issue for you, as if you rely on your partner for your well-being and happiness.
You may discover that your partner's new job will entail a huge amount of overseas travel or internal travel. How do you feel about that? Of course, you may be able to travel with them a lot of the time, but if you have kids at school, that may not always be feasible.
Let's dig deeper into some more questions to ask your partner. How about... If we are unhappy there will you allow us to leave? Well, that sounds a bit heavy, doesn't it?
If you have children, please find out more details about moving abroad with children and any consequences you may face if you and your partner split up. If one of you wants to leave and the other one doesn't, are you able to leave with the children? Please do get in touch with me if you're already in the process of this, as this is a huge issue and you really need to be aware. I will be covering this in detail in another episode, I just don't have time in this one. If you have no children then this is less of an issue; if one of you wants to leave, you just leave.
Will you ensure health insurance covers the whole family? This is a weird one. Sometimes a relocation package from the company includes health insurance for the working partner only. I'm surprised that this still happens, but apparently it does. Make sure health insurance fully covers the entire family.
Will you ensure our safety? Well, that sounds a bit odd, doesn't it? If you're moving somewhere where there are personal safety issues find out what's being put in place in your home and for you personally. This is something that should be dealt with by the employer. But sometimes you have to push to ensure it's not just the employee that gets help. Again, experience.
I attended a local two day course in South Africa on how to keep myself safe while living there. And it was very good. It was really useful. And it left you with a mix of absolute terror and absolute confidence. A strange mixture, I can tell you! However, my husband, the employee, got that course, plus a whole week of intense safety training in a whole other country to learn more in-depth ways to protect himself. It's interesting to know that the expat partner is still considered a second class citizen, when we're both living pretty much the exact same life.
So do push for what you feel you are entitled to. You have to be assertive in this game as the expat partner.
What about if it really doesn't work out for you, though? Expat life I mean. Would you be prepared to leave and move back home? You need to make sure that your partner will support your wishes and needs if push comes to shove. And what I said about if you have children; you may not actually be legally allowed to leave if your partner doesn't want to.
Like I say, please get in touch if you're concerned about this. Or research the Hague Convention.
So we looked into whether you really want to move abroad right now. We also looked at various destination issues. Timing is really important to think about, and the future is even more important to think about. And then we looked to other discussions that you need to have with your partner before you consider moving abroad.
The thing is, this is your life, too. You don't have to be a trailing spouse. You don't have to trail. You need to be an independent grown-Up. Most problems arise from assumptions and unfounded expectations. So deal with those before you agree to move. Prevent problems with open and frank discussions. Nobody is a mind reader so if you don't talk about your worries, how is your partner to know how you feel?
Of course, we never know what life might throw into our path, but we always have the option to get informed. So do your research and have your discussions. Talk and talk some more.
And it's OK to say no to a move abroad if it isn't right for you and your family. Because expat life does affect the whole family.
Please do get in touch with me if you want to talk about any of the issues brought up in this episode. Sometimes an outsider's view can really help matters. And I'm an outsider. I've always been an outsider. And I have a unique way of looking at your problems and cutting through the crap.
So do get in touch, have those talks and I look forward to chatting with you again soon.
Thank you for listening to the Expatability podcast, please check out ExpatChild.com for more free information and resources and follow me on your favourite social media. Don't forget to join me next week for another episode. Until then, bye bye.