The expat partner identity crisis

The Expatability Chat Podcast

What extra challenges does the accompanying expat partner face?

Why does being the accompanying expat partner makes such a difference to your expat experience?

There are many challenges. And these challenges can lead to a loss of confidence and a rapidly disappearing self-identity.

To start with, we get labelled as ‘the trailing spouse’…

We don’t like that!

Our identity is immediately stripped from us and we are given a demeaning and disempowering label. We are so much more than a label.

However, some communities consider the label itself to be the sole cause of an expat partner’s dissatisfaction and spend hours choosing alternatives which simply compounds the issue. Because this means the actual issues are being brushed under the carpet and ignored. Deflecting away from solving the problem by focusing on the wrong thing altogether.

Our lost confidence and ultimately potential mental health issues aren’t caused by a label used by companies or individuals. Potential problems in self-identity and general upheaval and expat life are caused by a lack of genuine and experienced support.

In this episode I dive into self-confidence issues, self-identity and dependence; working through to discover how to retrieve your self-confidence, find yourself, reclaim your identity, and protect your independence.

Many expat partners say that as soon as they take complete ownership for their own happiness and stop relying on each other that they really start to be happy.

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Hi, welcome back to Expatability Chat. I'm Carole, and in this episode, I want to kind of carry on a bit from the previous episode on Expat Mental Health.

This time I want to explore why being the accompanying expat partner makes such a difference into your life overseas, and what extra challenges the expat partner can face. It's all about identity and the loss of your identity and confidence, and as I say, this all kind of ties in with the mental health episode last week.

So going abroad as an expat partner, a non-working partner, is very different from going abroad for your own job. Unlike when you go abroad for yourself, your own career one of the core challenges in going as a non-working partner is that you're not following your chosen career path. Everything about living abroad is already new and unfamiliar, which brings about its own set of daily challenges. In addition, because you're not doing your own job, your own career, something that's your area of expertise and which brings the accompanying self-worth and confidence, the whole experience is much more challenging.

While the whole global mobility outlook is changing, sometimes for the better, 2020 has made life very uncertain for all expats. Some companies help accompanying partners very well indeed. Others... well, let's just leave that there for a moment, shall we? Some companies claim that they're offering more support than ever for the non-working expat partner, including finding them jobs, apparently. Others are reconsidering the existing system altogether and may, in future, focus on either engaging local staff instead (in order to save money), while others are potentially reconsidering the option for whole families to move, focusing instead on single person assignments.

Basically, uncertainty reigns supreme. We can only deal with what our own individual situation is at the moment, and in general, this means one person moves overseas for their career and the other puts theirs on hold to accompany them on the move overseas. As I deal mainly with expat parents, this also means the non-working partner becomes a stay at home parent, at least for the time being.

One of you has received an irresistible job offer that causes great excitement and starts the ball rolling. And yes, that job offer is normally just for one half of the partnership. If you both get a job offer in the same company in the same country, well, well, that's absolutely fine and brilliant and congratulations! It's pretty rare, though. So the other half, the partner, is faced with a decision, agree to start a new life in another country or say no and be the cause of a lost opportunity. Often you can't win either way. This is a decision that must be made with honesty and a lot of thought.

If you haven't done so already, please listen to my episode on 'questions to ask before you say yes to a move abroad'. For many couples, this is a fantastic opportunity and represents the start of something truly amazing. You're a team. You want to embark on this adventure together, so of course you're going to go. There's a sense of excitement that persists throughout the preparations, the journey and the settling into your new home. It's the 'what comes next' that causes many people to have problems and difficulties.

So, yes, it is a shared decision. But when you get asked, and you will a lot, "Why did you move here?" Your answer is pretty much just, "Well, my partner has a job here." And in just a few words, you are instantly, subconsciously labelled as the trailing spouse. Your identity is immediately stripped from you and you're given a rather derogatory label, even if it's not spoken out loud.

You are no longer you. You are a trailing spouse.

Now, let me just get something off my chest here, and I may rant a bit. We do not like being called a trailing spouse. I know I use the phrase, I use it a lot, mainly because it's a phrase that a lot of people understand, and mainly because I'm a bit contrary and I like to cause a bit of argument. It makes people sit up and take notice. Maybe for the wrong reasons, but hey! The trailing spouse term is recognised, but it doesn't mean that any of us should like it. It's a label that's actually been around since about 1981. So, a hell of a long time. When you're one half of a couple, making the decision to up sticks and move around the world is a joint decision. Trailing spouse implies that one party is simply along for the ride. We're being dragged behind and that is not a good starting place for our self identity and self-confidence.

Yes, we are involved in that decision and yet often, particularly as far as companies are concerned, you're just an addendum, a postscript of their formal contract. "Oh, you're bringing your partner along. Oh, of course. Yes, of course. Of course. Yes, of course. That has to happen."

So that framing of your position, your very existence from the company can be quite demoralising, particularly if you have some doubts and confidence issues in the first place. So why don't we like the phrase trailing spouse? There's a whole heap of reasons here. Well, for a start, we may not be a spouse, we may be a partner or any other term that you prefer to use! Synonyms for trailing are straggling, lagging, dawdling, bringing up the rear. Hah! There is nothing bringing up the rear about us, I can tell you.

So no, I don't like the term, but I also don't like the vitriol and amount of time and energy others spend arguing about it. Entire communities seem to spend endless hours coming up with alternatives, which to me, simply compounds the issue. Because by spending all this time trying to change a term, a label which is widely recognised means that the actual issues are being brushed under the carpet and ignored.

I see it as a form of procrastination and deflection. Some alternatives to the outdated title of trailing spouse are, accompanying partner, which I personally find quite hard to say. My issue, nobody else's! Expat partner and so on. I've kind of lost track nowadays. I have heard of others which are verging on faintly or not so faintly, ridiculous. How about this one that was suggested to me once? The empowering spouse. Fair enough. Much of the success of the whole move and therefore your partner's success is because of the non-working partner who does all the work, setting up home, dealing with the kids and schools and all that. And they are therefore the empowering partner. Again, too many syllables for me. I like concise. And talking about too many syllables, how about this one? I can't recall where I heard it now or where I read it now, but STARS - that apparently stands for 'spouses that are trailing and relocating successfully'. I have no words!

And don't get me started on the hideous comments that I've read on a forum in the past. Unsurprisingly, this was a forum mainly inhabited by men and some referred to expat women as 'living luggage', 'freeloader' and if you can believe this, 'a concubine with no gainful employment'. Is it any wonder I get wound up by titles. Compared to the ones that I've just mentioned, trailing spouse really isn't a problem.

Look, the problem is far bigger than a phrase. You can call yourself what you like, get worked up about it if you like. Definitely get worked up by the hideous and misogynistic labels I've just mentioned. But focus on what's important. That's you, and your family and your expat life.

And besides whichever phrase or description is used, it will always cause someone to be offended or annoyed. As I say, it's a form of deflection, deflecting away from solving the problem by focusing on the wrong thing altogether.

Anyway, I digress, as usual. This isn't about titles, it's about expat life and recognising and rebuilding your own identity. Yes, you are following your partner, but usually it's a joint decision. And let's be frank here, if it wasn't for your willingness to trail, chances are your partner wouldn't be doing this new fabulous overseas job anyway.

It may be because it's the best option financially, but ultimately, you go as a couple. You're not tagging along you're not getting told what and where you're going. Well, actually, some of us do get told where we're going, but we have the option to veto a destination or a job if it isn't right for the whole family. Honestly, you really do have the opportunity to say no.

Our confidence and potential mental health issues aren't usually caused by a label used by companies or individuals to pigeonhole us. Potential problems in self identity and general upheaval and expat life are caused by a situation, and a lack of genuine and experienced support. They are not caused by a label somebody chooses to use when they're writing or talking.

So what extra challenges does the non-working partner face when they live overseas? So you pack up, you ship up, you move countries. When you get there, your partner starts a new job and with that comes a busy schedule, a new social circle and an opportunity to form new friendships. Off they trot to work on their very first day, leaving you in a new home, a new town, a new country without any of the advantages of a ready made social network. This is when reality sets in. You sacrificed family, friends and employment to take up this new life.

You're left with a feeling of emptiness and unease. But when does your new life start? The quick answer to that is when you make it start. This is unfamiliar territory, and you've been relying on your partner and your kids for company in the whole transition period. When the whole busyness and the excitement of packing, unpacking, moving and setting up home has been all consuming. Now your partner's at work, the kids are off to school now and are settling in quite nicely.

You've worked out some of the day to day stuff like the school run, where the supermarket is, where the doctor is, where the hospital is - sometimes a little earlier than expected or hoped! Just dealing with the basic aspects of daily life in a different country can be difficult.

For example, what are the rules about driving at this junction? Am I allowed to park here? What does that sign mean? What is the postman saying to me? Is that milk or liquid yogurt I've just put in my coffee because I can't read the label and it kind of went plop! Oh dear! Of course, we soon get used to all these kinds of examples, but it's never at the same familiar, almost non-thinking level as dealing with stuff back at home.

This means there's a constant low level pressure at all times. And then there are the bigger pressures. Like most expat partners, you will have probably given up your old career in order to make the move abroad. And we are remarkably committed to having our career, our job title, define our self identity. And without that title it's very easy to lose confidence in our abilities. Our careers give us a sense of fulfilment. They give us a sense of pride and of a specific place in the world. They give us a sense of being an expert in something. And when you take that away, all that goes.

Consider your new expat life as a challenge to reclaim your identity without the addition of a specific job title. It's not easy. It requires a lot of confidence, but it's well worth it in the end, trust me. When I first moved abroad to Japan, I had to sell a much loved publishing business. It was just getting off the ground and it was brilliant. It was a shame that I had to sell it, there was no way I could continue it on the other side of the world. But I made that decision with open eyes and with confidence, and I was comfortable with it. It was the right decision for me and my family. In a way, it was probably easier for me to make that decision than for others, as I haven't actually worked for other people or in the corporate world for decades.

Self employment has many benefits and self-reliance is the main one. It also means that I'm pretty much unable to find employed work anywhere nowadays, having been out of the corporate scene since 1994! For others who have given up a much loved career to move overseas, this change can be devastating. At first, it's all fun and games because it's new, it's like a very elongated holiday. But once you've settled in, there's actually nothing obvious to fill your day. So you have to be both creative and proactive.

In your own job. There are always people around you. Even if there wasn't a very active social life associated with the company, you still got to talk to people throughout the day. One of the hardest things many expat partners have to cope with is the constant feeling of isolation. This can make you very insular and magnify whatever problems or challenges you are facing. Some may call it navel gazing. You have too much time to think about things.

Please check out my other podcast episode about isolation to learn a bit more about that and how to deal with it. You have to search long and hard to find the capable person you have been in the past. To morph from a strong career person into someone who has almost nothing to do bar the grocery shopping and school runs is a complete shock to the system and can bring up unexpected issues around confidence and self-worth.

Another aspect of being the trailing spouse - oops, sorry - the accompanying expat partner, is losing your independence. Having to depend on your partner for your life overseas, your whole life. Now, if that sounds a bit dramatic, bear with me. Look at it this way. If you're working partner loses their job or resigns or becomes ill or becomes abusive or leaves you - sorry, it does happen - your entire life is up in the air. Because can you really stay overseas without them in the picture? Would you want to?

Another form of dependency is financial dependence. You may have had your own income in the past, but now you're completely dependent on the working partner. What happens if they become financially controlling? You are a dependent, it becomes infantilising. It makes you feel like you're a child and it's not conducive to a happy life. Now, I'm not saying that any of this will happen to any of you. It's a more dramatic form of saying that you are now dependent on somebody else. You no longer have your independence. You no longer have your identity, which was formed with your job title. And that can all kind of snowball, if you like. Even at the lower levels of losing your independence, you feel as if you don't have autonomy over your own life anymore.

What's interesting about this adjustment period is that you are both dealing with a lot of change and this change will always reveal new insights about your partner or your relationship that were perhaps hidden back home. Some of these can be fun and some of them not so fun. Ultimately, be prepared to be more dependent on each other than you may be used to. It's always good to look at both sides of the coin in the relationship here.

It all helps if you are self-sufficient and independently minded. If you know you're not naturally a self starter, then it's really important to make an even bigger effort and get out there and start to create an identity for yourself that feels compatible with the real you.

And if you can find a way to become financially independent too, life will be much more secure for you now and in the future. So I mentioned the real you just a moment ago, and it's easy to turn around and say, well, what happened to the real me? It's challenging to go from a fulfilling job that gave you a sense of purpose and achievement to suddenly having to fill your time up dealing with the small stuff. Where's the fun in cooking and cleaning all day? Or not even that if you have a helper?

Yes, it's an interesting and slower pace of life when you're not heading into work every day and can keep you intrigued for a while. And some people find this new life deeply satisfying. For others, it can be fairly soul destroying. There's often a sense that you have lost some part of yourself in the move, a part of yourself that found engagement, fulfilment and worth outside of the home, outside of the relationship, outside of being a parent.

And yes, the same can be said of parenthood too. Suddenly you are just mum or dad. You're not an independent person in your own right. You're not an individual. You mix the two up - becoming an expat and becoming a parent can cause havoc in your psyche. Perhaps that's a topic for another time, though.

So you used to be independent, interesting, fulfilled, confident. You used to have friends, hobbies, your own money. If you feel frustrated or unhappy within the confines of your new life, it's really important to work out how you can replicate those feelings, the feelings that your career or previous life used to give you.

You need to find time for yourself. I know that's a lot harder to do than it is to say, but trust me, try and find some 'you time'. Some key points to this are how can you challenge yourself mentally? How can you find meaningful interaction with a group of peers? How can you increase your sense of worth by contributing your skill sets or time to a greater good? So think about those for a moment.

Something else you need to do in the new expat life that you're experiencing is communicate. You must communicate with your partner during this period of great change. Your partner is not a mind reader and you both may be making assumptions about each other's lives and transition and mental health states that are just totally incorrect. For example, your partner may not be around much as they adjust to their new job. And conversely, you might want more of their presence if you're spending a lot of your time alone. They may assume that you're OK with this way of life. You may assume that they're making the choice not to spend much time at home. Unless you discuss this as adults, as equals, it will never get sorted. Because you haven't said you're lonely they won't know; because they haven't said that they're worried about fitting into the new work environment, you won't know. Please talk, please say what you mean. Don't make hints or assume that they should know what you're thinking because we know that that does not work. Just say what you mean and mean what you say.

Not only does your professional world change when you follow your partner abroad, but your relationship will change as well. Since you are pretty much each other's whole world at the start of your new life abroad, you are also the only two people in the world who can guess what the other one is experiencing. But please don't guess. Be empathetic. Ask. Listen. There will be vast differences between your experiences of your life overseas compared to your partner's.

You need to be proactive. You really do. If you spend your days waiting for your loved one to return home from work, you'll soon find you have little to talk about. They'll be full of enthusiasm or complaints about their new role, but you'll have nothing to contribute because your day was the same as yesterday and the day before that and the day before that. Overreliance on your partner can put strain on relationships and you need to prevent that from happening if you're both going to get the most out of this fantastic lifestyle change.

Get out there and find out what there is to do in your new country. Isolation can easily become a habit, and it is not your friend. Your comfort zone, and I've talked about comfort zones so much, your comfort zone shrinks until even getting off the sofa becomes uncomfortable. So you really need to power on through this. Get out there and find out what there is to do and who there is to do it with. Be realistic, though. You're not going to find your BFF instantly. It will take time to settle in and to establish a social network.

Start off small, explore local transport routes, find people to talk to. Other expats are a good start, but do try to integrate with local groups too. Learn the language, learn the culture, take up a new hobby, join a new club and maybe start to look for a new job if that is in your future. You may not need to work financially, that is, but keep an open mind. Working is a great way of forging your own identity and you need that if you're going to make this work.

Of course, that isn't for everybody. You may be perfectly happy being a stay at home parent and that is absolutely fine. But you still need to carve yourself out some me time so that you don't just become mum. Many expat partners find it helpful to find some volunteering role if you can't find regular work, and it may be preferable to you as well. This experience will help you make connections with your new life in your new country and present you with some potential new friends.

Not only that, it will give you a sense of satisfaction that you're doing something worthwhile. The aim here is to give you back a sense of self-worth and some piece of your old working identity.

So, yes, there are a number of extra challenges that come with being the partner rather than being the person who's actually overseas for their job. And yet it is crucial to make it work for you too. Following your partner abroad can mean a lot of uncomfortable change for you if you're not forewarned.

So recognise your needs. If you've been used to working rather than try to make your new traditional identity fit you, as a stay at home parent, and it's not for you, get out there and find a sense of self and satisfaction outside of the house. And be prepared for a period of change within your relationship too. Until you've established your identity and feel comfortable in your new role, I recommend setting yourself a small goal every day. This could be as straightforward as going out to lunch, even if it's on your own. I always recommend people watching, it's fascinating. Explore a new public transport route, but make sure you can find your way home afterwards too! Check out a new leisure facility. Go to the shopping mall, go to the markets. They don't have to be big things of great significance, but you do have to put in the effort to get out on your own and find yourself. Oh, Lord, let's be all hippy, let's find ourselves! But it is true. You need to find out what makes you tick.

Don't let a job title define your individuality or define your life. There is more to life than a job title. And please don't assume that you can simply waltz into a job overseas based on your home reputation. It doesn't work like that.

So yeah, find a way to discover the real you without the need for a working life, without the need for a job title.

Talk to people everywhere you go. Make small connections that will help you feel less lonely, and more importantly, don't ever give up. Make the effort to get out there in your own right so you don't feel like a spare part in your family life. Of course, you do have a vitally important role, that of raising your children, but you must make time for yourself too - for your own self-confidence and for your own peace of mind. And it will also help your family stop taking you for granted, which is really key as they get older, I promise you!

So start finding things that you want to do. Don't rely on your partner and children for your entertainment, happiness and validation. And don't oblige them to rely on you for theirs either. Do your own thing. Practise lots of self care. And this applies to all relationships at home or overseas, by the way, be independent.

Many expat partners say that as soon as they take complete ownership for their own happiness and stop relying on each other, that they really start to be happy in their new life.

Don't lose sight of why you made this decision to move in the first place. To explore a new culture, to learn a new way of life, and to experience something new.

So are you going to accept that role of the trailing spouse and allow it to become problematic for you? Or are you going to grab life by the balls and start living it? It's going to be the latter, isn't it? Get out there, enjoy yourself and find the real you.

If you're experiencing any difficulties in your expat life, or if you need some advice about how to make the right decisions, give me a call. I can help you navigate the challenges of moving and living overseas. I've been there. I'm a great listener, and I can help you work through any problems that you may have. Take care, and I look forward to chatting with you again soon. Bye bye.

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