The aimless & spoiled expat spouse
- an opinion piece
A few years ago I read an article in a renowned German newspaper about women who move abroad for their husband’s careers and give up their careers to do so. The article was written in a tone that made it clear that the reality of this situation was not fully grasped by the authors. There was a lot written about self-sacrifice, betrayal of emancipation, and throwing away one’s identity. These are points that are certainly felt partially by expat partners, but they do not reflect the real motivation and situation in all its complexity. I have then written an opinion piece that has lost nothing of its relevance to this day.
Therefore, in this blog post I would like to point out the other side and draw a counter-draft to the image of the spoiled partner abroad.
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A reality check
It is always easy to judge a different lifestyle from afar. While I am delighted that the article I found (go to German Spiegel article) has interviewed a couple of expat partners instead of just writing about them, it is easy to see where their complex expat journeys have been twisted around to make the story fit.
The article is stressing how well-educated women make themselves dependent on their husbands. The choice of pausing a career and moving abroad is portrayed as throwing away any professional self-respect these women had before. They are the traitors of the gender equality movement. This seems to be an insult in our modern times where we are aiming for equal pay and female leadership (but still lacking way behind). It reveals a lot that the article stressed the topic of a potential divorce and already anticipated a red flag for re-entering the workforce after spending some time abroad.
While it is a sad truth that most expat spouses are not able to continue their career ambitions abroad (only 20% are able to take their career internationally) the topic is much more complex and broader. Many women want to work but are not allowed to or are not able to fit in the foreign labor market. Others are focusing on their family and dealing with one of the biggest challenges: adapting themselves and their family and raising children in an unfamiliar setting. So while it is a fact that moving abroad will most likely lead to a transition in your career path, we can not leave it like that saying this is the endgame and treason to our ambitions.
How should we define a successful career?
What is a “career” in the first place? Is our perception of a successful career still up-to-date? The more I am learning about it, the more I do question whether the traditional “higher, faster, further” is the universal remedy for all job seekers. The question of “what do you do?” in small talk conversations always targets the job position and we prepare ourselves to form an opinion on how successful someone else is based on the answer. However, this universal “higher, faster, further” is not suitable for everyone nor should it be advocated as the only promising career path. Having a career is much more than the salary or the number of team members you are managing. In the end, designing a career is a very individual process where everyone should work on their own interests. According to the career anchors model of Edgar Schein, we all define a successful career very differently when we honestly reflect on our motivation, interests, and values. For some, a successful career entails becoming an expert in a field, whereas for others it’s all about having management responsibility. Some are seeking independence, whereas others are striving when challenged by the unknown on a frequent basis.
As a career coach, I frequently talk about the so-called Protean Career. This is the usual career pattern I see with expat partners who are thriving abroad professionally. You can read more about the Protean Career concept here.
When we discuss the abrupt end of a linear career path of expat partners, we tend to forget that there are many other dimensions than consistency or exponentially growing power within an organization. The trick is to step outside the hamster wheel and explore one’s own definition of a successful career.
Isn’t the discussion of modern work and emancipation all about thinking outside the box? Are we not getting closer to a more open and complex system where we appreciate diversity rather than uniformity? Digital Nomads show us how a career can become portable. Some professions are so new that you can’t study them but learn them on the go. Management tasks are getting much more complex, and it is all about how instead of what. A change of profession throughout your career is becoming the new norm, disrupting our perception of age, experience, and the value of stability.
Taking this changing work environment into account – why are we still discussing the unusual turbulent career path of expat partners as something negative instead of recognizing its valuable contribution to the workforce?
The truth is...
Expat Spouses are not sitting at home, waiting for their husband all day long. It is not a story that takes place at the pool, with a babysitter, a maid, a chauffeur – and even if that is the case, it just shows that expat partner lifestyles can be as diversified as the lives of your neighbors back home. There are endless facets of life stories, but there is one common character trait I want to stress. Due to my work as a career coach and publisher, I am in constant conversations with expat spouses around the globe, and I realized right away that those women are courageous, strong-minded, and exciting personalities. Put them together in one room, and you will never get bored, nor will you stop shaking your head in fascination when you learn what talents those women have. Moving abroad asks a lot from a person. It is not only about switching home and finding a good school for the children. It is much more. Those expat spouses experienced change and challenges on all levels of their life, and not one stone rested on the other. The truth is: no matter how fancy your relocation package is (if you are lucky enough to have one), nobody can take away the challenge of personal re-invention. Moving abroad will most likely change your life forever, and change always comes with hard realizations and a lot of effort.
You will learn that relationship dynamics can change and that not all friendships will last. You will learn that a forced career change is not as easy to cope with as a planned one. You will discover that it is most likely Plan C that will work out than Plan A and that your journey to that point will change your personality. You will learn that without a security net or social connections you can rely on, it is all about you, your effort, and your ambitions to re-establish yourself.
So at the end of the day, most expat spouses face one critical moment in their expat journey: They either feel defeated and lose their confidence in their skills and value or they take their fate into their own hands making it work against all the odds and become stronger than ever before. I have written about the four types of expat partners here and you can clearly see that it can go both ways.
The German newspaper article portrays excellent examples of the latter but still titles the piece with “When the career ends with the age of 27…”. This might be the result of misunderstanding and click-baiting, but it throws the discussion 20-years back. Let’s shift our perception to the contribution expat spouses can bring to the table.
Why you should hire expat spouses
Dear employers, when you are looking for people with an endless list of soft skills and an invaluable understanding of culture and global connectivity, hire expat spouses!
Looking for someone that will fit into your team? Take an expat spouse, who has won countless gold medals for adaptability and integration.
In need of someone that addresses old problems with new solutions? Take expat spouses who have learned that for the same global issue, there is a whole list of different local approaches. It’s like a Ph.D. in being solution-oriented.
Aiming for someone who does not shy away from stepping in? Take expat spouses, who always have to make themselves approachable and offer their skills and labor. They had countless roles in their expat lives and were catapulted again and again into the unknown.
Looking for someone who is not wasting time with judging but will focus on questioning the status quo adding new insights? You know whom to talk to…
I could go on and on with this list, but I hope you get the idea. Expat partners bring along a unique skillset. No university in the world could teach us what we have learned abroad. Make use of that! Look behind the outdated coverage of expat spouses in the media and realize that we embody a new global workforce that is not only eager to contribute but also brings a whole new world into your company. It is not about throwing away our careers but about enriching our lives and using opportunities.
The last time I have checked, we have one life. I am planning on making it count and so do many expat partners I have spoken to over the last years.
Thanks for reading till the end! I would love to know your thoughts on this! Let me know in the comments below or send me a direct message to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to know more about my work or this topic sign-up to the SharetheLove Newsletter or follow me on Instagram, LinkedIn, or Facebook.
Expat Partner support is a multi-layered topic, and I am aiming to create a more forward-thinking community that empowers women around the world to join the workforce with joy and confidence and do not shy away from presenting their invaluable skills. If you have questions or a story to share let me know: email@example.com.
Your 3 months coaching program
Let’s get your journey started. I guide you through the jungle of question marks and give you the space you need to reflect and acknowledge your real career purpose.
Love it. This resonates to me on many different levels. Thank you for sharing it. Xx Petra
Absolutely brilliant and on the spot.
Thanks for this insite.
Wow! You enunciated many poignant thoughts into concise words. Thank you!
Absolutely wonderful article. Enjoyed reading it to the end. Insightful, well written and so true. Thanks!
Thankyou for this! It is important to call out bs and you gave a really good perspective!! Keep up the great work!
Great article! I am not an expat spouse but went abroad myself to live my dream. Along the way I met my husband, also working abroad.
I live since 10 years abroad and to find the right position for both of us in a new country has bern a challenge a couple of times…..thanks for the great article…
What a well written article, so very true! I have moved countries three times (from Germany to Ireland, then UK and now Australia). Following your spouse and having to reinvent yourself over and over again is a real challenge. Not having your own career makes it hard to measure success, (even for yourself) you involuntarily become your husbands accessory. This creates an imbalance in your relation ship,
Hi Lucia, where do you live? I have moved several times and right now I live in Sydney.
Well written, on the spot, so true!!
Thank you so much for this brilliant article – the “Der Spiegel” article did not portray our life correctly at all and I am delighted you caught them out. I have lived in 10 different countries myself , 4 years as an expat and 14 years as an expat spouse. Your article hits the spot.
Fantastic article! Shedding some light on spouses who return to a “familiar place”: moving back to Germany after 17 years in the US, we were greeted by the painful narrow mindedness of fellow Germans, even close friends, who expected us to blend right in – which is neither possible, nor wanted. It forced me to start over; as a spouse in my late forties, I tried the things we all do – meet new people, organize family life & restart my business, growing tired of having to explain my situation. It is the support of likeminded, strong women from all over the world that helps me feel at home & grow some roots – finally!
Love your writing, straight to the point but also from the heart!!! I have lived in 7 countries so far, in most I worked for one company as an expat, now I am the expat spouse with kids at home and I treasure it! I have nothing to prove anymore. Yet, there are thoughts of what to do next. I do want my kids to see both parents work… so let’s see – back to the “old and traditional career” or starting a new career? What a luxury situation to be in.. not always easy with so many choices (and opinions…), but such an amazing journey! Keep going, Kate!
Great article covering the skill set needed the challenges and the learnings. Yet these days there are also male expat spouses who follow their partner in his or her expat career. If you truly want to discuss out of the box also take this group into account. I have several female colleagues who where leading in the journey abroad and had a husband who was willing to give up his job to join the adventure.
One of the best articles that I read about expats spouses. I have been in Oman and now in India and I have to say that India tests all your ability to deal with all sort of problems and emotions and that we really need to overcome ourselves if we want to make this work. I read the article twice and you literally go on the spot..,and I will keep it because sometimes is nice to have these articles to remind us what we are worth and why we are brave and strong!! Thank you so much!!!
I wish the article would offered some solutions for talented expat wives . In some countries work permits are not issued easily for expand partners. Advices on reinventing skills would have been useful.
Great article thank you! It’s given me a great boost and reminded me what a good job I’m doing for our family and the fantastic opportunity that we have in this new world we’ve been catapulted into x
Thank you so much for this brilliant article. You absolutely nailed the expat spouse and spoke my heart, my emotions and ambitions! I‘ve been an expat spouse for 20 years but like so many others started out thinking we would be gone for 2 years only!!
Very nice article! Just one “but”: the article seems to sometimes refer only to women following an expat partner,. However now-a-days there are also many men who follow their wifes, and we should not forget them, as men may even be more likely to suffer from the society’s criticism and misunderstanding than women themselves.
Second this comment. There is always an assumption that the expat spouse is a woman. Being a woman who is moving her family and juggling heavy responsibilities at work as well as the family transition, Most women are not as criticized for staying home with the family for a few years as men who do the same. That may be why many men who are trailing spouses tend to find careers abroad more easily given the social pressure.
Beautiful article indeed f
All too true – I’m from the UK and was an expat for 15 years. I believed it was possible to have a ‘’portfolio’ career but during one posting , which coincided with the financial crisis , I somewhat lost track . The reality is – and I am emphasising this to my boys , that if you are in a mobile partnership the partner with the main job needs to remember ( with the help of his / her employers ) that there is another person being directly affected by the choices made . My husband , now in his 50’s , would like to reduce his work responsibilities and I would like to make a more significant contribution – the reality is that those decisions made before are now having their impact . My mother refused to do go on a posting with my father – she had the right idea and I am trying hard not to regret my decision. Home or away – until employment in a marriage or partnership is regarded as a joint responsibility requiring compromise EVEN amongst expats then there is always the possibility that the family will lose forever the benefit of one party’s education and training .
Both your article and the one published in “Der Spiegel” are interesting takes at a very specific “expat spouse” situation, heteronormative expat partnerships where the woman follows the man. There are plenty of other situations, for example the one between my partner and I. I moved abroad for work and to be with him and he has recently moved to another country for a great work opportunity. This leaves us both expats in a committed, long distance relationship! We’re both not ready to give up our careers, we don’t want children, but we do want to be together in the same city with jobs that suit us.
Just like through your article you’re trying to expand how we think about expat wives, I think it’s important we push how we think about all types of expat relationships.
Thank you for such a great article. In my years as an expat wife, I have had to overcome many obstacles that would have been easier to cope with had I been close to family in distance. My children are now mulilingual, strong young adults. I have met a wide range of people from all over the world, who do not judge, but support each other and their communities. I do not consider myself spoilt, or feel a lack of career, my ‘career’ is my family. My choice! No regrets!
Thank you for writing this! Yes! We are not spoilt nincumpoops being pampered all day long. I have been an expat my whole life; as a child as a student, as a professional and as a mother and spouse… oh the stories I can tell! However I would change one thing from your article: “They either feel defeated and lose their confidence in their skills and value or they take their fate into their own hands making it work against all the odds and become stronger than ever before” : in my case, this is a super duper roller coaster 🙄😂… I go from one to the other…
But please keep writing and advocating for us spouses to be hired!!! We are worth it!!!
Thanks you for this article. I really enjoyed reading it, and passed it on to some of my ‘narrow minded’ friends who seriously questioned my why I was putting my carreer aside to follow my husband abroad. Seriously, one of the biggest experiences you can get in terms of personal development is to move your family to another country, and make it happen. It streches you so much from a personnal level.
I wanted to say thank you!!! I have just moved to my 10th country and I needed to read this today. Thank you so much.
There is so much talent among expat partners… if only someone could harness it in some way, that organisation would be unstoppable!
Spot on in so many things you are writing about! Thank you for a great article.
– Expat spouse since 19 years.
Spot on in so many things you are writing about! Thank you!
– Expat spouse since 19 years.
I am one of the women portrayed in the Spiegel article and I can only say that this Journalist managed to get it completely wrong. She took comments out of context and twisted my statements until they fit her purpose! My Expat life is extremely happy, my husband and I have a wonderful marriage, I managed to find interesting and fulfilling work wherever I lived and my children have become independent and successful young adults! So please, do not believe that it is true, just because it has been published somewhere! Life as an Expat is the most wonderful experience and I have no regrets whatsoever!
Awesome article. You are spot on with how much and the kind of experience we expats can bring to the table in any work place.
Thank you very much!!! Great article! I quite see a portrait of myself here.
Right now I am leaving the stage “feel defeated and lose their confidence in their skills and value” and trying hard to get into the phase “take their fate into their own hands making it work against all the odds and become stronger than ever before”. I think that as our children grow, we feel deeper the need of having our own place, and that, most of the times, specially for inquisitive and intellectually eager women, includes a motivational occupation, something that makes us feel worth and proud of ourselves.
Just a little cavil to this: “Looking for someone that will fit into your team? Take an expat spouse, who has won countless gold medals for adaptability and integration”.
Sometimes, “fitting” is hard. Many other, it’s not. Sometimes, you quickly adapt to your new environment. Some others, integration never happens or it doesn’t happen as you would like it. Out there, there are different societies and not all of them are equally “permeable” or “penetrable”, neither the welcome is the same. When you have changed a few times your “home” (5 times in the last 9 years here), there are some moments of real solitude. Sometimes, we can deal with it, but some others, we cannot. All together, it makes so difficult professional development.
Love the positivity of the article, but why the absolute assumption that ‘expat spouses’ are all, by definition, FEMALE?! C’mon, that’s pretty unforgivably narrow-minded from someone writing an article urging open-mindedness!
(In my marriage, I am the working expat, and my husband gave up his career to follow me. And in our years working overseas, we have met other couples in the same position – we’re not that unusual.)
Brilliant written !
It strikes me that you use the term “expat spouse” referring to women only. I’ve come across several men during my years living abroad. Other than that, you’re making good points in this article.
Please, please recognise those male expat spouses and partners who often face even more challenges, please don’t forget this perspective.
Love this article on so many levels, so many good points raised. Thank you.
Wonderful article, well written. I was in need to read it and reflecting. Thank you! Congrats
A great article. After a very long and successful career myself, I became an expat for five years, unplanned circumstances. They were possibly the best five years of my life. The experiences, the insights, the people I met, the voluntary work I had time and privilege to do, the time I had with my children, the sunshine, learning to swim at this stage in my life, etc, etc. I wouldn’t swap a moment of it. What I gained as a person was far more that what I forwent. Now I’m back four years with a totally different career as an elected politician, something I would never have considered or thought possible if I had not got the opportunity to reinvent myself and become hopefully a better person for that. The life of an expat is like all opportunities in life if you approach it positively, it will be a really positive experience, whether you are male or female.
Why don’t we all start an online portal where we can offer to teach any particular skill set that we may be experts at? There are so many people in this world who are deterred from attaining beyond the basics because of lack of funds, access to educational institutions etc. Why not get together to make a difference? Why wait for someone to hire us?
Amen! Great article and so true
Amen! Great article and so true.
Kate, congratulations! This was spot on!
Such a very interesting read. I’m an expat spouse myself and have a different perspective. I didn’t give up my career to move abroad with my husband. I was already working abroad when we met but he wasn’t working in the same country. I’m a university teacher and the last university I worked at wasn’t pleasant. I got burnt and needed a time out badly. I look at me being an expat spouse as an opportunity to see back, relax and have a wider picture of what was and what yet to come. It is my chance to recharge my will and go back to what I was before I got ruined by a horrible workplace. Some times it is a good idea to take some time off. It just happened to be that my time off is taking place while I’m being an expat partner. What I want to say is, it is not always about giving up career some times there is much more to it than just that 🙂
Hi Kate! Thank you so much for this great article! I am not an Expat Spouse, but I can still relate to many things you pointed out, since I left Germany a few years ago and had to reinvent myself after things didn’t go as planned in my new home – the United States. “Plan C” is working well so far and I’m looking forward to many more challenges – because I know they help me grow and become a better version of myself. 🙂 Wishing you all the best!
Never found a parent who would change money for time with their child”s. Very good job..
Brilliant article on a subject that is so little talked about!
I have looked at each move as an opportunity (whilst also being a challenge!) to evaluate, reinvent myself and address the real priorities in life. Not always easy, but by looking at each move as a new chapter it has certainly broadened my self knowledge and my ability to really drill down to my own and our family’s core values and needs.
What if your husband moves abroad for his dream career and earns so little that you are forced into full time employment from day one to give your family a roof over their heads? This is what happened to me. I was promised the greatest job prospects from both my husband and his new employer before the move, which I – in hindsight naively – believed. My mistake of course.
The reality was that I had to learn the local language in record speed and had to take the jobs that I could get, basically those that the locals didn’t want. I have two master degrees with top grades and a PhD, yet my ‘career’ despite of having worked full time the last 20+ years is non-existent due to this great and very egotistical move of my husband. I never had the means to just stay home and nanny my kids.
Needless to say that this great decision wasn’t exactly beneficial for our marriage and my mental health.
I can only warn every woman to really think hard before taking this step. Of course everyone is different, but even when you enjoy taking care of your kids today, you might one day wake up to the thought that you could have done so much more with your life and skills. And then it will be too late.