Why are trailing spouses’ challenges such a big deal?
What are the real issues that expat partners have to deal with in relocation? What are the solutions that could help them? Should companies invest more in supporting them? What kind of studies exist on the topic? In this article, I will share with you some of the results of my research to answer these questions.
Extensive research and findings
Few months ago, when the concept of Tandem Nomads started building up in my thoughts, I needed to find some kind of validation that the mission I was willing to take made sense and was truly helpful to expat partners. Therefore, besides questioning expat partners around me, I spent hours researching online what exists in the field, what the real challenges and expressed needs are, what seems to work for expat partners, and what kind of support they generally lack to thrive in their nomadic lives. I was basically wondering if the expat partner journey was a big deal just for me and a few people around me, or is it a real international issue that found its source in the fast globalization of our world?
The more I searched for answers, the more I got fascinated by the discovery of so many blogs, social media communities and websites that provided insights, articles and emotional support to expat partners. All of them are mostly created by expat partner for expat partners. However, here is what really caught my attention:
- First of all, there are some real disagreements and debates on the vocabulary to use when addressing the situation of what I personally choose to call expat partners (or better: Tandem Nomads 😉 ). It was sometimes quite confusing and frustrating to make my research online. As there is no consensus on the vocabulary, it was difficult to know which keywords would give the most relevant results on Google or other search engines. Therefore, I had to try them all! From "trailing spouse, dependent spouse, accompanying spouse, expat spouse" to some funky ones such as "STUDS, STARS" and others. It is quite interesting to see how passionate this debate can be and how many approaches on this semantic issue exist. This is why I decided to dedicate the episode #6 of the podcast to this topic, (click to listen). As "trailing spouse" is the most common terminology used on specifically official studies, for the sake of this article, I will mainly use this term, although I am not a big fan of it.
- As I was looking for some statistics, studies, figures that could help me evaluate the size and the needs of this worldwide community, I realized that there are very limited available ressources. Also, most of them are based on surveys with a very small pool of participants or based on a very narrow geographical zone. In some cases, the "trailing spouse" challenges are often just a small part of a broader study on expatriation and companies' relocation strategies. In other cases, trailing spouses are simply not mentioned. As there is very little proper research available out there, you can imagine that most of them are also quite outdated. I share with you those surveys and reports that I did find interesting in the "Resources" section of the menu (click here).
Nevertheless, having read probably close to 100 articles or white papers and 15 to 20 extensive reports, two major things caught my attention:
- The challenges that expat spouses face are more serious than we can imagine, and yet this population is very often ignored or even mocked for not being able to enjoy a life perceived as ideal by many. These difficulties can actually have a real economical impact for companies (there is for instance a report from Brookfield Global Relocation Services stating that 65% of failing expat assignments are attributed to spouse or partner dissatisfaction with the new location). More importantly, these challenges can have serious sociological and psychological repercussions on people's lives and lead to severe cases of depression or loss of identity. These are invisible major consequences of globalization that are very shyly addressed by the corporate world and the scene of social and psychological professional studies.
There are unfortunately not enough quantitative data and research to help us build concrete solutions and evaluate the size of this growing population and the severity of its challenges in global relocation.
- However, while doing my research, I kept seeing one single name coming up on so many occasions, Yvonne McNulty. Yvonne is one of the few renowned academic researcher who focuses all her studies on the topic of relocation in general and the challenges of expat spouses in particular. And guess what? She is an expat partner herself! I couldn't help not contacting her.
The Expat Research expert
Yvonne McNulty is an award-winning international business scholar and consultant who has this vivid purpose to provide real data and quantitative research to help companies and families understand the challenges that expats in general and expat spouses in particular face in global relocation.
Raised in Australia, she is an experienced global citizen having lived and worked in USA, Singapore, and China. Her research has been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, Financial Times, BBC and many other major international media. She published several books and her next book the Research Handbook of Expatriates will be published in 2016.
Her journey started when she left Australia with her husband to move to the USA. Having had a military career prior to moving to Chicago, she struggled finding her new path and was faced with a serious identity crisis. Therefore, she decided to reinvent herself, go back to study, then get a PhD and dedicate her career to addressing this major topic of expatriation.
She shares her fascinating journey as an expat partner in the episode 7 of Tandem Nomads podcast show (click to listen to it).
You can find more information about her work on her website, www.expatresearch.com. I of course couldn't resist asking Yvonne to share her amazing professional and personal experience with you! You will be able to listen to her testimonial and the great insights she has for you on episode #7 of the Tandem Nomads podcast!
However, in the meantime, as this post is dedicated to understanding trailing spouses’ challenges, I wanted to share with you her findings through the report of her research called "Being dumped in to sink or swim: an empirical study of organizational support for the trailing spouse". The report is from 2012 but I believe that her conclusions are still very accurate and quite interesting to share. See the summary of her findings that I have prepared for you below.
Being dumped in to sink or swim
Trailing spouse’s "lived experience" during an international assignment is frequently exacerbated by the loss of a career, social networks, extended family support, and financial independence, as well as unemployment, all of which require adjustment to new family roles and responsibilities along with shifts in relationship dynamics within the family unit (Shaffer and Harrison 2001; Cole 2011).
3 categories of challenges that Trailing spouses face in global relocation:
84% of trailing spouses had a tertiary qualification or a college education and 79% had a career prior to relocating. Yet, only 36% were able to continue their career once relocated due mainly to visa and work permit restrictions.
Sources of marital tension were due to spending insufficient time with their spouse and a lack of understanding about the deeper adjustment issues and challenges they faced.
Trailing spouse identity issues emerged as a major finding of the research overall. However, as Yvonne stated, only about 10 to 15% manage to find a way to overcome this challenge.
One spouse compared her identity crisis to being a woman in a third world country: "I’m not permitted to work and everything is at the discretion of my husband". Another said, "I’m not living my life, I’m living his". For others, there was a feeling that identity issues were caused by "dreams being destroyed in a minute", which often led to resentment at being stereotyped as a trailing spouse who wanted to only "drink coffee, do charity work, gossip, and watch day-time TV every day". One spouse summed up this feeling well: "I was a barrister in Australia who thought it might be fun to take a year to live with my husband in far north Finland. It wasn’t. I couldn’t work. I was ignored and my whole identity disappeared. We now live apart for five days a week, he in far north Finland, me in Helsinki. I am working, but it is not the senior job I had in Australia and this has caused intense bitterness".
Adding to this stress is the feeling that companies abuse the role of the trailing spouse by expecting them to assume relocation responsibilities that should instead be outsourced to external vendors and/or assigned to the expatriate employee, as one spouse explained: "My husband is supposed to keep working his hours and relocate. Companies base this on the fact that there should be a housewife at home dealing with it. I object to trudging round like an unpaid company skivvy so they can save the cost of a relocation company . . . It's the whole hidden labor market, like it will all be taken care of by itself".
Solutions and support systems:
While companies generally give considerable attention to the logistics of an international relocation, much less attention is given to the professional and social skills necessary for the trailing spouse to adjust to their new circumstances in terms of adapting to and building a ‘meaningful portable life’.
Despite some rather negative findings, spouses recognized that certain stages of a move are more stressful than others and there are limits to what organizational support can accomplish.
In recognizing that the development of a portable identity is both an outer as well as an inner journey, spouses were clear that ‘it comes down to the individual where being the trailing spouse can be viewed as an encumbrance or an opportunity.
In developing specific policies and practices, organizations need to consider that all spouses will need some training and support but some will need more than others.
Where does Tandem Nomads stand?
It was important for me to take the time to share with you some important statements, figures and analysis to realize that the consequences of these challenges for Trailing Spouses are serious and can be devastating. We have to address them, especially as this population is growing rapidly and will define some of the future socio-demographic trends of our world. Many families are now raised in global relocation and become what is now commonly called “global citizens”. Therefore, the well being of future generations will depend on how these issues are addressed today.
Here are some points that in my opinion should be considered to address this topic:
- Yes, companies should be more involved in facilitating the integration of Trailing Spouses and considering their needs within the expatriation package. Their rights and status should be as much of a priority as the logistical aspects of relocation. Indeed, in many ways, trailing spouses do participate to the prosperity of these companies. If trailing spouses refused to make the move, this could jeopardize many business opportunities as companies will have difficulties hiring experienced workforce (who are often married) and assigning the right people to the right markets.
- However, as the Pwc report on future trends in international mobility shows, despite the fact that the expatriate population will keep dramatically increasing with globalization, companies are going through major budget restrictions, all decisions are dictated by cost control and set of priorities. Trailing spouses are generally not one of them. More importantly, the report shows that companies are considering new alternatives to provide workforce (or talent) mobility, such as focusing on young single expatriate, planning more short term assignments, training and hiring more locals, and developing virtual teams. This might affect many couples and families who could have found interesting job opportunities. So let's not forget that despite all the difficulties of expatriation, it is still a great opportunity to provide families with confortable incomes in a highly competitive global market.
- In my opinion, the ultimate solution for trailing spouses to thrive in relocation lies in 3 keywords: preparation, training and personal development. I also believe in the amazing power of Internet and virtual careers to help trailing spouses develop their own source of accomplishment. Internet is a major facilitator that expat partners didn't have in the 80s, when the topic of "trailing spouses" emerged. Today we have more opportunities than ever and we have to seize them.
This is exactly what I am hoping to provide through Tandem Nomad. With the content of the podcast show and the online platform that I will continuously develop for you, you will find in Tandem Nomads great tips, insights, trainings, resources and services to turn the challenges of relocation into great opportunities!
I hope that you found great interest in reading this blog post that was actually more of an essay! Do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions, I am also more than happy to receive your feedbacks.
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