Expats On Assignment: When Spouses Can’t Adjust

The move to a foreign country is no time for a solo flight. Expats who receive the assistance they need are much more likely to adapt — and succeed — in their foreign assignments.

The telephone beside my easy chair rang one dark winter afternoon, and I put my novel aside. The woman at the other end of the line said, “You don’t know me, but . . .” and then she began to sob.

“That’s okay, just get your breath,” I said gently. “Don’t hang up. I’ll wait.”

Slowly she regained control and was able to give me her name. Her husband had relocated the family to Brazil, and she was extremely lonely. The family didn’t know the language, his company had offered no personal support, and school was out for the winter break, so her two teenagers had no way to make friends. She had found a list of the board members of the International Newcomers Club and started calling. I was the first one home.

Discovering that she had a daughter close in age to mine, and since a group of young people was to be at our apartment that evening, I invited both her children to come over. The parents came, too, and stayed for several hours. My husband and I sat in the kitchen with them doing a bit of emergency counseling (actually, it was more like heavy duty listening) while the teenagers in the living room enlarged their circle to let in two more expats. Expat kids usually make friends easily, because they have all had to start over from scratch.

It came as little surprise to me that the family had moved without the benefit of a relocation service. The husband was consulting as an engineer to a Brazilian company that had neither the experience nor staff to deal with foreign families. But what if this family had been your responsibility? As the relocation professional, what, realistically, could you have done to soften their landing?

In the beginning

My first suggestion is a basic one: determine whether the family is united in its desire to make the move. Or, at the least, open minded about the prospect.

At my husband’s graduate school, the wives were told we would be part of the interview process for an international assignment. Yet not once, as we have moved to five foreign postings, has his company asked me if the children and I wanted to go. (We did, but no one ever asked.) It was simply assumed that a man would not have entered my husband’s career field with an unwilling or unprepared wife, but that’s hardly a valid assumption.

Consider the case of one couple who spent the company’s time and several thousand dollars on a “look-see” trip to Asia. They returned home to organize the family and move overseas, or so we thought. Instead, the employee sent back a message that his wife had always lived in Albuquerque – in fact, both families had lived there for three generations – and she never wanted to leave. A wife who cannot imagine a Sunday afternoon away from Grandma’s house has little incentive to move to Asia, or any other foreign country for that matter.

When in Rome . . .

The expat family’s willingness to learn a foreign language is another valuable concern for employers. It’s not as if the transferee or spouse will ever speak Swahili, Farsi or Spanish like a native, but it is important to determine whether there is a desire to learn the new culture and achieve some independence within it. Knowing at least the basics of the language – and having the nerve to use it – gives the foreigner an element of control. Whether dealing with household employees, taxi drivers or store clerks, expats who know how to communicate, even minimally, are far more capable of determining the outcome of daily situations. This, in turn, makes for a much easier adjustment.

Plan to arrange language training for the expat and/or family to whatever degree your company budget allows, keeping in mind that expensive schools are not always the best. The most satisfying language study I ever took part in occurred after I had gotten the basics from an expensive one-on-one school. A small group of ladies and I met with a teacher once a week for coffee and conversation. While the international employee is learning the terms for “cross-border financing” and “leveraged buyout,” the spouse must be able to discuss electrical and plumbing problems with laborers who speak in garbled dialects. In our informal classes, we learned the words and expressions needed to cope with (please pardon the bias) the real world. Moreover, we formed friendships based on our common effort.

Much ado about dual-careers

Increasingly, expat program managers are being asked to deal with dual-career issues in international relocation. Often, the primary employee brings along a spouse who desires to continue his or her career, but it isn’t always possible to get the necessary work permit. A little research will indicate whether the accompanying spouse will legally be able to continue working, or should be prepared to pursue alternatives, such as teaching at the international school or doing volunteer charity work.

In countries where the spouse is able to work, there are yet other issues to consider. For example, does your company have the resources – internally or externally – to determine what impact the spouse’s working income will have on the couple’s tax status? Will the accompanying spouse’s new employer secure the work permit? Will the salary be covered by the foreign earned income exclusion? What will be the effect of Social Security paid to the US? Will a foreign income tax eat up all the earnings? What will child care cost, and are reliable caretakers available?

Although ultimately, the couple makes the decision, you will be expected to provide information and viable alternatives to the accompanying spouse. Usually, work is permitted in schools, health care, embassies and consulates. Few embassy or consulate jobs are available, however, since they are offered first to their own spouses.

One possible alternative is for the accompanying spouse to create a job – freelance writing and photography, consulting within a professional field, and family counseling, to name just a few. The spouse can work from the home linked by modem and express delivery to markets anywhere in the world.

About the least “politically correct” suggestion you could make at this juncture is to say something like “Why don’t you just give up your career and stay home and have (or take care of) the children?” Yet, I received a call two weeks ago thanking me for encouraging a woman to make the move abroad and do just that. This woman had a stellar career as a CPA, and was at the management level and rising fast. Giving precedence to her husband’s career, she agreed to move overseas. She became a parent volunteer at school, perfected a fourth major language, and seriously took up oil painting, for which she has tremendous talent. Most important, she established a new relationship with her two young children and derived great pleasure from being home with them.

Day-to-day details

Upon arrival in the new country, expats should be briefed about details that go beyond basic housing and schooling arrangements. The local support staff (usually someone in the company’s local personnel department) or a resettling agency can handle this task. Even better, if your company already has expats on-site, you may want to consider matching the newcomer with a willing sponsor in the country who can help convey this information on a one-to-one basis. Some things I wish I had been told, either by a professional or a volunteer, include:

  • The meaning of the abbreviations on the bank statement;
  • How utility bills are handled (the worst case I experienced was in Brazil, where we received no less than 12 large and small utility, condo, phone, tax, and public service bills each month);
  • How money flows from salary to local expenditure;
  • How to set up a checking account in less than three months;
  • How to get overdraft protection on the account;
  • Where the nearest ATMs are located;
  • The penalties for making mistakes on all of the above;
  • Where appropriate health care arrangements can be made and where to find emergency phone numbers;
  • How to arrange for a driver’s license – and where to find a translated book of driving rules;
  • Where to get a valid checklist of the move-related figures that will need to be included on the next IRS form;
  • Where to find information on local social and religious groups that welcome and support expats (the American Society, American Women’s Association, International Newcomers Club, University Women)

It is also helpful for expats to know where they can find information on their own alumni group, special interests such as charity, art and music groups, Parent & Teacher Organizations, if appropriate, and the religious groups that hold services in English.

It has been my experience that immediately becoming affiliated with one’s faith group fosters a healthy resettlement. These are the people who can most likely fill the void created by the loss of family and friends back home, and provide sympathetic parent and family counseling as well, if needed. Eventually, the expat becomes part of the network to aid others, and just the feeling of being needed contributes significantly to his or her own emotional health and well-being.

In fact, this is exactly how the traumatized family that visited my home that evening came to love Brazil and its warm, hospitable people. When the husband’s contract ended, they left the country only briefly before finding another contract that brought them back again.

Not all expats are so fortunate, however. Nor will all expat spouses take the initiative to get the help they need. This is where the assistance of a proficient and sensitive relocation professional can benefit the expat and employer alike.