The graveyard of ambition?

An expat assignment can have a damaging effect on the ‘trailing spouse’ – but why do some partners thrive when others sink into despair?

For generations of expat wives, leaving family and friends behind to make a new life in far-flung destinations was all in the line of duty. A woman’s role, after all, was to support her husband’s ambitions.

Today’s wives are likely to have ambitions of their own and if their partner is offered a post overseas, the decision usually rests on whether they are willing to put their own career on hold. Evidence suggests that expat roles are becoming harder to fill as employees turn down offers because of the effect on their partner’s career.

Dr Miriam Moeller, an international human resources expert at UQ Business School who has carried out research into the subject, says it reflects our changing approach to careers. “Career paths are no longer choices but compromises between couples or within families. Employers are starting to recognise that when recruiting for overseas assignments, both partners must be willing to go. They are not just recruiting one individual, but two people in the form of a dual-career couple.”

To some extent, careers involve an element of compromise for any couple – who will leave work early to collect the children or take the car in for repairs? However, a decision to relocate is in a different order of magnitude, and for the trailing spouse, career disruption can sometimes have a damaging impact.

Miriam says: “While the accompanying partner may hope to find another job, it may be almost impossible because they can’t speak the language, can’t get a work permit, their qualifications are not recognised or their skills are not in demand. Even if they do find work, it may be a less prestigious role – a ‘job’ rather than a ‘career’.

Previous research has shown that this can result in a loss of identity and feelings of powerlessness, which can be even more severe in the partners of ‘career expats’ who live in multiple destinations and are constantly uprooted.

“Employment not only assures us of an income but also fulfils our basic human needs for security, a sense of belonging, to develop our personal skills and make a meaningful contribution. In the worst cases, trailing spouses can face problems such as addiction and depression which impact on their families and threaten the success of their partner’s assignment.”

But why do some spouses enter a spiral of despair when others thrive? Miriam and her colleague Yvonne McNulty from SIM University in Singapore carried out in-depth interviews with 46 trailing spouses living and working in Asia Pacific to discover if their capabilities and attitudes determined their success in living abroad.

The study found that the women fell into four separate categories – Ready (35%), Reborn (43%), Resentful (2%) or Resigned (20%).The Ready spouses had typically continued in the same career. They were pro-active people who had refused to accept the prospect of defeat and had started their job search before arriving in their new country or as soon as possible afterwards.

Reborn spouses had intended to be Ready but had had great difficulty in finding a job. After a period of frustration, they had sought new opportunities and successfully reinvented themselves. Khloe, a mum of three and a former lawyer, started a health products business and now has a shop in one of Singapore’s most prestigious malls, while another, Miriam, studied for a PhD in counselling and became a marriage therapist. She says her experience “created an opportunity I would probably never have pursued back home because the necessity to reinvent myself was not there”.

Reborn spouses were not immune from anger and resentment and, indeed, spoke about their journey as a rollercoaster of emotions. However, both Reborn and Ready spouses felt empowered and confident and were adept at change.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Resigned spouses had given up and accepted the trailing spouse lifestyle. They were passive, defeated and depressed, and saw themselves as victims of their husband’s ambition or the company’s pursuit of profits.

Most had fallen into the trap of believing that having children could make up for the loss of their career and had strived to be ‘uber’ mothers which they then used as rationale for their career failure.

Meanwhile, Resentful spouses were characterized as aggressive but defeated and living in a perpetual state of anger and frustration. Only one interviewee fell into this category.

Miriam says this cycle of grief is consistent with previous research: “Neither Resigned nor Resentful character types are likely to overcome their dual-career challenge by gaining paid or fulfilling employment whilst living abroad. Instead, each is likely to be stuck in a place of denial for a long period, from which Resigned spouses may never escape.”

Clearly, attempts at dual-career success sometimes come at a heavy price. Three of the spouses were getting divorced. Some couples had stayed together but only by living apart in different countries, while others had adopted the ‘it’s your turn’ approach, swapping the lead role to accommodate job opportunities for each other.

While companies are often blamed for providing lack of support for trailing spouses, Miriam believes the dual-career issue is unavoidable in two-career families, particularly among expats who tend to be highly educated and career-focused and marry partners of a similar background.

However she urges companies to pay more attention to the recruitment process. “Some companies already interview family members as part of the selection process. While each couple’s journey is unique, profiling spouses according to the four character types could help predict the likelihood of success and their needs for practical support. Companies should also take account of their stage of life – such having children, raising them and returning to work – and practical needs.

“Ultimately the outcome rests with the couple themselves – how they work together to become a dual-career couple geared for talent management success.”

Last updated:
25 March 2019