In many articles (including one in The New York Times by Tanya Mohn titled “Expatriate Spouses Struggle to Find Work Overseas”), the difficulties faced by trailing spouses to find meaningful work in a new country have been documented. This is undoubtedly true and anyone who has moved abroad with a spouse who wants to work can tell you just how difficult it is. Visa issues, language issues, networking, and finding the right line of work are all challenging in a new culture where things work differently than back home. Since spousal dissatisfaction is a key reason for failure in an international assignment, a spouse’s situation can be an inhibitor for companies sending married people abroad, particularly in marriages where both spouses are accomplished professionals with successful careers.
Companies know that they need to take care of the family — especially the spouse — when they send someone abroad. For this reason, specific support is offered and programs are designed to keep spouses content. Support ranges from language classes, cultural classes, memberships in social clubs or clubs that offer classes like painting and pottery, assistance in planning vacations, and links to groups that volunteer in places like orphanages and senior centers. Opportunities to participate in book clubs, tea times, nature walks, or at the kids’ schools as a “room mother” are also common.
But what if your trailing spouse is a man? All of the activities listed above are worthy, but they may not be what your Type A husband had in mind about how to spend the next two to three years of his life.
Most trailing spouses are women, and most companies have not extended expat benefits to include job support for spouses because the traditional model is that the man works and the woman stays home. It doesn’t matter if she worked in her home country. It’s just part of the deal. Take it or leave it. One reason for this is that visa issues in foreign countries can be complicated and companies either don’t want to (or can’t) step into the fray of sponsoring more than one person for a work visa.
While it is difficult for many professional women to move abroad and turn into a stay-at-home wife or mom, it is perhaps even more difficult for men to do it because the existing networks and support mechanisms are designed for the traditional model —for women. If you are a woman with a trailing husband, you are already unique, and you have unique challenges. So what can you do?
In my personal experience and experiences of friends around the world it’s important for your husband to have meaningful work in your new country, and your company is probably not going to provide a solution. Here are some things to do:
- Be realistic about the possibility of finding lucrative work. Understand that it will be difficult to find something that pays well, so put the focus on finding something interesting and that will help build his professional profile for the future rather than something that is financially lucrative right now. This will also mean measuring success in a different way —- not by $’s as many of us have been trained to do, but by learning or experiences or enjoyment or contribution to others.
- Start networking ahead of time. Get in touch with Chambers of Commerce, professional and personal contacts, professional organizations related to his career, and NGO’s in your new country. These groups can help you understand what kinds of industries or non-profits are relevant in your new country and give you leads.
- Focus on things that can be done from anywhere. I have many friends who are successful headhunters for companies back home while they are living abroad since that work can be done from anywhere. Freelance photographers and journalists tend to fare well because their work is flexible. And jobs that can be done remotely are good options (as long as connectivity is good in your new country). Also, sports professionals can often find work – golf and tennis pro’s, personal trainers – because these skills will go with you anywhere.
- Go local. Get involved in NGO’s or other local organizations and small businesses. The pay will not be good (if at all), but he can get good experience and broaden his network of contacts.
- Maintain your contacts back home. Recognize his needs to keep in touch with his colleagues back home, to stay on their radar screen, and to stay relevant in terms of his knowledge and skills. Encourage him to visit a few times a year so that when you go back to your home country, it will be easier for him to integrate into his previous company or to find a new role somewhere else.
I also think this advice is great for anyone with a Type A spouse – male or female – as so many of our needs are met through work. So if your spouse is accompanying you on an international assignment and they are a professional who wants to work, put some serious focus on this to get support in finding a new role. It will make them, and you, happier and the assignment easier for everyone.