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  • Writer's pictureMarie Tseng

Making Expatriation a Success : A Challenge for the Trailing Spouse

Roberto and his wife, moved from South America to Kuala Lumpur 3 months ago. Before embarking on this adventure, they have carefully thought about the implications and opportunities the move would bring for both of them and they are excited by the challenge.

Yet it only takes a few minutes of talking to them to realize that the situation isn’t all that bright.

Roberto has agreed to give up his job as a senior sales manager for an IT company at home in Brazil, in order to follow his wife on an expatriate assignment. Knowing that the IT industry is booming in Asia, and in Malaysia in particular, Roberto was confident that he would easily find a job and was looking forward to being at the heart of many IT innovations, and to learn the Asian way of doing business.

Now, three months after their arrival, Roberto still hasn’t been able to secure any interviews, let alone find a job. The initial excitement is starting to turn into frustration and bitterness.

Roberto is not alone. Half of the trailing spouses who want to work in their new location are unable to find jobs (source: Career Choices and the Accompanying Partner, Simpson and Wiles, 2012). This can lead to difficulties and unnecessary anxiety for them, as for the rest of their family. Why is this so?

To lead a fulfilling life as a trailing spouse is not all about having domestic help or spending time by the pool in the tropics. Just like Roberto, many spouses want to carry on with their professional life . Yet only 44% manage to secure a job. These are top on the list of reasons why they cannot find work:

  • Lack of confidence in my personal skills and abilities following a career break

  • Lack of local networks and contacts

  • Lack of confidence from a cultural perspective

  • Lack support from my spouse’s employer

  • Insufficient support from my partner

  • Non recognition /acceptance of my professional qualifications.

Source: Career Choices and the Accompanying Partner, Simpson and Wiles, 2012

Looking for a job while on an overseas assignment is seldom linked to the need of a second salary, it has more to do with self fulfillment. What matters most is the interest in the job, and the desire to continue contributing to society. There is also a need for recognition as well as a social status independent from your spouse. These two elements are essential in recreating a new confident identity as an expat spouse.

As expected, the survey points out that 68% of the working accompanying partners have a high or very high ‘Satisfaction With Life’ score, while only 42% of the non-working spouse do.

Being active doesn’t necessarily mean working; entrepreneurship, personal development or volunteering contribute equally well to a successful expatriate experience.

So what does it take to lead a fulfilling life as a trailing spouse?

The most stressful and the most satisfying aspects of an expatriate life could be two sides of the same coin:

For some, the culture of the host country is a reason for stress, where as others see intercultural experience as a source of satisfaction and fulfillment.

Some find the challenges of putting a career on halt, or the difficulties to find a job stressful, where as others see it as an opportunity for personal development.

Being away from friends and family is a reason of discomfort and distress for some, while others will compensate this absence by thriving at making new friends and building new networks.

In the end, it is about perception and perspective. Having the correct approach to these issues will make all the difference in adjusting to your new life in a foreign country.


More often than not, the expat trailing spouse is left to figure out how to adapt to a new environment on their own. Some people find it easy to adapt quickly, but for others, it can be a tough challenge.

The difficult adaptation of the spouse is costly for multinational companies. In their latest Global Relocation Trends Survey, Brookfields noted that 65% of the failed expatriation are due to the inability of the family to adapt.

What can be done to prevent failure ? Developing cultural competences, setting clear and realistic goals for one self and finding the right balance between mind and body will help to make expatriation a positive experience for the trailing spouse as well as entire family.

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