Quite a few women don’t relocate for their own career, but follow a husband or partner on an assignment. According to the latest Global Relocation Trends Survey Report annually published by Brookfield Global Relocation Service, fewer than 20% of the assignees themselves are women. So, the ‘typical’ expatriate woman is one who follows her male partner abroad – and may then, much to her disappointment, find herself relegated to the role of the ‘expat wife’, leaving behind a promising career back at the homeland to become a housewife or a stay-at-home parent. Indeed, the survey report (2016) found that only 16% of women who were working prior to the relocation are also in employment while on relocation.
After the excitement of an international move has worn off, what does a non-working expat wife do? When the boxes have been unpacked and the thrills of the new culture subside, how do you fill the days and beat the dreaded expat blues?
Studied have shown that a staggering 70% of failed relocations are due to the spouse/partner not settling in and adapting. The typical adjustment problems include a spouse that doesn’t fit in, doesn’t create a social network, and becomes disengaged.
Expat wives face many challenges beyond the initial culture shock. “Life abroad can be stressful, not to mention dull at times, and various triggers cause bluesy feelings ranging from sadness to frustration”, says Relocation specialist Ayelet Mamo Shay, author of the popular novel “Relocation Darling Relocation!” which has recently been launched in Gibraltar. Gibraltar is a small and very often unfamiliar place for many prospective employees, making the entire relocation proposition a relatively “hard sell”. Many people may know what to expect when relocating to places like Paris, New York, or Berlin, but Gibraltar is a complete enigma for them. “In Gibraltar, we often lack the critical mass of people necessary to operate various associations, clubs, courses and other social groups of like-minded people, which means the socialising and networking opportunities available to expat wives is fairly limited, especially if English is not their first language”, says Ayelet.
In her book, Ayelet describes the challenges, dilemmas and experiences of a fictional expat wife – Ofira. Ofira leaves behind her a great job, loving family, and wonderful friends and goes almost blindly after her beloved husband to relocate to another country. Ofira is tremendously frustrated by her inability to work in her profession and feels trapped raising their children in an unfamiliar culture, where she barely understands the language. She longs for her homeland, which she feels she has betrayed by leaving, and for her family and friends.
Especially if you have never taken time out from work before going abroad, becoming a stay-at-home wife in another country can take a psychological toll. Suddenly, you are thrown back into having to wrestle with the conundrum of “women’s work”: unpaid and invisible. Your partner has his own struggles and frustrations, of course, like adjusting to a different workplace culture and new management styles. However, the contrast between the world of the home and the business world can foster unexpected resentment and put a strain on your relationship. He’ll be overwhelmed and exhausted from his new position – and may thus dismiss your own problems with culture shock and alienation. “In some countries, your husband may even act as your visa sponsor and/or your legal guardian. It takes quite a few expat women some time to swallow their pride and adjust to this reality”, says Ayelet.
So what can be done about all that?
There are as many ways to deal with the expat blues as there are causes of them. “Having relocated to Gibraltar ourselves (11 years ago already) we know exactly what many of the relocating families are going through, and are able to advise our clients about the best ways to deal with some of the issues”, says Ayelet. While each case has its own personal needs, it is true that a key factor to success is the mindset of the relocating spouse and family members – their attitudes, openness and willingness to learn about the local customs, culture, food, and etiquette.
Another important success factor is networking, especially with the locals. “Go outside your comfort zone and don’t just socialise with people from the same nationality or religion. Open yourself and make friends with people from other cultures, religions and backgrounds”, says Ayelet. Another recommendation is if you can’t get gainful employment, volunteer for a local charity or set aside a timeslot for reading up on recent developments in your profession. Learn the local language, sign up for a part-time university degree, or take a long-distance learning class. This might be your opportunity of discovering new interests, brushing up neglected talents, or improving some skills to perfection!
Having assisted online gaming and financial services companies with the relocation of their staff to Gibraltar in the last few years, our biggest advice to employers has always been to guide and accompany the employee right from the stage of planning the move, particularly paying attention to the needs of the relocating employee’s spouse and other family members.
The book “Relocation Darling Relocation!” is available for purchase at the Gibraltar Book Store, WHSmith, Gibraltar Museum, and at the Heritage Trust Shop.