Codependency in expat couples
Updated: Jan 26
One of the biggest challenges of the expat adventure and most vital to successful outcome of the expatriation contract is the wellbeing of the accompanying family and spouse. As I mentioned in my latest blog post, "Divorcing abroad, and what is a stuck parent?", most international assignments ending prematurely do so due to "marital breakdown".
Many companies provide good packages with financial allowances for housing and schooling. They pay for the move itself, often one or two annual trips to the home country are included, and some even fork out for language courses for the spouse. But then what?
How expat life can be a strain on a solid relationship
The employed part of the expat couple goes to work, children have school, and once the settling in phase is sorted, the trailing spouse is often left to their own devices to create a life for themselves. During my own time as an expat and in my practice, I have met many spouses who have struggled tremendously with this. Many become resentful of their situation. Some develop depression, so-called expat blues. And many begin to resent their partner for having somewhere to go, something to do, and someone to be with everyday whilst they themselves haven't; that's when we aren't subdued by covid-restrictions, obviously. Not having a meaningful everyday life can cause dissatisfaction for the trailing spouse and become a strain on even the most solid of relationships.
Below are some of my own experiences spiced with some stories of other trailing spouses; stories I collected a few years ago for another blog post, but nonetheless still interesting. Over the next few weeks, I will share with you Camilla's story of how she went from being an independent woman with her own career to being dependent on her husband, and how she is managing to make the most of her expat experience. Furthermore, I will share Anna's story. Anna moved to Denmark as she was marrying a Dane. For many, it becomes a challenge that one part of the couple is at home with a full life already set up whilst the other has moved abroad to start from scratch. Following that will be a post with advice on how an expat couple can support each other to overcome this potentially difficult aspects of expat life.
I clearly recall my first encounter with the local expat community on my first posting. At the time, I was a novice to expat life, pregnant with my third child and exhausted after the move. I had made no friends yet, had two young children at home around the clock, and felt as if I had gone from being an independent, capable woman to being totally depended on my husband. I was no longer in person in myself, I was Mrs My-Husband's-Name with no income and as such, seemingly no rights in a very conservative environment.
I felt lonely and was gradually beginning to feel somewhat resentful of the move. This was before internet became a stable inventory of all homes: It was difficult to keep in touch with people back home, and I found it even more difficult to reach out to people in my local area.
I attended a private expat Christmas party held at a big mansion in an extremely affluent area; and I soon felt out of sorts. Unlike some of the other spouses, I didn’t have a life consisting of school runs, gym classes, lunching, interesting hobbies or running my own business whilst the live in Au Pair took care of domestic chores leaving plenty of time to socialise. I was a stay at home mum with two very young children and one on its way living in a more moderate area on the outskirts of a very expensive city doing my own shopping, cooking and cleaning. Not only did I feel inadequate, I also felt ashamed of being envious of their seemingly perfect lives whilst beginning to doubt my own.
Much to my later regret, I left the party early and never saw any of the other women again. In hindsight, I’m sure they were all lovely people, some of whom I could have had meaningful and beneficial friendships with. Had I had the courage to speak up and tell them about my struggles, I could probably have had support through this difficult time, but as I had fallen into trailing spouse depression, I wasn’t able to connect with them. I later realised that rather than appreciating that they might have experienced something similar in their early days of expat life, I was projecting my own painful stuff and prejudice onto them.
Having heard numerous stories of trailing expats, I have since learnt that once the excitement of novelty wears off, expat life is not necessarily as glamorous as the cliché. Initially, time is spent setting up home, sorting out practicalities, exploring the new surroundings and, if a family, settling children into schools. In doing so, there is a lot of hope and aspiration for the life to come; and during this phase, many learn a great deal about their host country, themselves and their view on their home country and own cultural values. Challenges are predominately practical. At times annoying, but practical and solvable unlike the emotional turmoil, the trailing spouse can experience once the honeymoon phase dissolves.
Many expats express a profound wish of making the transition as painless as possible for their children, often focusing solely on their needs. For the trailing spouse, this often means neglecting themselves leaving them vulnerable to finding life somewhat lonely and meaningless once the family is well up and running. When the culture shock sets in, many begin to realise that they suffer from depression, loss of identity and severe loneliness as well as a feeling of wasting away. I certainly did, and I truly recognise the despair in many of the personal accounts I have been blessed with from other expats.
One woman described this shock as a tsunami. Well educated and in previous fulltime employment, she had enjoyed being financially independent, but found herself stuck in a dilemma: She enjoyed having more time with her child, filled her time with home making, gardening and library visits, but felt socially deprived. Eventually, she decided to make a life for herself, gained a university degree and opened up her own business. Since finding purpose in life, taking initiative and feeling engaged, she feels herself an equal to her partner.
Her experience is by no means extraordinary; lack of meaningful purpose outside of caring for one’s family throws one too many expats into depression. A father of two told me that as much as he enjoyed raising his children, he felt alien in a “mummy’s school run world” and was afraid of falling behind with his career. He felt lonely and experienced a deep need to justify his status to others, yet met little empathy. He put this down to it potentially being every man’s worst nightmare: Being financially dependent on their wife and looking after the offspring; and as such, it was easier to dismiss his story than engage. Despite his emotional difficulties, he completed a three year posting as a stay at home dad, and in hindsight felt that he had set himself up for a life long close relationship with his children that he could never have established, had he been the main breadwinner.
Many have expressed concerns for their (marital) relationship. One woman, having lived in 5 different counties on three different continents and outside of her passport country for more than two decades, created an impressive career for herself and described her fears of her partner respecting her less if she hadn’t worked: “A marriage is like an economy, a gross national product in need of balance”. I love this analogy; any loving relationship should allow for both parties to develop and explore their potential which means they both contribute to the union – not just financially, but also socially, emotionally and mentally.
Another spouse expressed loneliness in her struggles saying it was difficult to make close relationships in the sense that many expats live in one location for a shorter period of time before moving on. And, she continued, the ones staying for longer often all interact within a secluded community. As she was afraid her words would be passed on and reach her husband’s work place, this particular woman found herself lonely with her marital problems.
Many trailing spouses express a deep sense of loss of identity. In this day and age, many people’s identity lie in their professional role and leaving their jobs behind, the lack of identity and the social structure a work place provides leave many doubting their self-worth, efficacy as well as make them question life meaning. Too often, these struggles are accompanied by loneliness, dissatisfaction, sadness, hopelessness and eventually social anxiety leading to depression.
For some expat couples, being away from their usual support network during this time can not only be detrimental to the expatriation contract, but also to their relationship. Support from the working spouse is extremely important. Though extensive preparation has taken place, unexpected issues can arise, and acknowledging and supporting a partner's struggles whilst establishing oneself in a new role, in a new company and in a new country can be challenging and put additional strain on the working partner. Keeping the lines of honest communication open is key, and it may be necessary to seek professional support.
Thankfully, many spouses have expressed feeling closer to their partner and family as the lack of support network has made them grow closer. Spouses having had the internal resources alongside practical and financial opportunity to educate themselves or start up businesses have expressed a great sense of achievement, fulfillment and greater satisfaction than prior to expatriating.
With these personal accounts, there is no doubt that many spouses feel inadequate which puts strain on their relationship and their posting. In fact, due to spouse unhappiness in the host country , many couples and families repatriate before their contract expires – making single people more attractive for companies to send abroad.