Thriving as an expat spouse - Success begins before you leave

In July 2004 my husband’s company asked him to consider a three year assignment to Hong Kong. We hesitated only long enough to consult with our children and our mothers, then plunged into planning for the adventure, riding the waves of fantasy and euphoria for the next few months. Everything was possible - no hint of difficulty penetrated our excitement.

The bite of reality set in around the fourth month. After 30 years in a full time career, I had no way to define myself in this new environment, nor did I know how to go about being unoccupied. Time for myself had always been a luxury. Suddenly I had nothing but time and excitement was replaced by loneliness and intense feelings of dislocation. How would I survive?

We all like change

Change. We all like change, don’t we? Or do we? On the scale of major life changes, an expat assignment rates near the top in terms of impact.

Like an iceberg, you can see parts of this change: a new climate, different language, new food, new friends, new home, different customs. They glint in the sunshine offering promise, seemingly manageable because of their tangibility.

But like an iceberg, danger lurks beneath the surface with changed identity, feelings of loss, altered financial status, lack of friends, unaccustomed roles, changed spousal dynamics and so on.

As Charles Darwin once said: "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change." In this article we look at how to prepare yourself for success before you even leave.

Diagram 1 - The Expat Iceberg Expat Iceberg

Both visible and invisible parts of the iceberg require exploration and deliberate discussion prior to accepting the assignment as well as during each stage in the process of adapting to new circumstances.

Transition from your comfort zone to a new environment involves many emotions as fear, doubt, anxiety and resentment gradually give way to acceptance, anticipation, confidence and satisfaction. Transition is like being in between trapezes with nothing to hold onto.

Diagram 2 - Stages in the Expat Cycle Stages Expat Cycle


Stage one occurs when a couple first hears of an expat opportunity and considers its possibilities. Generally, it is a time of excitement mixed with a tinge of uncertainty.

Many couples talk about moving somewhere for a period of time. It is the stuff of daydreams, the excitement of change, the lure of an exotic location, expanded career options, financial advantages. You tell yourself the move will be educational, an opportunity to experience a different culture, to learn a new language, to meet people from far away.

What is usually ignored at this stage are the difficulties. Under the glow of excitement, you gloss over them thinking that everything is possible. Even though you talk to others who have been on assignment, like labour pangs they have forgotten the difficult times.

An important first task is research. Seek information from as many sources as possible - the company, your friends, the consulate in your destination country, books about being an expat.

Check websites of newspapers in your proposed locale and websites for relocation companies. These will begin to paint a picture of the expat experience in your proposed location.

You will find expat blogs and websites dedicated to internationals in particular cities or to expat life in general. Look for clues that tell you about a given location or the experience itself.

Open your eyes to both benefits and difficulties. If you notice questions about where to get certain foods, you can imagine that food shopping will be an unfamiliar experience requiring flexibility on your part or added expense to buy imported products.

If you see comments about school waiting lists, you will want to secure a commitment for your children’s schooling in advance. If you see questions about working restrictions for spouses, be very careful about your own job expectations. As you research, create a list of questions for your look-see visit.

The "look-see" visit is your opportunity to "kick the tires." Usually you have only one chance to do so and remember that everyone wants you to say "yes," including you!

Useful tips

Other tips for this stage:
- Be prepared to make decisions. 
- Take many pictures to jog your memory and share with family. 
- Talk, talk, talk. Acknowledge the opportunities, challenges, uncertainties and expectations. 
- Get commitments in writing. 
- Reach out to your network of friends, family and colleagues to find people who have lived in your assignment destination.

Euphoria is an exciting stage but to facilitate your adjustment and ultimate success you need to add a dose of pragmatism and a pinch of scepticism to the mix.

The logistics maze

Stage two consists of logistics, checklists and a seemingly endless round of decisions as you prepare to move.

If you look at the expat cycle again, you will notice a dip occurring during the logistics stage. Doubts roar in: "Will I be able to adjust, will I find friends, will our children settle in, will I find a job, will I like the food, what will I do with my time?" It is natural to feel this way when faced with such significant change.

And to compound these emotions, you may be flying solo with your partner in the new location, feeling the stress of a new role, preoccupied with unfamiliar business customs, wrapping up old commitments, determining work priorities.

You will need to make decisions on your own. What price should I sell the car for? Which moving company is best? How much insurance is required for our shipment? A lengthy list of tasks awaits. You just might get a little frazzled at this point.

The watchwords for this phase are patience and organisation. Do not expect everything to go smoothly. Do take advantage of services offered by your partner’s organisation and the relocation company you have hired..

And pat yourself on the back: moving to a foreign country is a brave thing to do!

Next in the series
Success depends on you
- Six steps to success as an expat spouse

Mary Tod


Mary Tod

Mary accompanied her husband to Hong Kong for a three year assignment. Prior to Hong Kong, she worked as a management consultant. Following her time as an expat, Mary changed...

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