Thriving as an expat spouse - Success depends on you

In "Thriving as an expat spouse - Success begins before you leave" we looked at setting the conditions for success before you, the expat spouse, leave on assignment. In this article, we examine actions you can take once you arrive to help ensure your success.

Diagram 1 - Stages in the Expat Cycle expat cycle diagram


This is the honeymoon period when your world is different in an exciting, everything-is-possible way. Discovery involves its own share of stress typically outweighed by a flurry of activity, welcoming parties, the luxury of living in a hotel or serviced apartment, exploratory trips in and around a new environment and a partner who is very happy you have finally arrived.

Exploration is the first priority. You will no doubt have the first few days with your partner to see some highlights of the city and share some of what he (or she) has already discovered. Basking in the glow of reunion, your time together will feel magical, new sights and sounds enticing, foliage and landscape amazing, smells and tastes curious for their novelty.

A blend of practicalities and further exploration will occupy the next period of time as you set out on your own. Banking arrangements, where to buy groceries, shopping for items your new home will require such as electrical appliances in a country using different voltage, new rugs and curtains, an umbrella stand and umbrellas for a city where rain occurs most afternoons.

Useful tips

A good map is essential; you should also have your address written in the local language just in case.

 Continue exploring; your new city will not feel like home until you know the streets, how to ride the bus, where to find clothing that fits, books to read and movies to entertain. Sitting at home is a sure path to disaster.

 Take advantage of whatever your company offers - language lessons, education allowance, a personal driver, introductions and so on. Shyness is a luxury you can not afford. Find a local expat group, visit your Chamber of Commerce, join a club, take yoga lessons, follow up with contacts - whatever it takes to (begin to) make friends.

 Keep in touch with family and friends back home. For now, they remain your lifeline. 


The dragon of dislocation rears its head at some point after the first few months as the reality of day-to-day living in a strange environment dispels the buoyancy of discovery.

Roles and relationships have changed such that you are no longer certain of your identity. Doubt sets in as you wonder why you ever thought an overseas assignment would be a good idea. Feelings of disappointment, loneliness and loss emerge as reality fails to meet expectations. Remember, these difficulties are not trivial.

The following illustrates the dislocation stage based on my personal experience after four or five months in Hong Kong:

› Children

- Children are living back home
- Infrequent opportunities to interact with them

› Spousal relationship

- Husband is experiencing stress of a new job
- His frequent travel means that I am often alone
- We are developing a new relationship
- It feels like the power dynamic of our relationship has shifted

› Job and career

- Suddenly I have no job which means less intellectual stimulation and a loss of control

› Personal income level / financial impact

- Loss of job means that for the first time in 30 years I am not contributing to the family income
- This undermines my sense of independence

› Friends and social activities

- I have not developed any new friends
- Time on my own provides an opportunity for introspection

› Network and colleagues

- No job means no colleagues with whom to interact
- My network of business acquaintances has disappeared

With such profound change, it is no wonder this stage is called "Dislocation!" Build your own chart similar to this. Having it in "black and white" helps you understand and come to grips with taking action.

Sizing Up - Finding your path

So now what? Overcoming dislocation is critical to a spouse’s personal well being and to that of the family. During "Sizing Up," an expat spouse works at discovering possibilities, creating personal priorities and focus, and building a plan that will chart a new course in her expat world.

Once you have a plan you will feel energised about the changes that will make your expat experience all that you hope it would be.

Second settling in

At this stage a spouse’s confidence is renewed as she explores personal opportunities and begins to capture the benefits of her new environment. During the second settling in, a spouse works the plan she built while keeping track of successes.

New self-awareness and wisdom helps an expat spouse deal with continued difficulties!

Each stage in the expat cycle is an opportunity for learning and growth. Being aware of these stages from the outset will arm you with perspective and, like an explorer with a compass, help you chart a path to success.

Previous in the series
Success begins before you leave

Next in the series
 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...

Read more



Leave a comment