We get so caught up in the logistics of moving that we either take for granted or simply ignore the fact that after all of those boxes are unpacked and you’ve figured out how to get to the grocery store, you will be living in a new country with your support system gone and identity in limbo. And remember that your marriage (already hard without the added stress of an international move) is coming along for the ride…
I did a post all about researching prior to an expat assignment, so it should come as no surprise that I looked high and low for a book about expat marriages and the impact of international relocation. I found a lot about marriage in general and how to take your job abroad; I even found books about moving your kids and how to take care of them, but nothing dedicated to both relocation and marriage. Once we’d been in Bogotá for several months, I finally happened upon a now out of print book about expat marriages and had it waiting for me on my next visit to the U.S.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 42% of international assignments fail, with the biggest contributing factor being spousal/family adjustment issues. And just to be clear, “failure” means that the employee returns to their home country before the designated amount of time has passed–before the work that has been done has even been assessed. And seriously, still no book dedicated to expat marriages?
Apparently Robin Pascoe had this same thought, which is how A Moveable Marriage came to be. After failing to find a resource that combined issues facing relocating marriages, she designed a survey and distributed it to hundreds of accompanying spouses. Not only that, but she continued to solicit feedback through her website and from speaking with real life married expats as she toured and lectured internationally. This book is perfect for trailing spouses because it was written with the following statistic in mind: most couples relocating outside their home country due to a work assignment do so because of the husband’s job (at time of publishing it was 87%).
Even though I’d been living in Bogotá for about six months when I read it, this book was a big helper for me in our transition because the principal way I maintain my sanity is knowing that many others have successfully overcome the same problems through which I’m muddling. In addition, Pascoe references a lot of other good books about marriage in general, as well as some very helpful websites about being an expat lady (FYI—because the book was printed in 2003, some of the websites have gone to the digital graveyard).
However, my recommendation comes with a caveat—I often had problems with Pascoe’s tone (which came off as bleak and pessimistic) throughout the book. She explains that she and her husband weren’t exactly hoping for an expat assignment, that she wasn’t 100% honest with him about her feelings regarding the move, and that his company didn’t really give him a choice. With that said, I can understand why she seems resentful. Cody and I were on the exact opposite end of the spectrum, which may have something to do with my discord. No matter how you’re feeling regarding your move, there are a lot of good takeaways from her experience.
You will become dependent on your spouse in new ways.
I’ve mentioned two things in the past regarding this balance—first being that if you’re a trailing spouse you will become 100% financially dependent on your spouse. Secondly, your support system of girlfriends, family and coworkers will be gone and replaced by…yep, your spouse. This third one below is a different kind of shift…instead of just you and your husband, there will be another party invited to the decision making discussion. Pascoe puts it well:
From the moment your husband is called into a meeting to discuss a relocation, the company has created a dangerous dynamic in the marriage. He is now at the mercy of his employer, and you are now totally reliant on him to convey the information and all the downstream effects of the move (p. 34).
First, do you see what I’m saying with the tone? She makes a very good point though! The company will be presenting a lot of important details to your spouse and you may not be privy to all the information. Have you ever asked your husband to relay the details of an argument or deep conversation only to be rewarded with a handful of one syllable words? That was what it was like trying to get details about our move! If you can, ask to be included (either in person or conference call) in meetings regarding healthcare, trip itineraries and what will be provided during your move. I can’t tell you the sense of order that was restored to my life as I sat in the conference room when the global mobility team went over our benefits line by line. Be honest with your spouse about wanting to be informed, but also be compassionate to their position playing the middle man between you and the employer.
You’ll need to find your way.
A woman with low self-esteem is going to have a rough time when her community and support are taken away from her. The only person she can rely on to remind her of who she is (her husband) either isn’t around, is too preoccupied with his own self-worth to bother with hers, or is sick of talking about the subject (p. 10).
So maybe that’s a little harsh but the concept is right on. I think I had it easy in this respect, because I’ve always been ok on my own. Even so, when we moved to Bogotá I felt like I was on shaky ground—I was so unsure of myself and really wanted reassurance that everything was ok. I absolutely hated feeling so needy. Pascoe discusses how many expat women she spoke with described that in the first weeks of a move your internal dialogue can be your own worst enemy—when your spouse is working and the kids are at school, you’re left alone with a wandering, doubting mind. I think one of the things that saved me was having a plan to study and volunteer and just keep busy until those feelings passed.
If you are leaving behind a job, that part of your identity will shift as well. One of places I most related to Pascoe was her description of realizing she was ok (and even happy) not working, but still grappled with a mountain of guilt. She and I aren’t the only ones because she spoke with many other wives who described the guilt they felt at being happy they had a great excuse not to work and how hard it was to put up a front that they wished they could. Especially because I don’t have kids, this has been a huge struggle for me. However, it’s been mitigated by the fact that I feel respected in my marriage and that I have a valuable place in the relationship.
The balance of your relationship will shift.
The idea of power in marriage is a reoccurring theme and that word is something that makes me bristle because of its negative connotation. Negative overtones aside, I can’t help but agree with Pascoe that for many of us the balance of the relationship will have to be renegotiated and let’s face it, dollar signs are a tangible measure of contribution.
I’ve been pretty vocal about seeing your spouse as your teammate and members of the same team don’t compete with each other. This is probably the primary reason I think it is so important for spouses to be on the same page regarding this kind of transition—if you are working toward the same goal, the less likely you’ll be to turn on each other when things become difficult. But it’s easier said than done! I distinctly remember a time around our three month mark that I was struggling with Spanish and feeling so overwhelmed that I would not want to leave the house. Cody couldn’t really understand because compared to his day, how is not being able to find lunchmeat or find an address that big of a deal?
One of the therapists cited in the book gives a perfect illustration of what I was feeling at this time:
The disorienting and isolating feelings are usually brought to light by something like a woman not being able to find a mop in a new city, or even knowing what store would sell one…the lack of control and power this represents is not easily conveyed by the telling of the story itself. It can appear tedious and boring to the husband, who is busy trying to reorganize a multimillion-dollar division of his company (p. 12).
This was underscored by a couple who described struggling in the early weeks of their move because they both felt like they had done 99% of the work through the transition—the husband saw his role of attending to all of the financials and his job as most taxing while the wife thought the opposite because she took care of all the logistics of the move, including reconstructing the home that made it possible for him to function at work. These examples only accentuate the need for a couple to continuously remind themselves that they are two parts of a whole, working toward the same end. Finding balance doesn’t mean splitting chores 50/50, it means that you both see the value that the other brings to the relationship.
Looking back on our transition with the knowledge of how expensive expat assignments are and their failure rate, I’m surprised at the trust Cody’s company had in us! Even though some of the topics were unnerving and (in my opinion) there was a lot of stress on worst case scenarios, you don’t know what you don’t know–I think it’s always best to go into things with eyes wide open. Pascoe closes with a tidbit that studies have shown the key to a lasting marriage is endurance and that if you just stubbornly struggle through crummy times, you’ll end up happier than those who struggle and then divorce. I guess that’s good advice no matter where you live.