Becoming an expat spouse – 3 things to prepare for

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

We are all different, just as we should be. No box or size fits all when it comes to expats and becoming a successful expat spouse.

This is important to put at the very forefront when you are looking at becoming an expat spouse. What works for you, may not work for another.

There are common traits though as to what conversations are needed before leaving, what plans you must put in place for yourself and what emotions you will be faced with.

This article will cover 3 things to prepare for.

At the time, when we have agreed with our partner that an expatriation is a great idea, most couples have already talked about any concerns, doubts, and shared the initial feelings of fear and joy. We have also researched our new country and probably connected with some or more people who have lived there. This is great and will certainly better prepare you for what you are venturing into.

Some future spouses are ready to go, some are more concerned and need reassurance, and some do not really want to go but strike a deal with their partner that they will come along and try.

Regardless of what your starting position is it is crucial for your mental peace, thus success as an expat spouse, that one of the things you sort out is putting a plan in place for your pension and how this is continued, despite you not working in a salaried job.

“Because trust me, expat spouse life is working.”

Not only will you be the single most important support function for your working spouse, you will also be the epicenter for anything else going on in your family. It is indeed a full-time job. I’ve been doing it for 9 years.

For your pension, there are several ways you can look at a solution in continuing this:

1: You agree with your working spouse that a fixed amount is transferred every month

2: You make legal papers that guarantees you a fair split of pension, making up for what you are looking at losing, in case your marriage comes to an end. Make sure the papers are valid upon repatriation – at least covering the years you have been working as a spouse

3: Negotiate that the company expatriating you will cover you pension for a specific number of years. This is, odd as it is, rarely seen though

After having planned for your pension, you may also want to have a conversation about how you get paid. When having that conversation r-e-m-e-m-b-e-r that you will be the one spending the most money, as you will be the one grocery shopping, gift shopping, enrolling yourself in new networks and sports, buying school uniforms for the kids and so much more. All the spends you will be doing are all part of a successfully integration and should not be questioned – nor should it be only taken out of your defined salary. If you do not have a joint account agreement, make sure all these integration expenses are shared.

Everyday life will kick in and you will probably find that reality is somewhat different than what you expected. After about a year or 18 months’ time the honeymoon period is over, and it is time to take stock of the actual situation.

You might find yourself in an exhausted state. This is normal. Some are however, concerned about this and end up visiting the doctor. The doctor will find no physical reason for this though, as this is most often related to having inhaled “new” and been on the trail of exploration for a very long time, without noticing that you need time to exhale, digest and process.

When you get to the point of exhaustion you must withdraw for a while. Tap into familiar and known things like:

1: Watch TV and listen to the radio in your own language

2: Rest. Remember that the brain has taken in “new” and change for a long time and that the brain is a muscle that needs recovery time too

3: Tap into known communities where you can speak in your own language, joke as you would back home and eat traditional food. Call good friends from home – the ones you can speak freely with.

“Withdrawing like this, is not throwing in the towel, nor is it a holiday. It is simply needed.”

When I look back myself and recall the first time, I was facing exhaustion I felt guilty for signing out and resting. Try to flush that feeling down the toilet.

I will guarantee you, in the bright light of hindsight, that you need this. It is a common misconception that expat spouse life is just one dandy joyride, and it is just as commonly known and perceived that expat spouses are the ones immediately and mostly exposed to all the new and to all the changes.

Did you know that approximately 40% of expatriations fail?

Did you also know that one of the major reasons for this, is that the family is not thriving?
Another fact is, that it is not in the unpacking of moving boxes that shit hits the fan. It is in the changed family dynamics, the lack of a trusted third party for the expat couple, and in the loss of identity and purpose for the spouse that things get tricky.

Countless spouses all over the world slowly slide into the trap of having to be there for the husband and children, before being there for themselves.

I cannot say this loud enough:

“Do you, before you do anything or anyone else.”

If you do not, it will not work out long term. Especially if you come from having a career on your own back home.
When you first move, your hands will be full of integration tasks, finding your feet, and transitioning your family into the life of being an expat family. That will be enough for most, but not for all. For those who feel that the family duties are not keeping them self-satisfied take a course, study, have a project, learn the language where you are, and be sure to DO IT. Make it a priority. If not, bitterness is waiting around the corner for you.

For those who are thriving settling in their family, which is absolutely a huge and demanding task, do not take on more. Yet, be sure to get a network going for yourself though.

Regardless of needing an ego-purpose right away or not, what I am about to share now is probably the single most important thing for expat spouses to thrive. Continuously.

The very second (the very second!) you discover that you have an ounce of feeling lost, are starting to withdraw, are eating or drinking too much or are bored, it is time to get up and take action.

You may have thoughts or behaviors like:

“I am not good enough to go and get a job”
“I have this crappy feeling. I am not happy. I will do something after the holidays”
“I really do not know what I could do. I have been out of the workforce for too long”
“I’ll have a chocolate and organize a lunch – to escape from this self-doubting feeling”
“I’ll be fine tomorrow”

Those thoughts and behaviors are well meaning alarm bells that, if you take action, will save you from being bitter, starting to complain, potentially drinking or eating too much, disliking yourself, feeling lost and spiraling further into low self-esteem and confidence.

Now, what actions you must take are very individual but what is common, regardless of where you find your purpose, is that it is YOU that must take action.

No one will come and do it for you. It can be very challenging to take the first step, for some not, but you absolutely must. Going down the other path may send you straight into those 40% of failed expatriations. The more time you spend with the alarm bells ringing the more accustomed you get to them being there, ultimately resulting in you being able to block them out (Read: blocking out your inner voice telling you to prioritize yourself).

Mind you, procrastination is mentally hard to keep doing too and the second you stop procrastinating, you will release mental space to find your own pace and purpose again.

A bit of a strong note to end this article on – so I´ll wrap up by saying that expat life is indeed very rewarding and will give you solid friends, as they become your family away from home, and it will also gift you an education that you cannot study to learn anywhere.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov

About Kia Holm Reimer

Kia Holm Reimer is the owner of Expat Advice. See more:

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