Expat spouses – the unpaid support function

Would you apply for an unpaid job?
A job that requires you to be on call 24/7.
A job that is not defined, and a job that you do not really know the impact of.
A job with terms that you cannot re-negotiate, and a job where you do not even have a place at the table when decisions, that influences you big time, are made.
Mind you that this job is a job that ensures that your living costs, savings, pension and holidays are paid for.
The answer is no.
Then why do we take on the role?
I´ll get back to that.


Let us look at the job in a corporate lingo. The highlights of the job description for an expat spouse would look something like this:

Multi skilled, self-driven, all-round employee needed.
Job title: Expat spouse
Location: Where we want you to be
Terms: On call 24/7. Health insurance and housing provided
Salary: Fixed (Zero $). No pension. A lump sum for education or outplacement. (Maybe) Other requirements/info: No opportunity to re-negotiate your contract. No training provided
Job requirements.
• Admin savvy
• Budgeting
• Kids management. Practical and emotional
• Cultural interest and knowledge
• Driver’s license. Depending on where we send you, pls expect min. 2-3 hours of driving per day • Compliance skills
• Cooking skills
• Bid management skills
• PA skills
• Travel coordination
• Overall project coordination
• Self-driven and solution orientated
• Ad hoc tasks

Clearly the role requires a lot and the lack of preparation and training makes the odds of failure high. The lack of preparation is critical, as the role is considerably the single most important support function to make the goals, set for an expatriation, a success.


In short, we do not know the extend or the impact. Nor the short, or the long-term consequences. Nor the emotional or the practical ones. Whether good or bad.

How should we know them? We live life forwards. Not backwards. Very few of us have a peer in our immediate proximity to give us the low down.

The starting point for most, is filled with excitement and the opportunity to venture into a new country is intriguing. For some it is scary and requires more planning, consideration and time. For some it ends up being a “no”. This article is focusing on the ones that takes on the spouse role – regardless of being excited or concerned.

So, to answer the question “why do we take on the role?”

We say yes and accept the terms, because no one puts the deal in front of us in a tangible way, explains the terms or helps us ask questions. Period.


Imagine that you are considering being an expat spouse and someone said to you:
1. Take note of the loss of income. Do the math.
2. It is an awesome opportunity to learn a language.
3. Calculate the loss of pension.
4. Think of the cultural skills you will acquire.
5. The time you have to spend to get everything up and running is at least 9-12 months in which you cannot take on very much of your own.
6. You will be given a splendid opportunity to get friends that are as close as family. 7. Keep at the forefront of your mind, that there is no such thing as free ride. Mentally, financially and workwise the price is high, if you do not plan ahead and steer clear of the pitfalls. 8. Your understanding and tolerance towards differences will be increased.
9. All the new will exhaust you eventually and from time to time.
10. You will change.
11. Be aware that your working spouse will climb the career ladder while you will not.
12. Remember to find a purpose and/keep educating yourself.
13. If you get divorced during your expatriation you may find yourself in a very vulnerable situation. 14. Have a look at your testament and prenup. Is it valid where you are going?
15. Are you aware of what can be added to your CV from the spouse role alone – and how else do you plan to stay relevant in your industry of work?
16. Are you aware of, and ready for, the change in the dynamics in your marriage when you stay at home and your spouse is the sole breadwinner?
17. You may not be able to work, as you will be on a dependent pass, considered a housewife or the like.

Looking at the above, those questions will certainly spark some conversations, reflections, and a different kind of perspective all together.

All of them are critical for your thriving in this job and they will help put the spotlight on your role and spark counter questions to the company.


Yes! It is a job!

A job equally important to the working spouse’s job. One part, in an expat marriage, cannot do what s(he) does without the other, and the job as a spouse is what will make the family thrive. It is also a job that comes without human resource access, meaning that everything you encounter that needs discussion, support, and solution finding are to be raised and dealt with, together with your partner.

Your job consists of tying all loose ends, establishing a network for you, your family, and for your children while holding on to your own traditions while at the same time tapping into traditions in your country of residence. Arranging all doctor’s appointments and vaccinations, doing celebrations, language learning, supporting your children, moving in/out, making a home, teaching your children skills they need as their identity changes and on top – YOU must do you. Make sure you do not let one day eat the next without having meaning and purpose for yourself.

I must highlight that the above is nowhere near exhaustive, as to what your expat spouse job consists off. A spouse job is more than full time and controlled by the agenda of your children and the coming and going of your working spouse. You have to step in when and where needed, because there is no one else to call on.

It might sound like a cliché, but it is pivotal that you put on your own oxygen mask before helping your spouse and children. We may be able to pour out all our attention, energy, and care for everyone else for a shorter period, but it cannot sustain you and your thriving, to keep doing that.

Companies do not (yet) consider an expat spouse as one who has a job. They do not validate that if you are not around, their expatriated employee cannot do and deliver on goals.


That is the million-dollar question. Actually no. It is the billion-dollar question.

Looking at a conservative piece of math the 40% failure rate in expatriations, will amount to an industry loss of 3,3 billion USD.


How did I get to that number?

I took half of the lowest number of expats (estimate is 86 million but number go as low as 56 million) and multiplied it by the lowest cost for an expatriation. Of that number I took 40%.

On that conservative math, it is highly likely that the 3,3, billion loss on failed expatriation is too low.

Having established that the industry loses a lot of money and that many expats are not thriving – and even more so, the link between the two, something needs to change. For all parties involved. Factoring in, that the spouse is a critical element in the investment is a key action.

The change is however, not only a responsibility of the companies. It is also on us as expats. We need to be better at planning for ourselves, as spouses, and we need to be willing to stick to that plan. An expatriation is a big deal and the line between what a company provides in terms of spousal support and what you have to own up to is currently defined in policies and contracts.

Those policies and contracts do however not mention or define your responsibility, but solely outlines what the company will deliver. Referring to the lack of preparation and not knowing what questions to ask, this is all together linking to a bottlenecked challenge and issue. In first instance this is a challenge that a company must take on or outsource.

In no way am I suggesting that expats take on a victim role but as long as no one is saying out loud what we need to prepare for we are simply in the “not knowing”.


Yes. You do get a spousal amount, some point out.

And yes, we do. But a one-time lump sum for education will not sustain or compare to the loss of income and pension over years. You can educate yourself from hereon and forever, but if you as a spouse cannot take on a job, and apply your skills where you are living, that is not a sustainable solution. The lump sum can certainly be part of the solution and is a super support that many of us are beyond grateful for.

All in all, I believe that a minimum payout should match the pension loss, and yes, I also believe that this should be provided by the company. Not only will it provide peace of mind for the spouse, it will also make the spouse feel recognized, seen and respected for what (s)he has given up and is supplying on the home turf.

I have yet to come across a spouse that has been offered this. However, I have come across countless spouses that do not sleep at night, because they feel unseen, worried about pension, and highly frustrated that they are in this situation, have nowhere to go with their worries or to negotiate.

Until this changes, Expat spouses – remain the unpaid, and worried, support function.

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About Kia Holm Reimer

Kia Holm Reimer is the owner of Expat Advice. See more: http://www.expatadvising.com/about-me/

View all posts by Kia Holm Reimer

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