Expat partners are often described as the engines that drive transitions, the quiet power behind the move. Yet scratch the surface and you will find that the perception of an empowered, privileged lifestyle camouflages the uncertainty and hidden vulnerability of life in an internationally mobile supporting role.
Interestingly, it’s not just first time expats that are caught out – many experienced, long termers are also unaware how eroded their individual rights and ability to make independent decisions have become. For many, the inability to take their children ‘back home’ is one of the most fundamental issues- and most overlooked. We go into expat life with a sense of curiosity, a willingness to take a career break and the expectation that if it doesn’t work, we can ‘come home’ – only to find that in reality, we are economically dependent and tied to our new location by the legal restrictions of shared parenthood.
Expat life is challenging, and the stronger the partnership, the greater the chance of a happy, fulfilling life overseas. Which, in my mind, means whether it’s your first or fifteenth move, you need to go in to it with your eyes wide open, with a clear, negotiated and mutually beneficial plan and the understanding that you are both expat partners – with equal rights, responsibilities and value, both inside and outside the relationship.
So, with no further ado, here are my tried and trusted questions that every expat partner should ask.
1. How long will we be expats for?
Current research shows that the typical length of international assignment now falls in the 1-3 year category, but there’s very little discussion about how one assignment often leads to another – and the impact that unplanned serial expatriation has on the (typically unsalaried) partner.
It’s a trap that I certainly fell into. I initially agreed to a temporary one year assignment to Kenya, and based all my planning around that timeframe. The limited timing allowed me to put my career, my children’s school places and my personal and professional plans on hold easily. What I hadn’t anticipated was that assignments often overrun or extend, without a great deal of notice or opportunity for negotiation. Once you are in a new location, it’s problematic to return independently, and yet staying means that many of your reentry plans are no longer in place.
So instead of asking you “How long are you going for?”, I want you to think beyond this particular move and instead focus longer term – how long do you intend to live overseas? As many so-called ‘trailing spouses’ will tell you, the length of time you remain overseas has a profound implication on your ongoing practical, financial, legal, and educational choices.
As the accompanying partner, you often become more vulnerable, losing primary visa status, economic independence, legal rights, access to your passport nation entitlements and – if you have children – the ability to move back home without your partner. You might have agreed to this for the short term, but how will you address that vulnerability if the assignment is extended, or a new one offered?
No matter how long the initial assignment is for, it’s a good idea to think about what you both would do in a range of situations – including repatriation for one or both of you, and where you want to be at the 2, 5 and 10 year mark. Having these discussions up front mean that you can make sure your plans, priorities, security and freedom of choice are maintained throughout the expat journey and beyond.
2. What are the role expectations?
Studies have shown that 86% of expatriate partners have not only a Bachelor’s degree or higher, but also an established professional career. So while many take career breaks to spend time with children, their intention is to return to salaried employment at some point.
Note that I use the term salaried employment, rather than ‘work’. One of the important conversations going on in the Global Girl’s Guide to Creating Your Back Up Plan community highlights the obstacles faced by supporting partners when it comes to re-establishing a career – one of the most frequently cited is the lack of time.
There is a massive hidden workload in expatriate life, which the outside observer may not see or understand. While the primary visa holder often has the support of colleagues, information systems, institutional knowledge and specialized teams within the workplace, the supporting partner has to create these for themselves and the family unit to be able to function effectively in the new location.
Unfortunately, many of the tasks that the partner assumes responsibility for are both unpaid and undervalued. In the early stages of expat life, adopting the roles of primary caregiver, relocation and orientation manager and family administrator is a conscious, jointly negotiated decision that has an acknowledged value. With every subsequent move, however, agreement often becomes assumed, the value is less clearly defined and we become unwittingly complicit in our own role shift.
These challenges aren’t unique to expat life, but they are exacerbated by the lack of local family support systems, frequent moves and the established practice of the mother being primary contact for all child related conversations. All of which contribute to the erosion of your power and ability to self advocate.
So before you hand in your resignation and start planning the move, ask yourselves: Whose career will be the primary focus for each move, who will be considered the “Trailing Spouse” and how do you both feel about this in the short and long term?
3. Is it possible for me to work internationally?
Here’s the thing. When the carrot of an international move is dangled in front of us, it’s easy to be drawn into the idea that once we are settled in, we can pick up our careers right where we left off, and everyone will move heaven and earth to help us. And yes, many transferring employers now offer career support services for partners, recognizing their need / desire to continue earn in the new location. But don’t confuse support with legal right to work (as specified by your visa), the authorization to work (Employment Authorization Document, Social Security number, Tax ID etc) or even the practical ability to secure and sustain a professional role.
Before you go, check the laws, regulations and requirements for work. International assignments make pursuing a professional career as a partner far more complex. You may need to secure the necessary visa or work permits, tax and social security numbers and will probably incur additional tax and compliance burdens that are unlikely to be covered by your partner’s employer. None of which are pleasant, and often prove a significant barrier to continued, consistent employment.
Ask yourself whether it is feasible for the supporting partner to work in the new location, bearing in mind the potential language and cultural barriers, professional certification requirements, time spent managing the move, childcare requirements, and the need for an understanding employer who will work around the assignment constraints of the primary visa holder. If not, is there some way you can work remotely or establish your own business? Or are there strategies that you can implement to keep your professional resume competitive so that when you are ready to retake your seat at the table, you don’t have to take a step down?
Finally, a word on volunteer work. I’m a passionate supporter of volunteering as a tool for personal development, but it is not without risk. Too often, I see strong, capable and hardworking women running incredible organizations and generating massive revenue, only to belittle those abilities as ‘I just help out a bit at the XXX’. And yes, I know that men volunteer too, but if I hear the words “‘just’, ‘only’ or similar, 99% of the time, it’s a feminine voice… So, by all means, please offer your skills and service, but never, ever forget that in an ideal world, your role would be a funded one.
4. What legal rights do expat partners have in the host country?
Expatriate assignments are global, and increasingly include destinations with very different laws and legal systems. While I don’t expect you to have an in-depth knowledge of the local legal system, it’s vital you understand the laws that personally affect you. The rights of women, your rights as a partner, the custody and movement of children, same sex partnerships, and any other laws that may differ significantly from those of your home location should be considered, as well as what legal support is provided in the event of a brush with the law.
Lucy Greenwood, Partner at the International Family Law Group (and one of the guest experts on the Global Girl’s Guide to Creating a Back Up Plan), talks about the importance of seeking advice from a specialist in international family law before you move, so that you fully understand the legal implications of transferring both your relationship and your family overseas. She is all too familiar with the hidden pitfalls of cross border relationship, parenting and custody issues, and the painful implications of being unprepared.
The majority of accompanying partners are women, and depending on the location, legal rights that are previously taken for granted may not apply locally. The same applies for same sex partnerships and custody rights; once relocated, for instance, one parent cannot repatriate with the children without evidence of consent of the other. So if your Plan B included the phrase “I can always go home”, think again.
Get professional legal advice about the relevant legal issues in your host location, and discuss with your relocating organization to understand what support (if any) is in place to support and safeguard your legal rights. Build in a regular legal ‘check-up’ so that you stay updated on changing legal situations – and how they impact changes to your own family unit.
5. What financial adjustments will need to be made?
If you haven’t already guessed, choosing to go on international assignment in a supporting role means a gap in your personal income, no matter how short term. This is going to have an impact on your pension (both state and company), home country benefits entitlement (depending on the length of time you are out of your host country), earning potential, credit rating and your professional credentials and resume, so you need to be clear about your financial plans for the future, and how you will safeguard yourself.
As a dependent partner, it may be more difficult to open an individual bank account in your host country, but it is an essential part of your financial security. If something happens to your partner or your relationship, depending on the laws of the country you may lose access to any assets held jointly, and thus the ability to not only pay any bills and live in the family home but also to hire legal services. While we hate to think about a loved one being either missing, incapacitated or dead, the reality in these situations is that your legal rights are determined by the law of the land you live in. The same applies in the case of marital breakdown, and the last thing you need in a time of personal or family crisis is a financial one.
Once you have taken care of the emergency provisions, make sure you build economic recognition for both partners into your budget. it’s not enough to settle for joint accounts as an indicator of equity; in most expat situations, the salaried partner is far more financially powerful, and can turn off that joint access to money at will – bank accounts, savings, investments and retirement funds – even credit – leaving you reliant on the courts (and an accurate report of your financial assets and net worth) for any form of future security.
Before you roll your eyes and tell me that this will never happen to you, let me put this another way. How would you feel if it was your daughter in this position? And what is so scary about having assets equally distributed between both partners? I firmly believe that expat families are stronger where the differing roles are acknowledged, valued and secured – and that you stay in a relationship out of choice, not necessity…
6. What if something happens to the primary visa holder in terms of country law?
Bear in mind that the transferring partner is the primary visa applicant, and in most cases, their residence in the country is dependent on their continued employment with the sponsoring company. So if your partner loses his/her job, breaks the terms of the contract, commits a crime or dies, you no longer have the right of residence, regardless of how long you have lived in the country.
For most expats on short term assignments the immediate response is to return to their home nation. However, the longer the assignment, the greater the family investment in the host location, both in terms of financial assets, education and employment history. So if you are considering seeking employment, re-entering education, have college age children or are going to invest larger sums of money, consult a legal or visa specialist to fully understand your local rights.
7. Have we made legal arrangements for all dependents in the event of death, injury or incarceration?
As Benjamin Franklin said, “The only two certainties in life are death and taxes”, and we should be giving both the same annual attention.
It’s the one no-one likes to talk about – how well are you and your family protected if something happens to either of you? You may have a valid Will, Advanced Directive of Healthcare (Living Will), Power of Attorney and named beneficiary in your home country for instance, but are they valid in your host country, and do you have access to the legal services to enforce them should the unthinkable happen?
You should have valid copies of all of the above held by a lawyer in your home location, and seek international advice for your host location in advance or on arrival. If you haven’t already heard it enough, I’ll say it again.. Laws vary, and your Embassy/Consulate can only do a certain amount to help. Most Embassies retain a list of local lawyers who speak your language, and other expats will often have recommendations or referrals.
As with finding a good doctor, it’s always worth finding a good one before an emergency arises.
8. Who will have custody of the kids if things change?
We’ve talked about the financial provisions needed to ensure that dependents are taken care of, but as the accompanying partner, you also want to understand how the laws of your home and host nation define your rights as a parent, because there is huge global variation.
The types of family going on international assignment are increasingly diverse, with blended family make-ups and complex parenting and care arrangements, none of which are reflected in many of the host country laws. In Britain for instance, mothers tend to be given primary custody, while under Sharia law fathers have the greater rights. Same sex partnerships are often not even recognized, or in the worst case, illegal.
So, before you go:
- understand your parental rights in your host country.
- discuss the issue with your partner to reach a consensus,
- get advice from an international family lawyer who is familiar with both jurisdictions
- include custody as part of your written legal arrangements.
9. How does expatriate life affect my goals long term?
It’s full circle time. Remember our first question, asking “How long will I be going for?”. Here’s the final wake-up call. Many, many spouses have taken a leave of absence and agreed to a short term assignment, only to ‘wake up’ many years and many miles from their own personal agenda. That’s not to say that expatriate life doesn’t have many advantages – I for one would not swap the last fifteen years for anything. What it does, however, is interfere with your plans, often without you stopping to think whether the path you are on is the one you want.
I’ve talked a great deal about the financial implications – mainly because they are most frequently cited as reasons for going along with the current plan. I hear comments like ” I’ll never be able to earn as much as my husband”, or “I’d have to start from scratch” – both of which reflect an alarming lack of self belief, and a strange perspective that the only reason for pursuing a career is money,
The issue here is not about specific financial reward, but about value. It’s about making sure that while you are taking care of everyone else, your own needs are being met – or that they are and integral part of the future plan. All too often, they get lost in the mix, and it becomes more and more difficult to recapture the balanced, negotiated collaboration that characterised your first move.
Typically, the salaried partner has the support of an organization behind them, a more secure residence, legal and income status – plus a highly articulate, capable and proactive partner working behind the scenes. We, on the other hand, have very little institutional support and plenty of barriers to creating our own security – yet we are the ones made most vulnerable by moving, and most in need of a safety net.
It’s a conundrum. I love the potential for discovery and reinvention that relocation provides, but at the same time, my lack of planning means that I forfeited ten years of earning potential, pension contributions and resume building. So while it has given me the push to search for purpose rather than simply a pay packet, finding the confidence to re-enter the workforce after ten years is hard, and has meant I have had to restart from scratch.
Thankfully, things are changing, and there are many great resources out there to help you stay connected with your identity, your security and your personal wellbeing. To help you get started, I’ve put together the How Protected Are You? Quiz which will help you pinpoint areas that you need to work on – complete with a Creating Your Back Up Plan Starter Kit to help you take action.
To take the quiz, click on the link below.