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Navigating Family Life Abroad: A Guide to Partner Support in Expat Life

A couple hand in hand walking over a bridge
Guiding your partner through the difficult transition

In previous blogs, I've discussed strategies for expats to deal with the unique challenges of moving abroad. However, these challenges become even more complex when families are involved.

This blog delves into how such a significant move can impact your family and how to ease the transition, focusing on the perspective of the trailing spouse/partner (someone who follows their life partner to another city because of a work assignment). Most importantly, we’ll explore what actions you can take to create a smoother transition and reduce the risk of an early departure.

Unique Pain Points for the Expat Partner

Drawing from my own experiences and insights from expat transition literature, it's clear that trailing partners often face a more challenging adjustment compared to expat employees. Here are some examples of the major challenges they encounter:

Identity Crisis: Moving to a new country often means giving up a job or career. This loss can lead to a profound identity crisis for expatriate spouses/partners. They may feel like they've lost their professional identity and sense of purpose. Adjusting to a new job that may not be the perfect job is also a common story, given that they are trailing their partners' international assignment.

Family discussin over dinner
Family role shifts are common

Role Conflict: Relocating abroad can cause significant shifts in family roles and routines. Financial dynamics may change, family routines can be upended, and children may need more attention. Trailing spouses/partners often desire more quality time with their partner, grapple with the absence of close confidants, and wrestle with concerns about their children and family. Feelings of uncertainty about their future after the current expatriate assignment can add to their stress.

Social Isolation: Adapting to a new culture and dealing with the physical separation from loved ones back home can contribute to a sense of isolation. Building a personal support network abroad can be a time-consuming process due to limited peer groups and a lack of close friends.

Dense cityscape
Finding your place can be challenging

Environmental Challenges: Connection to a new culture and language, and dealing with extreme novelty are all obvious examples. Trailing partners often face practical difficulties, such as finding suitable housing in some host countries, which can be a tough and compromising process. Additionally, exposure to a new culture can sometimes lead to behaviour changes that don't align with one's personal values.

How to support your Partner in Expat Life

While the pain points are clear, there has been limited research on how families, both individual members and the family as a whole, deal with the stress and challenges of expatriate assignments. The following insights come from my work with expats directly as a coach, as well as my collaboration with international schools and global mobility experts.

Sign post Silhouette on sunset
Decisions are important to make together

Participation in Decision-Making:

If you're yet to move, involving your partner in the decision to relocate is crucial for a smoother transition. Even if you've already moved, it's never too late to open up communication and ensure your partner feels seen and heard.

For example, sit down with your partner regularly to discuss big and small family decisions and expectations during your time abroad.

Compensation effect: As the expat worker, your ability to adjust to your new environment impacts your partner. Staying motivated and positive to the assignment, as well as adjusting well to language and culture, can positively support your partner's and your family’s adjustment.

Clarify Changing Roles and Create Shared Goals: Openly discuss the changing family roles together. In the midst of setting up life abroad, it's easy to overlook this crucial aspect. Whenever possible, clarify your plans together, such as the duration of the assignment or what success looks like for your time abroad. Creating shared goals can provide a sense of purpose and direction. I talk more about the importance of creating shared goals in my Top 10 Tips for Expats.

Couple holding hands
Fostering support through the transition

Foster safety and support: Help your partner re-establish their identity in the host country. Encourage language fluency, social connections through schools and communities, and a sense of comfort in the new environment. Seek out available company assistance, such as cultural training programs, school and relocation services, and coaching support. Connecting with other expat partners can also help ease the transition. Support from families and maintaining old friendships are essential for your partner's adjustment.

A Successful Family Move Abroad

By implementing these strategies, you can support your spouse/partner in embracing the challenges and opportunities of life abroad. If you would like to understand how you can best support your child/teenager, I talk about this in my blog Helping Kids Thrive Abroad.

A successful family move abroad should be adventurous, infused with a good dose of humor, and characterized by open communication where all family members "pull in the same direction." Each family member should feel equally important in family decisions. Flexibility is key, as family members may have different needs that surface at different times, often linked to the strains of moving. However, these stressful events can also bring families closer together.

Prevention is the Best Cure

In my experience, many expat families wait until they reach a crisis point before seeking support. There are so many other other logisitcal committments for establishing life abroad so it's often hard to take a step back and make time for wellbeing to ensure a smooth transition for all family members. Unfortunately, as high as 1 in 5 expats leave early, and this impact ripples out to the organisations and communities that the family is a part of.

My goal is to empower expat parents, via the school community, to thrive in new environments and strengthen the family experience abroad.

A group of professional parents in classrom
Tailored Talks, Workshops and Resources

As you settle back into school life, I invite you to consider my offer of support for your parent communities. I provide free parent talks and resources tailored to your specific needs, empowering parents and enhancing the family experience abroad.

Together, we can ensure expat family life has the best chance of thriving in a new world.


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