Expatriation often comes with its unique set of challenges, affecting not just the individuals who relocate but also their families. A notable percentage, approximately 86%, of expatriates take their spouse or family along when moving abroad. This is a considerable life change that affects both the working expat and their partner.
Navigating the Expat Lifestyle
For the working expatriate, their career often serves as a valuable distraction, aiding them in coping with the inevitable culture shock. However, their partners, or "trailing spouses," as they are commonly referred to, face a different set of challenges. These spouses typically find themselves at a crossroads, having to decide whether to continue their lives in their home country or accompany their partners abroad. Each decision carries its own set of benefits and drawbacks and can have a profound impact on the relationship or marriage.
Opting for a temporary separation can sometimes be a viable alternative for couples where one partner is sent abroad for a short-term assignment. In these instances, the non-expatriate partner may choose to stay behind, continuing their career and life as usual. However, this decision is not without its difficulties, as maintaining a long-distance relationship can place a strain on the couple.
Unpacking the Expat Experience
Upon moving abroad, many trailing spouses find themselves unable to pursue their careers due to work permit restrictions or other logistical challenges. This can lead to feelings of frustration, isolation, and an identity crisis, as they grapple with a loss of independence and professional status. These issues are often compounded by local cultural norms and traditions that may significantly differ from what they are accustomed to. In some cases, the spouses may experience a sense of isolation due to language barriers and the difficulty of establishing a new social network in an unfamiliar environment.
A Journey in Five Stages
Culture shock, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, is a feeling of disorientation when one is suddenly exposed to an unfamiliar culture or way of life. Everyone, regardless of their background or prior international experience, will likely face some aspects of culture shock when moving to a new country. This experience can be likened to the stages of grief, each phase presenting its own set of emotions and challenges.
1. The Honeymoon Stage: In this initial phase, the new environment is perceived with wonder and fascination. The differences in the culture are captivating, sparking excitement, curiosity, and a sense of adventure. This phase is marked by a romanticized view of the new surroundings, where everything feels fresh and exhilarating, and one still feels closely connected to familiarities from home.
2. The Distress Stage: As the initial wonder wears off, the reality of living in a new culture starts to sink in. Differences that were once intriguing may now seem overwhelming. Feelings of isolation, confusion, and inadequacy become more pronounced. The lack of familiar support systems, such as close family and friends, amplifies these emotions.
3. Re-integration Stage: This stage is characterized by a more pronounced awareness of the vast differences between the new culture and one's own. There's a tendency to idealize one's home culture and view the new environment with a critical eye. This can lead to feelings of frustration, anger, and even hostility. Despite these negative sentiments, this phase signifies a pivotal point in adjustment as individuals grapple with their own cultural values and start to carve out their identity in the new setting.
4. Autonomy Stage: Often termed as the emergence phase, this stage marks the beginning of acceptance. The 'fog' of distress starts to lift, and individuals begin to regain their sense of self. The new culture becomes more familiar, leading to increased confidence and the ability to handle challenges with more resilience. While differences still exist, they are now navigated with a clearer mindset.
5. Independence Stage: At this culmination, individuals fully embrace their new environment. The new culture is seen in a balanced light, blending both its strengths and weaknesses. Comfort, confidence, and a strong sense of identity return in full force. The new setting starts to feel like home, marked by an appreciation of both the differences and similarities between the old and the new.
In essence, the journey through culture shock is a transformative experience, leading to deeper self-awareness and a broader understanding of the world.
Confronting the Emotional Turmoil
For the trailing spouse, the journey of acculturation can be particularly challenging. Feelings of worthlessness and frustration can arise as they struggle to find their place in a new country. The loss of a professional identity can be especially difficult, leaving them feeling undervalued and unfulfilled.
However, it is crucial for these individuals to recognize the validity of their experiences and to give themselves the grace and time needed to adjust. Engaging in positive and constructive activities, seeking support from fellow expats, and being proactive in establishing a support network can all play a significant role in facilitating a smoother transition. Communication with their partner is also paramount, as it can help mitigate feelings of isolation and strengthen the relationship.
Furthermore, the role of the employer in supporting not only the expatriate but also their family cannot be overstated. Many companies now recognize the importance of providing comprehensive support to expat families, including language lessons, cultural training, and assistance with schooling and relocation logistics.
In conclusion, while culture shock is a common and often inevitable aspect of expatriation, it also presents an invaluable opportunity for growth and self-discovery. The skills and insights gained from navigating a new culture can enhance one's self-awareness and provide a richer, more nuanced perspective on both their home and host cultures. It is essential for both the expatriate and their family to be proactive in seeking the necessary support and to approach the experience with an open mind and a positive attitude.