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Expat Couple And Orphan Spouses – The Great Paradox

This post is the last in a series of three articles on orphan spouses. We first walked in the shoes of the accompanying spouse (a woman in this case), then in the footsteps of the leading spouse. Today we’re concluding with THE major challenge of this situation. Want to know more? Without further ado…

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Let’s face it: if you’re the working partner in the couple, it can be difficult to know what to say to your other half.

Suppose you’re very enthusiastic about your new job – chances are you’ll meet resentment, frustration and bitterness from your partner.

‘I bet you have a good time, travelling to nice places, meeting interesting people and working on inspiring projects. You have a meaningful job that brings you recognition and personal development. Because we’re so dependent on the money you bring, everything you do gets priority. But what’s in it for me? I resigned to become a stay-at-home mum. I enjoy having more time with the kids but I’m burdened by mundane household chores and I feel I have to raise our children as a single parent. You come home and put your feet up. I’m working my tail off for free without any recognition so that everyone else can enjoy a pleasant life.’

If, on the contrary, you’re unhappy about your new job, try to express your feelings and here’s what might come your way:
‘What? You made us move, you made us sell our house. I left my job, we disrupted the kids. All this for you and for this job. And you’re not happy? All this for nothing?’

Anger, disappointment and disbelief are what your partner may throw back at you.

Admitting that this decision was a bad choice is extremely challenging.

You blame yourself, you feel guilty, and you try to cope in silence.

In the meantime, you vent your anger in other situations: the kids are noisy, your wife is grumpy…

You can’t win. Whatever you feel, you can’t share it.

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Now, if you’re on the other side of the fence as the accompanying partner, you don’t have it easy either.

If you’re unhappy, your partner may feel guilty and powerless. After all, it’s because of his work that you had to move, resign from your job and give up your (financial) independence.

It’s hard for him to listen to your complaints.

‘What are you always whingeing about? You can spend time with the kids and your only concern is to choose the coffee shop where you’ll meet up with your friends. You don’t have the pressure and the stress I have to deal with!’

If you’re happy, you’re the exception that confirms the rule!

Have a look at the comments from a previous article Why Trailing Spouses Can’t Be Happy (and What Can Be Done)

Now that you’re both uprooted and have no support networks, you only have each other to rely on.

The great paradox is that you don’t feel able to do so! This is a MAJOR challenge.

Communication is close to impossible and often leads to more misunderstanding.

It’s not only on an emotional level: one spouse’s emotional state triggers another one in the second half.

But it’s also on a practical level: there is very little quality time together face to face. Taking care of the kids is very demanding. Without family nearby to look after them, you struggle to carve out some couple moments. Moreover, there’s a period of adjustment after each arrival and departure.

Some people assume that when you’re isolated within your own little family unit, bonds become stronger.

This is not necessarily the case.

So what can you do?
Get help. Separately.
Find your own support network.
Find people who ‘get’ you without long explanations, people who listen without judging and without trying to fix everything …
Because you need to be able to express yourself freely without censure.
Because you need to mourn your losses.
Because you need to regain some strength.

That space may often prove hard to find – but not impossible.
There are Facebook expat groups, expat coaches, school mums, meet-up groups.

From time to time, I offer a program called ‘Unpack Your Bags’. This 4-week online peer support group is a first step to get some support and to provide some clarity. It’s a taste of what may develop into deeper connections later on. More details are available here.

Now, I’d like to hear from you: how has the communication with your partner evolved after moving abroad?


Credit music Free Music Archive credit pictures Depositphotos

Expat Husband And Orphan Spouse – The Untold Story

This post is the second in a series of three articles on orphan spouses. Last time, we walked in the shoes of the accompanying spouse (a woman in this case). Today, we’re putting ourselves then in the footsteps of the leading spouse (a man) before concluding in the third article on THE major challenge of this situation. Ready to know more? Without further ado…

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Let’s face it: you convinced your family to move abroad because of your job, and you’re never home.

Your work is very demanding: you’re probably stuck in the office for long hours, including nights and week-ends, and/or you’re required to travel frequently.                                                        Expat Husband and Orphan Spouse
You hardly see your family, let alone spend valuable time with them.
Without knowing it, you’ve become an orphan spouse.

You’re now like a single man, responsible nonetheless for providing for several additional people. You’re so often absent from home that you feel like an alien in your own family, and you’re in a country where, if you lose your job, you might have to pack up and leave with your wife and children within 28 days.

Expat husband and orphan spouse: if this doesn’t put pressure on you, what will?

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Today, we’re looking at the situation of the expatriate working partner, a perspective that is rarely acknowledged for two reasons:

  • First, in many cases, the financial situation of the working expat is comfortable, so it’s assumed that they don’t have any issues to contend with, or at least that they only have ‘luxury problems’ (where to spend their next holidays, how to optimise their tax return). And if they do struggle, they shouldn’t complain because they’re privileged anyway, right?
  • Second, this position of working partner within the couple is still mostly held by men, who are less likely to express their emotions publicly. Under stress, many take refuge in overwork, alcohol or other addictions such as to electronic devices.

‘An experience makes its appearance only when it’s being said. And unless it’s said, it is, so to speak, non-existent.’
Hannah Arendt – German philosopher

In this situation, we mustn’t forget that both partners are orphans.

They’re both affected in extreme and opposite ways.

When one has too much, the other has too little. Whether it’s about time with the children, money or social contact. Just to name a few.
Free pictures SEPARATOR - 29 images foundWhat does it look like in real life?

Your daughter is playing in the school musical, and she’s looking forward to performing in front of the whole family. She made sure long in advance that you had put the date in your diary, so that you could attend this special evening.

Unfortunately, at the last minute, a client requires you for a strategic meeting. Sound familiar?

You’re torn between a sense of professional duty and your role as a supporting father.

What will get priority?

Preparing for the meeting with your client and alone in your hotel room, you order a cold platter. You put the TV on and open the minibar. You don’t want to think too much.

While the stay-at-home parent is tied to the house, the working partner is tied to a job.

Your life is dedicated to the requirements of your work.
A job abroad doesn’t only offer an income, but also a visa to remain in the country, and eventually other perks (schooling for the children, housing and company cars). As the single bread winner, losing your job would have drastic consequences.

This job has also become a very important part of your identity. What first started as a challenge for a self-driven employee has become an all-consuming activity. You want to live up to the image of a committed and competent professional. You may even be told ‘Only you can do it!’ by a management that wants to massage your ego.

The first casualty in this situation is the family, but this situation takes a toll on all relationships.
Building local friendships and participating in community life are seriously impaired, preventing you from developing other support networks and aspects of your identity.
Free pictures SEPARATOR - 29 images foundYour wife complains about your son.

‘He wants to spend all his spare time on his phone. I put restrictions on him, so he’s constantly nagging me. It’s exhausting! He now wants to be on social media. He’s blaming us for the fact he’s not like his friends because we don’t allow him to have a Snapchat account. Every day is a struggle. I can’t deal with it any more. You need to do something about it.’

You’re reluctant to intervene. Most of the time, you’re absent. How tricky is it to speak about matters you haven’t witnessed in person?

You wonder:
‘What’s the point of me telling him off? I’ll spoil all the joy of seeing him. He’ll dread me coming back. Moreover, he knows that I’m not able to follow through if he breaks the rules. I’m so often away from home. What kind of relationship can we build together?’

A lack of intervention on your part inevitably triggers an argument with your wife, and you fear that scolding your son is damaging your relationship with him.

You’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.

While the stay-at-home parent needs to assume the dual role of mum and dad, the orphan spouse away from home struggles to fulfil their role of parent.

When you come home, you want to have a good time, creating pleasant memories of your time with the kids to compensate for all you’ve missed.

Being constantly away, you’ve lost the sense of a shared reality.

Who is their teacher and what does she look like?
What are your kids’ friends’ names?
What do they have for lunch?
When is soccer training?

So many details you don’t know, because this is at odds with your regular day.

You live out of a suitcase, eat in restaurants, sleep in hotels.

Grocery shopping, cooking, washing dishes and vacuum cleaning are tasks you never have to perform.

Organising birthday parties, attending parent-teacher meetings and volunteering to coach the soccer team are activities you can never take part in.

Coming home is like being on another planet or in another country. You can’t relate to this way of life, and you don’t try to engage with it – you’ll be off again shortly. This could be called the Visitor Syndrome! *

You want to relax. You’re under a lot of pressure all day long, with multiple demands from your organisation and numerous time constraints (planes, meetings, opening hours of restaurants, hotels…).

You want to make up for the time you missed with the kids and the family.

Now that you’re here, they have to cancel everything: a friend’s birthday party, the chores given to the kids by your partner, the routines established in your absence. It’s holiday mode.*

As you can imagine, this situation will create conflict and confusion.

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However, there is hope. As engineer Charles Kettering famously mentioned ‘A problem well stated is a problem half solved.’

What’s your take on dealing with this kind of situation?

I’d love to hear from you.


* Both terms (Visitor Syndrome and Holiday Mode) were coined by my dear friend Pamela Leach.

Credit music the Piano Society credit pictures Depositphotos


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Sandy moved to France two years ago. Her mom and dad reside in Texas. She tries to visit her aging parents twice a year but sometimes she can’t make it because of her kids’ commitments and the price of the tickets. It started during her last visit, four months ago. Her mom let the pots […]

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Ageing abroad is a series created to celebrate Seniors Week in Tasmania. It aims at underlining the challenges and rewards faced by people living abroad as they get older. All the individuals featured in this series are fictitious but their stories are inspired by true people. I wish to thank Hans Schmid and Margaret Eldridge for […]

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