The Case for Happy Expat Couples – on Valentine’s Day and throughout the year

The starting point is very simple: Many expats have partners and naturally they want to relocate together with them. Now three questions come up: What do you do as an expat’s partner? How can you find a new happy balance as a couple at your new destination? And should the company take care of their expats’ partners, and if yes – how?

Expatriates’ partners do not want anymore to just follow and sacrifice their own agendas. These are good news. The vast majority wants to see new opportunities for themselves.

The Everyday Side: Options for Integration

When both partners want to follow their professional ambitions as Dual Career Couples (DCCs), in many cases this works well, especially within the EU. Learning and Development are also frequent choices. Many spouses decide to register for courses of any kind – mastering the local language, or doing their MBA. (Anything is possible: In Shanghai, some spouses become ‘certified luxury shopping consultants’.)

If a couple has children, some decide to focus on spending time with them, or take an international assignment as a convenient time to enlarge the family with new offspring. Charity activities are one more popular option. And in order to find new friends, the good news is: a wide range of formal and informal social platforms has emerged in all major expatriate destinations, of course including Bucharest.

The clear recommendation for employers says: Invite and include partners at an early stage of nomination and preparation of an assignment.

The Emotional Side: Finding a new balance

However, all these smooth solutions do not always come by themselves. Risks include frustration, boredom, loneliness, missing the career and the friends back home, feeling lost, and the challenge of cultural adaption in everyday life.

In order to reduce the risk of frustration and unexpected surprises, it is vital to exchange expectations in advance: How and when will we spend time together as a couple? For example: If commuting requires that on an average day the partner leaves at 7 and comes back after 8pm, this is something the partner should know in advance and learn not only when the assignment has started already. Or – even heavier: In some real cases, spouses learn only late that their assignment is planned for 3 years (as the company thinks) and not only for 1 year (as they thought).

Considering business dinners for introductions with stakeholders, kick-off meetings, and troubleshooting: attention and time for partner may suffer. Especially at the beginning of an assignment, there will be a painful gap between the available leisure time which the expat has, versus the leisure time his or her partner has. After two or three years, this situation may well be reversed – with well integrated partners, and expats having more time available than at the busy beginning.

In retrospective, many couples say that their assignment has become an especially intensive time of their relationship and that the special life situation – even including the hardships – brought them emotionally closer together.

The Business Side: How do companies address this?

Obviously, these challenges are not just ‘a private issue’. When couples are out of balance, the expat’s performance will of course suffer. Indeed, there is one main – and frequently underestimated – risk for failure of assignments, in terms of quitting early: emotional challenges in the private couple situation. Smart companies consider not only the single cases of failed assignments but also the strategic impact: Only if the overall situation was perceived positive, the expat will recommend an international assignment to his talented colleagues back home. If not, the company may have a hard time finding future expatriates.

So how do companies care for their expatriates’ partners? Some provide just financial packages, and call them for example “compensation for partners’ career interruptions”. However, more and more have decided to provide “Spouse Assistance Programs”. In the US, this has been the standard for many decades already, in Europe in the meantime the majority of companies do this as well.

These programs include three kinds of support: Practical-technical (relocation and immigration); professional (career opportunities); social (integration opportunities). In all these three areas, you find premium solutions at City Compass Intercultural Consulting, your local expert for couples who relocate to Bucharest – and count themselves lucky.

Further Reading:

Andreason, Aaron (2008): Expatriate adjustment of spouses and expatriate managers: An integrative research review. In: International Journal of Management. 25(2), S. 382-95.

Brown, Robert J. (2008): Dominant stressors on expatriate couples during international assignments. In: International Journal of Human Resource Management. 19(6), S. 1018-34.

Cole, Nina D. (2011): Managing global talent: solving the spousal adjustment problem. In: The International Journal of Human Resource Management. 22(7), S. 1504-1530.

McNulty, Yvonne (2012): Being dumped in to sink or swim: an empirical study of organizational support for the trailing spouse. In: Human Resource Development International. 15(4), S. 417-434.

Rosenbusch, Katherine / Csehb, Maria (2011): The cross-cultural adjustment process of expatriate families in a multinational organization: a family system theory perspective. In: Human Resource Development International. 15(1), S. 61-77.