Is divorce more common among expat couples?

What HR and expat should know for the success of an international assignment

Embarking on a new venture abroad means that the couple and all the members of the family have to deal with considerable changes. Prior to the move, couples tend to focus on matters such as searching for living accommodation, school for the children, medical insurance, and generally they completely forget about the key challenges regarding the couple’s relationship, which will inevitably undergo a transformation. An experience abroad can reinforce consolidated relations even more, or it can add more stress to relations complicated in themselves.

Without the network of family and life-long friends, with the lack of any routine and a clearly defined role in society, couples face the relationship "just as it is", purged of certain factors which, at times, in a known context, keep a delicate, precarious balance alive. In a new, unknown context, such a balance is easily upset. As individuals, we suddenly find ourselves outside our comfort zone, facing numerous challenges at the same time (language, culture, work, loneliness, lack of social contacts... ), and this, inevitably, is echoed in the couple that should be able to combine flexibility, communicative skill and a good deal of understanding in order to be able to keep the added stress involved in expatriation in check, applying gradual adjustments to the dynamics of the couple.

One of the consequences of becoming an expat involves, for example, one of the two acquiring notable professional responsibilities, her new role entailing frequent trips, feeling loaded down with responsibility through being the sole source of family income, whereas the other member of the couple will feel that he has put his life "on hold" to promote the furthering of his partner’s career and, once he has reached his destination, will feel abandoned.

According to a study by Brookfield in 2016, 84% of spouses who move away to follow their partner in her posting abroad have a university diploma; 65% of these leave their own job to be able to accompany the husband/wife (today, 23% of expatriation contracts are generated by women – Source: Expatresearch), but only 1 out of 4 manage to relocate professionally during the stay abroad. Another study of 2009, conducted by the Permits Foundation among 3300 spouses and expat partners, in 117 different countries, underlined the fact that 75% of those surveyed, who were not working in the new country, wanted to have a professional occupation.

The expat who generates the opportunity abroad quickly finds a "structuring" professional pattern again, thanks to a position and a job role, tasks and determining responsibilities, companions and a hierarchy as a reference. The partner following him, on the other hand, has to start from scratch and completely autonomously in order to recreate all her points of reference, reorganize her daily life, jeopardizing the person’s self-esteem. Feelings may arise of uselessness, confusion and consternation, apart from the feeling of being incompetent and insignificant in the eyes of society. This unease may, in turn, be echoed in the expat who, at the same time, has to cope with the new professional responsibilities and with dissatisfaction on the family front: built up stress often jeopardises the expatriation project. 65% of expatriation projects that end before time, with an early return to the country of origin, can be put down to the fact of the family’s lack of adaptation in the host country. This involves a cost for the company, which ranges from 250,000 to 2.5 million dollars for each contract terminated before time (Source: Brookfield Global Relocation, 2010).

Apart from the costs for the company, of particular relevance are the personal costs that an expatriation experience can cause. According to a survey by Sofres in 2008, almost one couple in three ends in divorce as a result of expatriation, and the percentage of divorces among expats is 49% higher than the figure for sedentary couples.

This does not play down the fact that expatriation can be a huge opportunity to reinvent oneself and to reinforce the union in expat couples.
What are the main success factors?

  • To be absolutely agreed over the move abroad

    For the success of the experience, it will be essential for both to be absolutely convinced that they want to move away. When the first difficulties arise, prior agreement makes it possible to avoid putting the blame on the other for the choice made, which will inevitably occur. In the event that the partners see that they do not share the same enthusiasm for the project, prior agreement makes it possible to deal with any possible resentment that may arise in a milder way.

  • Alignment of the couple’s expectations before moving away

    Companies often propose specific cultural training in their relocation package, depending on the destination country, training that is undoubtedly vital, but seldom do they offer coaching sessions in which the couple has the possibility to express its own expectations, aligning its objectives prior to the move. The trend is to express only the logistics aspects of the move, keeping aside the life expectations of each individual in the couple, expectations which, in the absence of dialogue, can be diametrically opposed once they arrive at the destination. Expatriation is a family project and will only be a success if dealt with in this manner. To achieve this, some "renegotiating" is essential in the relationship of the couple and objectives unit in order to allow each member of the family to obtain the expected benefits from this complex, enriching experience. This can be done autonomously or with the help of an expert, but there will be a need to express one’s own expectations and compare them with those of the partner in order to build a family project: it is essential to live the adventure in the best possible way.

  • Keep in mind the basic principles of a healthy relationship

    Some principles are basic to any relationship, but they become all the more essential for expat couples: exchange, respect, support, equality and a reasonable degree of certainty. It is vital that the decisions are taken jointly, that there is a team spirit, even though there may only be one responsible for financially supporting the family, that there be respect for the other person’s role and support in dealing with the reciprocal difficulties of adaptation. Finally, there must be a reasonable certainty, especially for the partner who leaves everything to follow the other: the certainty of not being abandoned when the first problems arise.

  • Cultivate and improve some individual qualities

    Specifically, important factors are curiosity, acceptance of others, constant learning, opening up to what is new, the search for new opportunities for growth, leaving criticism aside.

  • Take the opportunity to reinvent oneself

    Some expat partners manage, with effort and investment in time and training, to relocate themselves professionally in the new country. In other cases, the partner who follows the other does not have the opportunity to work due to a problem with acknowledgement of academic qualifications or because the visa does not allow it. There are a thousand ways of remaking oneself and of finding a lost meaning again: by inventing a new profession for oneself, which may be "mobile", thanks to the new technologies; by devoting oneself to a hobby that has been forgotten due to a lack of time or perhaps make a hobby become a business opportunity; by devoting oneself to an artistic or cultural activity, to voluntary work or to humanitarian causes. The important thing is to avoid burning out and to activate all the resources that each one of us has, and to do so is hard due to dismay. On our own or with professional support, it is possible to build a new life project and get the maximum benefit from the experience abroad.

Needless to say, all this is easier to carry out if we abandon the idea of the "dual career" in a chronological logic. What I mean here is, if one of the two partners considers that his own personal and professional development is measured by "acquiring and developing new competencies", such as languages, adaptability, reactivity, the ability to manage and interact. Competencies that could be reutilized in new contexts or on the return to the country of origin

What about you? How have you lived or how are you living your expat experience? Has your family adapted easily? What advice can you give to those who are getting ready to move away?

Read the articles on Expats and the world of Intercultural Mind

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