See how I adapted a well-known adage by throwing the word ‘expat’ in there? I would even go as far as to say that it’s MORE true that the original Happy Wife, Happy Life saying.
Let me explain:
Usually, in her home country environment, the wife has CONTROL over her life. She can vote. She can buy a house. She can open a bank account. She can apply for a job or leave a job. She can speak the language. She has a support network around her.
When she moves abroad as becomes an EXPAT wife, she effectively LOSES CONTROL of her life.
She is starting from scratch and although it sounds like a fabulous opportunity (and usually it is a fabulous opportunity) taking this road less travelled is – in the short term at least – far harder than sticking with the status quo that she left behind.
The number one reason expat postings fail is because the partner or trailing spouse is unhappy. Lonely, bored, can’t, shan’t, won’t adapt or has no idea how to.
I don’t need to read this in a survey or a newspaper. It’s a fact. It happens plenty.
Here are just a few of the possible misery factors the trailing spouse can and often will encounter in a new posting:
Language barrier. Loneliness. Depression. Loss of identity. Boredom. Isolation. Culture shock. Lack of understanding from working partner. Lack of support from company that has relocated them. Lack of positive mental attitude. Homesickness. Dawning realisation that an expat posting was not the magic plaster to stick a failing relationship back together. Fear. Stress. Inability to cope with change. Dislike of local food. Nervous of driving on the other side of the road. To shy to talk to strangers. Out of comfort zone. Loss of control.
Pick a reason from the list. Pick a few. Add to it. It’s not exhaustive.
Any of the above can be enough to tip the expat spouse over the edge. If they stay they will probably be miserable. Some prefer to pack their bags and return to their old life.
I realise that there are increasing numbers of Male Trailers out there and that this theory also applies to them. So we could alternatively go with Happy Expat Trailer avoids Posting Failure or even Happy Expat Spouse, Happy Expat House …but I digress.
Homesick Hildas, Part-Time Paulines and Nervous Nellies are usually lost causes from the outset of a posting, but they are not the norm. Many Trailing Spouses arrive very much wanting and hoping to enjoy themselves when they pitch up starry eyed at their first posting. Once their partner goes to work though and any children go to school they suddenly have a lot of unstructured time to fill. A lot of time. They don’t necessarily know how to go about building a new life and find themselves blindsided by the reality of their new situation, by the loss of control over their lives.
These expats are the ones that are most at risk of becoming Unhappy Expats.
The good news is that they also have the very great potential to become Happy Expats.
For all those shiny-eyed first times, here a 5 tips which you might find helpful.
5 Strategies to become a Happy Expat Spouse
1. Do something every day that scares you.
I don’t necessarily mean bungee jumping off the Orlando Cooling Towers in Soweto (although, if it works for you, go right ahead). I mean inviting a stranger for coffee (and by stranger I mean a parent from school or a fellow expat spouse, not a random bag lady on a street corner). Grab a map, make a plan and go to a museum. Go for a walk and maybe get a bit lost. Use public transport (or maybe not if you’re in Johannesburg). Basically take a small new step out of your comfort zone everyday until you have forged a new comfort zone encompassing your new surroundings.
2. Join in Everything
For the first few weeks, accept every invitation, go to every event, join classes and clubs – even if you only stay for 10 minutes and just show your face and grab a leaflet. You won’t stick at all of them, you won’t be friends with everybody, but something is bound to strike a chord and gradually you’ll find your diary filling up and your new life taking shape.
3. Leave the House every Day
Unless you are bed bound with the lurgy, don’t stay at home. Go to the supermarket (loitering in the aisles is a surprisingly effective way of finding friends – again I mean your contemporaries, not random bag ladies). Book a hair appointment (hairdressers are always chatty – use the time to ask them questions. You’ll also go home looking like you’ve just stepped out of a salon – which of course you have). Go and hang out in a coffee shop (take a book and watch the world go by).
Sitting at home alone will make it harder and harder to put yourself out there, I promise you it’s the worst thing you can do.
4. Connect with other Expats
There are usually a few out there and as much as you may want to connect with your new local community, it’s not always quick or easy, especially as most of them already have friends and a network and aren’t necessarily looking for a new bosom buddy.
If you have kids, you’re ahead of the game, particularly if they go to an International School. Kids are great friend makers.
If you don’t have kids or they’ve flown the nest, most big cities will have an informal organisation to gather expats together.
For example, in Johannesburg we have Explore Jozi in the Northern Suburbs and IWC in Bryanston. I also set up a Facebook group (a resource that surprisingly didn’t already exist when I arrived here) called Trailing Spouses Johannesburg it’s a great starting point when you arrive and have a bazillion questions and no actual friends to ask yet. Hopefully it will remain a helpful touchstone throughout expat postings in Joburg. If you’re an expat in Pretoria, I also started a sister group there called Pretoria Expats. If you are interested in finding a way to continue your career, you can check out Translating Me for events and courses or try Johannesburg Professional Women’s Roundtable.
So, if you’re moving somewhere new Google your new host country and/or city and if you can make contact with potential expat organisations before you even get on the plane, all the better.
5. Live in the Present
It’s easy to put things on hold – “when we go home” – “my friends back home are the best” – “when I go back to my old job”. Newsflash – you might think you’ve signed up for a two-year stint, but this life has a way of cajoling you to move onwards and upwards. You don’t want to suddenly look up 10 years down the line and realise that you’ve put off living and you’re still waiting to go home in order to kickstart you social life/career/ambition.
Sign up for an online course. Start volunteering somewhere. Take language classes. Invest in friendships. Find out how you can further any secret ambitions. Set yourself some goals.
So there you have it. 5 strategies new trailing spouses can use to get their new lives off the ground.
Expats, trailing spouses, expat employers, forewarned is forearmed.
Happy Expat Wife = Happy Expat Life
Miserable Expat Wife = Expat Trouble and Strife
Are you experiencing any of the above transitional issues? What can you do to help yourself? What advice can you give others? Did you get any advice or incentives from your partner’s company to make transition easier when you moved? Are you the working expat and is your partner struggling to cope? Have you asked them if they’re struggling? Please check if they’re struggling.