Thinking About the Family When Moving Abroad


While moving abroad for work can be an exciting opportunity, it is also a daunting proposition, not just for the person being transferred, but for their family as well. And just as the assignee needs to do their research about the new country and culture, there needs to be a plan in place to help their spouse and children adjust too.

Let’s look at an example of a woman who moved abroad for work, but whose husband was not prepared for the change.

Pierrette, an executive at a Belgian manufacturing firm, was offered a temporary position overseeing the restructuring of a factory in Indonesia. She felt the three-year international assignment would bolster her career and be an exciting opportunity to learn about international business and Indonesian culture. Her husband seemed excited too. Before leaving Brussels, Pierrette researched the cultural norms in Indonesia and read up about business protocol there. Because she had prepared herself for the cross-cultural adjustment, she immediately began doing well in her new business environment, and was able to effectively communicate and collaborate with her new Indonesian colleagues and direct reports.

However, after the first month in Jakarta, Pierrette noticed increasing tension with her husband. He complained that she was not spending enough time with him, especially considering the many hours she spent on golf outings and company trips – even on the weekends.

Pierrette was not surprised that her husband felt she was not spending enough time with him. But at the same time, she understood that in Indonesian culture, which is being-oriented, it is important for businesspeople to spend time socializing together, even on the weekends, in order to establish strong, trusting relationships. She also wished he understood that, especially at the beginning of a new assignment, it is important to put in long hours in order to establish one’s presence in the new office.

It is common for spouses of expatriates to have more difficulty adjusting to the new culture than the expat. This is partly because the expat is occupied with work and is developing business relationships in the new location. Oftentimes, a spouse will not be able to work due to local government restrictions on non-residents, so a concerted effort must be made to find ways for the spouse to make new associations and find activities he or she enjoys.

Pierrette spoke to an HR representative in her company, who suggested her husband join a club of Europeans living in Jakarta. While her husband protested at first – he insisted that what he wanted was more time with Pierrette, not with strangers – he went to a group dinner with members of the club, and thoroughly enjoyed himself. After making some friends among the European expats in Jakarta, he also started feeling more comfortable venturing out on his own, and made some Indonesian friends and connections as well. It wasn’t long before he even secured himself a part-time consulting job at a French-language company with an office in the city.

While Pierrette’s husband eventually started feeling comfortable in his new environment, he and his wife could have prepared better by addressing the possible feelings of alienation and loneliness that spouses of expatriate employees often feel when relocating to a new working environment. Preparation is key – for all members of the family.