You've Followed Your Loved One Across The Globe, Now What?

by Eimear Elkington

Nearly a year ago, my boyfriend came home announcing he’d been offered his dream job. The catch, however, was that it required a relocation to Singapore.

I was predictably overwhelmed and apprehensive at first (the extent of my Singapore knowledge consisted of a brief layover in Changi Airport), but once I got over the initial shock, the thought of being transferred overseas was exciting -- exhilarating, even.

I loved my life in Sydney, but I’d lived abroad before and was determined to travel as much as possible in my 20s.

It seemed like opportunity was knocking.

I imagined us drinking coconuts on South East Asian beaches and eating noodles at lively night markets, learning new languages, mastering chopsticks and absorbing all the new sights and sounds of a foreign city.

I even daydreamed about our future selves regaling our grandchildren with tales of our spontaneous Asian adventures.

What I didn’t imagine was isolation, glaring cultural differences and infuriating bureaucracy. I didn’t imagine the professional sacrifices I would have to make or the sometimes all-consuming homesickness.

And I certainly didn’t imagine that a strong, fiercely independent woman like myself would suddenly find herself a "trailing spouse."

While I wouldn’t necessarily trade in the Singapore experience, I have been challenged in surprising and unexpected ways.

For anyone who has followed, or is considering following, a love across the world, read on. You need to be as prepared as possible to negotiate the demanding and unpredictable expat journey ahead.

A note on the term "trailing spouse":

Essentially, trailing spouse refers to any person who follows his or her partner on an overseas assignment. Traditionally, the trailing spouse is a woman, although increasingly more men are also relocating for their partners' careers.

Just to be clear, trailing spouse is a phrase many people loathe, myself included. The term is simultaneously derogatory and demeaning, objectifying the recipient to little more than a possession, blindly following his or her partner across the world.

It also somehow conjures up clichéd images of overdressed expat women with coiffed hair drinking cocktails in the afternoon sun... Ha! I wish!

The early days of relocation:

For the first few weeks, the move is novel and exciting, like you’re on an extended holiday exploring and adventuring in a new city.

Then, for the following few months, you’re absorbed in setting up shop: finding a house, unpacking and general nesting in your new home.

For me, it wasn’t until the three-month point when the dissatisfaction settled in, when my lack of job prospects dawned on me and the challenge of making friends became clear.

The excitement and anticipation of an overseas move turned to loneliness and isolation. My sky-high expectations of South East Asian bliss came crashing down, and before I knew it, I was eating ice cream out of the tub at 4 pm in my pajamas.

For anyone moving to a new city and culture, the transition can be rocky lead to feelings of bitterness, disorientation and pessimism.

Couple this with homesickness, problems with career abandonment and lack of a social network, and the road ahead can seem very bleak indeed. Acclimation does happen, but it’s a slow process, and is especially difficult if you are totally financially, socially and emotionally reliant on your partner.

Culture shocks:

Some degree of culture shock is to be expected with any international move. There are the glaring differences -- language, geography, etiquette and religion -- as well as the smaller cultural surprises, like how queuing works differently in other countries, or the varying ways in which people show respect. For me, it was people laughing at my seemingly-gargantuan feet whenever I tried to buy shoes.

For the partner who is working, the culture shock can be diminished because he or she has a fixed routine, and will likely be working with other expats so he or she can gain comfort from shared behavioral norms.

Accompanying partners rarely enjoy this luxury and have to dive head-first into the wash of foreign culture from day one. The new, unfamiliar way of life can cause personal disorientation, which is then heightened by isolation and worry.

Gender roles abroad:

Adapting to a new country and culture is compounded by sometimes unavoidable changes to status and identity.

While one partner’s career is skyrocketing, the other may find he or she is unable to attain a work visa – despite how successful he or she was back home. For many working professionals, the transition to domestic life can be frustrating and unfulfilling.

Women in foreign cultures may also struggle with different family responsibilities, social restrictions and changing gendered expectations of their role in society.

There is also a tendency for people to perceive female expat spouses as helpless, spoiled Stepford Wives, rather than intelligent and capable modern women.

Trials and challenges:

There may be many difficulties with international relocation, both expected and unexpected. There are the obvious professional sacrifices and language barriers, as well as family tension, which is only heightened if you are making the move with dependents.

Many accompanying spouses also struggle with a lack of social network and loss of identity without their familiar professional, education and familial accomplishments.

For me, one of the hardest parts of the Singapore experience was accepting the decisions I had made. It was my choice to relocate; no one dragged me kicking and screaming onto that plane. But while my partner and I had made the decision mutually, the consequences of the move were not equally shared.

While he reveled in his new job responsibilities and fat paycheck, I found myself bored, unfulfilled and (if I’m being honest) resentful.

Needless to say, this set of circumstances put added strain on the relationship. I realized how I had taken my life back home for granted – friends, family, job security. Suddenly, I’d give anything for those things.

Yet, as in many situations, forewarned is forearmed, and it is vital for both the transferee and the accompanying partner to address these concerns if the international experience is going to improve.

Relocation trends demonstrate that the happiness and satisfaction of an accompanying partner has a huge impact on the success and longevity of a foreign work placement.

Tips for surviving your first year:

The number one thing to remember is that preparation is key. Research the country you’re traveling to and if possible, take a trial trip on holiday first. Know what to expect and don’t jump in blindly – like I, and so many others before you, have done.

-Learn how to use public transport and local taxis as soon as possible. There’s nothing worse than being stuck at home all day.

-Within the first few weeks, aim to find all of your essential services: supermarkets, gyms, cinemas and somewhere to get a decent coffee.

-Get a phone with a local number and WiFi. Believe me when I say Google Maps will be your new best friend.

-While you’re not working, find a way to give structure to your days; exercise, social dates or volunteering are all great ideas.

-If you are aiming to work, be prepared to accept a more junior role or less pay if need be.

-Join an expat friendship group or a sports team, ideally before you even arrive. Having some social dates booked into your calendar does wonders for your sense of self.

-Spend your time developing other skills or hobbies. Take up painting, blogging or try learning the local language

-Consider using the time to study for academic or professional qualifications. You’ll learn a new skill and meet new people.

-Research online. There is a veritable feast of expat resources available once you start Googling.

-Travel as often and as widely as you can. Make the most of being in a new part of the world and see as much of the country as possible.

Becoming an accompanying spouse can be stressful and challenging, but can also give you great scope for self-enrichment and reinvention. You can let go of old grudges and habits and start fresh in a new city. Remember to go easy on yourself.

Realistically, it takes at least six months to feel content in a foreign country. You can’t expect to be living like a local from the moment you arrive.

If you can brave the distance, an international move could even bring you closer to your partner. As we head down the winding road to 30, real relationships become more important than "unreal" experiences.

In our 20s we search for adventure and excitement, but approaching 30, you start to realize the importance of strong relationships – with a person and a place.

Be honest with what’s right for you. An international move has the potential to broaden your horizons and your comfort zone, but if it’s not working, cut the cord.

Everyone has a different crunch time, but at some point, you have to do what’s right for you.

Photo Courtesy: Instagram