For Expat Spouses, Moving Involves Sacrifice and Reinvention

Suitcases packed, everything is ready. Every year, couples find themselves moving from their home country to the another one somewhere else in the world. Often, one of the duo follows the other. Unexpected, these expatriations can be difficult for spouses, who sometimes have difficulty finding their role in the project of moving abroad.

Among couples following each other in moves abroad, gender parity is a far off fantasy. According to a study by Expat Communication and Humanis in 2017, 92% of the spouses following their partners are women. Far from having to envy those they accompany, 42% of these women speak two languages and 73% have a master’s or doctorate degree. However, professional integration is not an easy task, even for those moving to the United States who have a visa to work. “I have had between six and nine interviews for interesting positions, I was not hired. I ended up in a French company but I am far too qualified and experienced for my current position,” says Stéphanie Dauder, who moved for her husband working in luxury in New York.

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Finding work can take time and there are many barriers: child-rearing responsibilities, a limited network, uncertainty about the type of career you want. Amandine Plochat, on a J-2 visa, followed her researcher husband, recounts, “I was a self-employed home physiotherapist. I had to stop everything abruptly and leave. I can’t practice here in the U.S. I’m just going to start as a volunteer in my husband’s laboratory.” 28% of spouses consider expatriation to be a demotion in their career, 59% see it as a promotion and 30% as a sacrifice. Plochat has no regrets: “This is an opportunity for me, my job would not have allowed me this kind of experience. It’s a sacrifice but I’m glad to discover that it’s worth it.”

Often, spouses feel as if they are only a shadow of the other. Social integration is difficult. In a country where you find yourself without any anchors landmarks, staying home doesn’t help. “When we finished settling in, I was alone at home without a job. My husband met a lot of new people, he made friends very quickly,” says Plochat.

“You have to revisit your entire lifestyle,” admits Capucine Lamour. This 35-year-old woman joined her husband in the U.S. three years ago. “To integrate, I thought I would spend time with American women, go out, talk with them, but it doesn’t work that way here.” Trained as a psychologist, she has grown closer to the French community and has become a coach for the spouses of expatriates. “I have had very different cases from one to the next, but often the same issues come up again,” she says. Since then, this young mother has founded a Facebook support group for other French mothers in New York.

Eric Georges can be counted among the 8% of men who have followed their wives abroad, according to the Expat Communication study. After a move to Singapore, Georges followed his wife, a lawyer, to the U.S. on an L2 visa. “I had just started my purchasing consulting firm in Singapore when we had to leave for the United States. I had to start all over again, rebuild my network. It happens by meeting other French people,” he says.

Fortunately, these partners following their spouses are not alone. There are books to help couples and families prepare for their expatriation. Associations exist to support them abroad, like Accueils. Initiated by the FIAFE (Fédération International des Accueils Français et Francophones à l’Etranger), 195 of these Accueils groups are present throughout the world with the aim of welcoming, informing and integrating French expatriates abroad.

Accueil New York has welcomed more than 500 families. “We all went through this stage of integration at the beginning of the expatriation, our goal is to reassure the spouse,” explains Christel Grein, president of ANY. In Houston, four spouses of expatriates have created Houston Expat Pro, a professional network for spouses. “The idea came about because the expatriate’s spouse has to reinvent themselves every time [they move] and doesn’t know who to turn to, especially at the professional level,” explains Maylis Curie, president of Houston Expat Pro. Through networking sessions, meetings and workshops, the association has helped to launch entrepreneurship activities, often related to retraining.

Nevertheless, when asked if they were allowed to go back in time what they would do, all the spouses interviewed would move with their partners again without hesitation. “I’m with the person I love, that’s the most important thing to me. I’m learning to build my life around it,” affirms Lamour. “If I had to do it again,” says Dauder, “I would do it again for the quality of life, the joy of the children, the travels.”