I sometimes get emails or Facebook messages from my readers and I can’t tell you how happy I am when that happens. I am especially honoured and touched when you turn to me for advice. This particular post was inspired by a reader question and the post “7 Secrets of Trailing Spouses”, which in fact aren’t really secrets.
There is a lot of information for trailing spouses out there. But one, very important part of their support group is completely left out: their partners. The very reason they left their careers and their home countries. Maybe this is why my reader contacted me and asked for advice: not only was he a new expat, but also all the advice out there was meant either for men (at their workplace), or for women (through expat support groups, playgroups, etc.), but not for couples.
While the majority of trailing spouses are male, this isn’t about being a wife, a husband, a woman or a man. This is about trailing spouses getting the support they need. This is about couples supporting each other. What I wrote here, you can apply to your situation, wherever you are a female or a male trailing spouse, his or her partner. Some of this advice also applies to non-expat couples.
So how can husbands support trailing spouses? Here are some tips:
1) Learn about culture shock and its stages: honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and mastery. You can’t prevent them, but you can make them easier- for you and your wife. Being informed about these stages will help you understand why your wife is upset- and remember that you don’t have to go through these stages all at once. They don’t have to follow one after the other, and sometimes you can be at a different stage than your wife, so keep that in mind. Try also not to overestimate culture shock- for example, when I arrived in the Netherlands, I just had a baby 6 weeks ago, haven’t slept for ages, had to figure out how this baby works. I considered moving finally finding my freedom, and instead of getting worse- as it should be after the honeymoon stage, they got better because my daughter slept better.I don’t think I followed these stages, but rather my well-being coincided with my feeling whether what I was doing worked for my child or not.
2) Introduce her to your friends and colleagues: they may be the first friends she’ll make in her new country, and may answer her questions and provide different perspectives. Another good idea is to check out expat organizations, parent groups, and meetings your wife may attend to- that way you will get to know her friends- and she may make friends for herself. Additionally, if you’re staying in your country, let her be a part of your support system, but let her have the say in who can help her and how.
3) Listen and support her decisions to her. I know that having a career in another country can be hard but please make the room to listen to your wife. You don’t need to know everything or provide all the answers. Just be there and listen. Support her decisions whether to work- full or part-time, or stay at home- if your finances allow that. Help out with parenting and household chores.
4) Go back to see family in your wife’s country- and let her family stay with you if possible. I can’t tell you how happy I am when my parents and my brother come to visit, or when we go back to Poland. It helps me get even a little taste of my home country; my children get a chance to speak more Polish. It is perfect. My husband is very supportive of this and I can’t tell you how much that helps me when I am feeling homesick.
5) Create your own family culture. It will probably a mixture of all the elements from your respective cultures and maybe some element from your new home, but it will be uniquely and specifically, your own. That means it will be something that will bring you together as a family, and will make you feel special.
6) Find a good work-family balance. While it is usually the male partner who works and the female partner who stays at home, I believe that a healthy work-life-family balance is important for men, too. This balance, however has various meanings for various families. In my case, my husband works long hours sometimes, and I stay at home. But I know expat men who work from home, or double-income families. Each one needs to find their own balance.
7) Do things together, but have your own lives, too. Go out on dates (with or without the children), watch movies or TV series, talk. It doesn’t have to be super fancy. Just make time for yourselves as a couple. Celebrate birthdays, anniversaries or whatever you feel like celebrating. It doesn’t matter. Just remember that spending time apart from each other is important as well.
8) If anything else fails, try counselling as a couple. Being an expat can put a strain on a marriage, especially if one of the partners gives up (mostly) her job to be with the other. Also, the lack of a support system is also hard to deal with for most couples. Additionally, if there are expatriation services, they are mostly tailored towards the working husband or the trailing spouse, but not for the couple. Luckily, expats now have a wide variety of counsellors to choose from, especially in countries with a vibrant expat community such as the Netherlands.
9) Be aware of cultural relationships but try not to overestimate them. Of course, if you’re from two different countries and cultures, there may be more risk for miscommunication, cultural misunderstandings or issues. Be aware of them. However, sometimes things we consider cultural are actually a matter of character, differing opinions, different parenting philosophies, or other reasons. So don’t explain everything away by cultural differences, as you may be more inclined to mention stereotypes instead of looking for the real reason why something happened.
I hope these tips were helpful. What are the ways you support your spouse? How would you like to be supported?