Trailing Spouses and Other Dependants

by | June 17, 2010

If you want to know how an international assignment is really going, ask your spouse. It is well known that the success or failure of a stint abroad can depend largely on the contentment of trailing family members. Below you will find some personal insights gathered from our candidates throughout Asia regarding the practicalities of a move abroad and what helps dependents make the adjustment to a new life. While no single solution will work for everyone, the following suggestions have worked very well for our candidates overseas.

Learn as much as possible about daily life before you leave.

One of our candidates in Hong Kong highly recommends that, if possible, go on a fact-finding trip before you make the move. This may be best completed when you are visiting the location for interviews. You may be fortunate enough to find a home on these initial visits, but even if not, at least you will have an idea of what is available and what you may wish to pack or leave behind. If you have children, be sure to take lots of pictures to show them and pique their interest. This can often help with pre-trip nerves in that it will help you and your family know what to expect, what a new home may look like, where they might go to school, or what the shops and surrounding streets look like. Language lessons can also help, and don’t sneer at any offer for cross-cultural training-it can really help.

One of the Cypress legal recruiters who practiced in Asia remarks that there are several books available about being an ex-pat in a given market. He practiced in Tokyo and read at least 10 books on various topics about living abroad, from daily conveniences and social norms, to doing business. While you will likely be unable to pick up a foreign culture’s more subtle nuances from a book, they are a great starting place. He also recommends learning as much of the language as possible before making the move. He used CDs and classes to learn Japanese. By the time he arrived in Japan, he was able to have at least basic conversations, which gave him the confidence to explore the foreign place right away. The same can ring true for you spouse and children.

Share the burden of the move.

It is inevitable that you will experience pressures from and obligations to your existing or new employers, but recognize that there is a huge amount of work involved in an international move. The process of packing up and leaving one country is a huge task in itself, particularly if you have a house to rent out or sell or children to consider; the settling in and unpacking in a new and strange environment is quite another thing. Most employers will recognize these needs and allow you to support your spouse in this process.

Work out which traditions are important to you as a family and stick to them.

Once you have moved to a foreign country, you may feel the need to adopt all the local practices. You will certainly get more from your assignment if you learn about local traditions and respect them. One of our candidates in Hong Kong noted that while it can be fun to participate in unfamiliar festivals and to eat exotic food in an unfamiliar culture, you don’t need to feel that your own traditions are valueless in your new environment. Observing the practices that are important to you, however small, can assist in feeling a strong sense of identity. Understanding your own culture and looking at it objectively can also help you view the practices of others more sympathetically.

Don’t make judgments until you have unpacked your belongings.

Before you leave, you may have preconceived notions that your life in a foreign country will be similar to life at home. While you may accept that the general population is of a foreign and largely differing culture, you may be clinging to the thought that you will find like-minded friends within the ex-pat community and continue to live your life pretty much as you know it. This may involve sourcing familiar products from international shops and sticking to your usual routines. Alternatively, you may have decided that the only way to be accepted and to learn from the experience is to try to assimilate yourself into the local community. In reality, you will probably find your new life to be a combination of the two. You will discover your own way to match up what you know with the opportunities for cultural exchange, but don’t expect to find the right balance immediately. One of our candidates in Beijing noted that you shouldn’t feel like a failure if your ideals of integration fall instantly flat because you (or your spouse) want to burst into tears in the supermarket when frustrated by an inability to buy a recognizable vegetable. Don’t despair just because the first ex-pat you meet doesn’t instantly invite you for a home-cooked meal in their apartment. Treat the time it takes for your furniture to arrive (which can be a couple of months) as a working holiday, and don’t expect to feel at home until you are surrounded by your personal effects. If you spend your early weekends exploring together and enjoying the experience rather than working at establishing friendships and becoming frustrated when chance meetings don’t instantly turn into a meaningful relationship, you will find yourself settled in before you know it. There will inevitably be several dull administrative tasks to be accomplished, but a bit of sightseeing and the occasional long lunch can do wonders for morale. Also, consider renting furniture or living in a serviced apartment until your furniture arrives; a long stint in a hotel can be very wearing if you are not working.

Find something to help your spouse feel that their life isn’t on hold.

Many trailing spouses have careers in their own right that may at times feel like they are being sacrificed for the experience. Take some time to discuss what they want to get out of the international assignment. He or she may want to sign up for a language course, learn a new skill, or further their career at home by undertaking a distance-learning course. They may want to look for a job in your destination country if the relevant visa regime allows it, or to do some voluntary work. They may want recognition that the opportunity to spend time with your children is just that-an opportunity. Don’t let them just be the trailing spouse or they will resent the move in the inevitable moments of homesickness. Remember, that as you are instantly swept up into the excitement and camaraderie of the new job, your spouse may be bereft of their support network from home and more reliant on you for their social life than previously. You may not be able to think of anything worse than spending the weekend with your work colleagues, but it may be the best way for your spouse to make friends in the early stages.

Allow for reminiscences about home.

Children can be reluctant to embrace the new. This is, we think, the way some young children cope with change. They cling to the familiar until the new has ceased to be threatening. In our experience, it is easier to allow for a small amount of quasi-mourning, provided it doesn’t become an obsession, rather than forcing the issue of adapting to a new life. Once they are busy and fulfilled, the reminiscences grow less desperate and increasingly fond. Obviously, each child will adapt in their own way depending on their personality and their age.

Enjoy the challenges and the experience together.

Most of all, make the most of your time abroad. Whatever the contract says, you don’t know how long your assignment will last and where you will be headed to next, so make sure you visit as many places as possible and enjoy the discoveries together.


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Dawn P. Robertson, Esq. is the managing partner of Cypress Recruiting Group. She graduated from Harvard Law School in 1997 and the University of Pennsylvania summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. After law school, Ms. Robertson lived abroad and traveled extensively throughout Asia. Ms. Robertson was a corporate associate at both Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver and Jacobson and later, Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler. Ms. Robertson works primarily out of our New York, Hong Kong and Tokyo offices.

In 2001, Ms. Robertson saw a need for a legal recruiting firm to service the growing needs of both expats and foreign qualified attorneys hoping to practice in Asia. Given the nature of these often confusing and complex emerging markets, Ms. Robertson wanted to provide reliable and up-to-date cultural, legal and market information to the growing number of attorneys entering these markets. Ms. Robertson envisioned a solution from an entirely fresh perspective and launched Cypress Recruiting to guide and consult attorneys rather than focus on just filling particular job opportunities. Ms. Robertson has watched the markets mature over the years and is known for her expertise and the unique, professional and honest approach that she brings to the legal recruiting industry.

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