Navigating the Complex Dynamics of Spousal Employment in International Relocations

On paper, it sounds like a dream. Move to a foreign country. Experience a new culture, one that might come with perks like a year’s worth of paid parental leave. But, as I’ve heard from my network time and time again, the lifestyle expats get to embrace often comes with hardships for their spouses. Moving abroad for a job opportunity often means one partner takes on the primary work-related responsibility, while the other’s career takes a backseat. This imbalance puts pressure on a single paycheck in many instances and has the potential to generate resentment from the non-working, or trailing, spouse.

The US makes it particularly difficult for trailing spouses. In other countries such as France, Germany, and the UK, a clear pathway to work exists for the trailing spouse. But, if a person comes to the US to work on an H1-B or O-1 visa, the trailing spouse cannot work unless he or she gets their own visa, which can prove quite difficult. As one of my contacts rightly pointed out, it’s easier for companies to simply hire US citizens versus going through a visa process.

So, their person who is working often ends up needing to get a green card as quickly as possible, a notoriously laborious process. In the meantime, the pressure of maintaining the job generating the family’s income – and providing them with that visa – creates a massive amount of pressure. L1 visas allow workers to transfer from their company abroad to the US, and their spouses have the opportunity to work too. But, if they lose their visas, then the spouse loses the right to work as well and the entire house of cards falls apart.

In addition to this pressure around job security, lack of work can lead to lack of motivation and purpose, causing resentment to fester. While the entire family might feel cut off from pre-existing resources and connections, the working spouse will have the outlet of the office, a means of making new connections and acclimating to a new world order. Meanwhile, the trailing spouse, straddled to the domestic sphere, has only the confines of their home transplanted into a foreign setting. Expat Insider revealed that only 13% of traveling spouses were employed while abroad in 2018, underscoring this problem as a widespread one.

Remote work has helped mitigate some of these issues, creating more opportunities for trailing spouses to continue their careers – so long as they qualify for spousal visas. But while remote work might provide a sense of purpose and combat feelings of career stagnation, it fails to supply the sense of in-person community people often need in a new setting. People who work and live in their home country are less likely to develop depression, including traveling spouses. In the case of remote work, socialization still remains somewhat limited amidst a new environment, putting undue pressure on the working spouse to become all things to the trailing spouse. Meanwhile, the trailing spouse continues to feel isolated.

Another strategy? The one I advocate for? Consider a phased move. In my experience, it reduces the immediate pressure on everyone. It allows one member to adjust to the new country and start getting organized versus having to find a house, adjust to a job, and finding schools if they have children.

While navigating this inevitable transition, expat couples can and should take steps to prevent this dynamic from harming their relationship. In my years as a global recruiter, I’ve heard countless anecdotes from people who struggle to surmount this challenge – and ultimately make it work. From couples’ therapy to date nights to foreign language classes to friends-and-family FaceTimes to studying and developing new skills, get creative to keep the connection alive and build new roots abroad. It also doesn’t hurt for the trailing spouse to find alternative ways to get involved in the local community, from continuing education,book clubs to volunteer groups; this kind of entrenchment helps build connections, the kind of connections that ultimately have the power to lead to the ideal abroad job.  

By Sasha Martens