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Trailing spouses

By Ann-Maree Moodie

Moving overseas for a partner's job can be a challenge, writes Ann-Maree Moodie.

With the last of her three young sons at school, Mel was ready to resume her career as a human resources director. But just as she was offered a plum job, her husband was asked by his employer whether he'd accept a position in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The couple discussed the advantages and disadvantages of staying in Sydney or embarking on the family's first overseas posting. Two years later, with the boys settled in an international school, Mel's husband has renewed his contract with a European bank for another two years.

"When you both have equal careers and one of you is offered an overseas posting, it's going to be a challenge - you're going to have a pretty big discussion," says Mel, who has qualifications in mathematics and economics. "If one person is going to have to take a step back in their career, it can be very damaging for the relationship."

An organisational psychologist and inter-cultural specialist for Trans Cultural Careers, Trisha Carter, says a dual-career couple can find it difficult to decide because a posting for one can mean a career back-step for the other.

"There are certainly situations I've observed where the career challenges can create real tensions between the couple," Carter says.
"Often the promotion is taken because the supporting partner's career doesn't pay as much, or it doesn't have the [same] future opportunities as their spouse's career. The decision is made on rational economic grounds but that doesn't necessarily take away the frustration. Money is seldom compensation for work you love.

"I have also met couples where the wife had taken time out from work to look after the family and her husband's promotion came at a point when she was heading back to the workforce. In those situations there is certainly high tension.

"I always feel most positive about a family's chance of having a good experience on an overseas assignment if the supporting partner is showing enthusiasm for exploring the culture and seeing it as an opportunity to have an adventure or an opportunity for personal growth."

The founder and director of Newcomers Network and Global Mobility Network, Sue Ellson, says the decision whether to take a posting can depend on family obligations at home, especially if the couple have caring obligations for elderly parents.

"Some trailing spouses are initially excited by the new possibilities but then find out that without the support of friends and family - and regardless of the opportunities - they become lonely," Ellson says. "Some even become resentful of their partner, who may have most of their emotional needs met through the variety and status of their new role.

"Immigration regulations may also prevent some spouses from working and, after a while, there is only so much shopping and leisure time that you can consume."

Think Carrie in the final episodes of Sex and the City, when even the beauty of Paris couldn't stop her missing her girlfriends back in New York.

"I always encourage someone in a new environment to start or continue a hobby or interest that they enjoy," Ellson says. "Without the demands of family commitments and gatherings, they often have time to complete further study, to learn a new skill or search for more meaning in life."

Emerging nations often lack professional skills many expatriates can bring on a volunteer basis to orphanages and other organisations trying to help those in need. But be warned, the experience could be life-changing.
"Expatriates who work in emerging countries are often so inspired by the ability to make a big difference with small effort and they quickly lament the excesses of Western society and can find it really difficult to return to our luxurious Australian lifestyle," Ellson says.

Considering the needs of children is also an important factor in deciding whether to accept an overseas posting. Children under 10 generally cope better than teenage children, who have established networks of friends they might be reluctant to leave behind.
Regular trips home and the opportunity to catch up with old friends often convince the child their friendships can survive physical absence.

For Mel, her boys - now aged 14, 10 and eight - come first, so even when she was offered a job after the family settled in Brazil, she declined. Spending three hours a day in Sao Paulo's notorious traffic on top of a full day at work didn't seem worth it. Instead, she has enrolled in Pilates and painting classes. She isn't concerned about her future career options.

"I am well networked with senior people, so when we return to Sydney I'm sure a door will open for me if I work hard enough to find it," she says.

Ann-Maree Moodie is the managing director of Boardroom Consulting Group.

Published: 16 July 2011

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