What I Learned From My Career Change as an Expat Partner – And What Every Expatriate Employer Should Consider

In year 2017 my family moved from Finland to Germany. Like in the majority of the cases, it was my husband who was recruited to another country. I followed with our two boys, leaving my own – if I may say quite nice – career behind. Here’s what happened then, and what learnings I can give further to any company sending employees abroad or recruiting internationally.

I had been working in the arts and media field for almost 17 years: as a producer, as a journalist, even as a musician myself. I had experienced some pretty exciting things through my work. My employer at the time, the Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle, was a place where many would have wanted to work, if only given the chance.

And five years ago I gave all this up just to experience the adventure of living in another country.

But to be quite honest, not only because of that. I had been in the middle of some sort of career identity crisis for some time and moving abroad was of course the perfect chance to take a time out to consider my options. As I said, my career wasn’t all that bad, so I think I probably wouldn’t have been brave enough to make huge changes without the relocation. Isn’t it a paradox – for me, moving abroad was far less of a courageous act than going through with big career changes right where I was!

Now, after five and a half years, I have moved from being an Arts and Media Producer in Finland to a Coach and Director People & Culture in Germany. I did seek out help from different instances, but for the most part I did it all myself. That’s why I think every company sending or receiving employees internationally should not leave the expat partners without career support. Let me tell you why.

Career Dissatisfaction of the Partner Can Destroy the Whole Relocation – Or the Marriage

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Like me, most of the expat partners have to give up a lot in order to support their partner on their international career. In my case there was a willingness for a career change on my part. And still I wanted to hit myself many times when I thought about what I had given up.

Highly skilled employees usually come with highly skilled partners, and when the “giving something up” is the predominant feeling, together with the feeling of not being able to realise your own professional identity, the dissatisfaction slowly becomes too big. At that point it might become a question of whether to stay in the new country at all. Obviously this kind of a situation has a huge impact on the partnership and the whole family.

An expatriate partner’s success in the adjustment is a key to the success of the whole expatriate assignment.

This isn’t just a general observation. Research has in fact shown that an expatriate partner’s success in the adjustment is a key to the success of the whole expatriate assignment (Herleman et al. 2008).

Unsupported Expat Partner Is an Equality Issue

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It’s not only the career that the expat partner gives up. What about this list of things that gets thrown away, just like that:

  • Earning your own money
  • Your professional network
  • Your degree (if not recognised in the new country)
  • Your whole life structure
  • Daily social contact with people you know

And – even today, the majority of expat partners are women.

This is why I think that modern relocation assistance isn’t only paying for the move, giving language courses or helping to arrange child care. These are all fantastic services, and many don’t offer even this. But in year 2022 the career question should absolutely be a part of the relocation support process. It just isn’t modern to assume that the partner’s (woman’s) existence is fulfilled by supporting their husband’s international career. (Just to make clear: nothing wrong with that, I too enjoyed being there for my family full-time in the beginning.)

A Finnish researcher named Kaisu Kanstrén wrote her doctoral thesis in 2021 at the University of Vaasa (my home town, by the way) on expat partners‘ career identity. She came to the conclusion, that because of the resource losses expatriate partners experience, many of which I’ve listed here, it is highly recommended that the employing organisations take into consideration the partner’s employment situation, involving them in the planning and preparation phase both before the relocation and when returning to the home country if the relocation isn’t permanent.

The Expat Partner Experience is a Lonely Experience

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Although a person who moves abroad is courageous, adventurous, probably very resilient and good in communicating with people they don’t know, the whole experience is also a very lonely one.

While the employed partner is at work where they have their colleagues and their ready-made structure around them, the partner at home wakes up to a new day in a strange place and starts to tackle things like accommodating the children to a new daycare or school where they don’t understand anyone, communicating with landlords, repairmen, doctors, banks, grocery stores, insurance companies etc. in a new system and in a new language.

It’s not a walk in the park – or should I say cappuccinos in cafés, days of shopping and weekend trips. That too (yey), but for the most part it’s just everyday life. Only that this everyday life was just taken from difficulty level 1 to level 5, when at the same time your whole support network was taken away.

There are great services and networks today for expats and expat partners, like language schools for expat children, Facebook groups, get-togethers with other expats etc.

Still, the company could have an active role in this as well, offering support and contacts outside the “expat bubble“ that can really suck you in and exclude you from the local reality.

The Expat Partner Experience Could be a Great Career Chance

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This is a sentence I hear rarely. There are certainly many stumbling stones career-wise what comes to the expat partner experience.

But I am living proof that being an expat partner can take you into whole new career experiences that never would have been possible without moving abroad and leaving the former career behind.

The key is how you handle the career crisis that comes with being the expat partner. Yes, the crisis that comes, not the crisis that might come. I believe that the career and/or identity crisis is part of any expat partner experience. Crisis sounds negative, but of course it can be a positive crisis as well. My crisis was a positive one, but nevertheless, not an easy one.

And how to make the expat partner experience into a great career chance? CV writing courses are great, but these highly skilled partners can handle that. The real challenge is to get clear on what they actually want.

It’s about finding a career direction that genuinely inspires long-term. It’s about setting motivating goals and defining how to get there. It’s about finding a way that is as joyful as the destination.

I got an immense help from a coach that helped me to organise my thoughts and – most importantly – helped me to admit to myself what I really wanted. Now I am a coach myself (yes, as it turns out, that’s what I really wanted) and get to support men and women who are going through experiences similar to mine.

If there’s New Work and New Recruiting – why not also New Relocation? New Relocation begins already before the relocation, following through in the new country and even when returning, with coaching as one supporting tool. In my opinion, there are only wins in this approach, for everyone involved.

Did I get you interested in expat partner coaching? Read more on my private coachings and services for companies on lauralehtolacoaching.com.

Sources:

Kanstrén, Kaisu: Expatriate Partners – Career identity, career capital and subjective well-being perspectives (2021)

Elo, Maria; Aman, Raushan; Täube, Florian : Female Migrants and Brain Waste – A Conceptual Challenge with Societal Implications (2020)

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