Spouse Support Can Make or Break Expat Assignments

Relocating spouses and families play a crucial role in the decision-making and well-being of expat employees. Addressing their integration abroad is a key driver to successfully manage global mobility because an unhappy partner is not only a reason for a failed foreign assignment or international placement, it has also become the main concern of future mobile employees to accept a job offer or an assignment across borders. As relocating spouses have specific needs, employers should implement well-rounded relocation programs to help them settle in abroad and prevent foreign assignment and international placement failure.


The successful or failed integration of relocating spouses can make or break a foreign assignment or international placement. Offering spouse support responds to the business goals of companies, as expat employees are more productive when their partners and families are happy abroad. It also sustains employer branding strategies, as for the new generation of expat employees, work-life balance is paramount. However, to be successful, relocation programs for expat spouses need to address the specific needs of this expat type. Placed in an unknown culture, with no access to a social community or professional network, relocating spouses require special social support to settle in abroad, not only during the onboarding phase but throughout the expat lifecycle.



Defining Spouse Support

To effectively support relocating spouses, human resources and global mobility teams need to better understand the specific needs of this expat type. According to the Expat Insider 2018 Business Edition, the largest share of expat spouses is female at 86%. Most of them take care of their families and households or look for a job, despite being highly qualified at a university or post-graduate level.

As many relocating spouses are not exposed to a work network, the lack of personal support is the main reason for unhappiness abroad for this expat type, while social and networking opportunities, along with access to an expat community, represent their most desired types of relocation support.

[Infographic] Relocating Spouses in Numbers

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Top Challenges for Relocating Spouses

When moving abroad, relocating spouses leave behind their friends, families, and securities, just like their partners. But unlike them, many relocating spouses also give up their careers, which can lead to a sense of frustration and a lack of purpose.

Feeling dependent on their partners, both socially and economically, can further increase their unhappiness abroad. Feelings of loneliness and isolation can also escalate — while expat employees benefit from networking opportunities within the workplace, social integration is more challenging for relocating spouses, who tend to spend more time at home. This also hinders access to authentic experiences abroad, making relocating spouses more prone to be trapped in the expat bubble.

Culture Shock Mainly Affects Relocating Spouses

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Benefits of Spouse Support for Companies

Offering spouse support can help to increase expat employees’ productivity because when relocating spouses are happy with life abroad, it greatly affects their partners' performance.

Relocating spouse support can also be used by employers as a way of encouraging workforce global mobility, as the potential disruption to the career of their relocating partner is one of the top reasons for employees not accepting international placements or foreign assignments. Supporting relocating spouses can also be a tool for companies to foster their employer branding strategy, as offering spouse support adds to their image of being an employer of choice.

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Employment Support for Relocating Spouses

While expat employees start a new career chapter abroad, relocating spouses are often concerned about their professional future. Many  relocating spouses face a number of cultural, linguistic, legal, and practical challenges when looking for a new job abroad.

Therefore, they need employment support in many different forms, such as job-finding services,  development of résumés, employer communications, language classes, information on professional licenses, networking, as well as coaching on country-specific interviewing customs.

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Social Support for Relocating Spouses

Spouse support should be well-planned and executed to meet the specific needs of this expat type — with a special focus on social integration support. Lacking access to a professional network is particularly challenging to settle in abroad.

Relocating programs for this expat type also needs to be personalized. For example, foreign assignments or international placements in remote locations can place heightened pressure on the ability of relocating spouses to adapt and thrive — both personally and professionally. Furthermore, relocation support for expat spouses is not only needed during the onboarding phase, but throughout the expat lifecycle, as their level of unhappiness and culture shock usually increases after the honeymoon phase — as highlighted in the Expat Insider 2018 Business Edition.

Culture Shock Mainly Affects Relocating Spouses

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The Future of Spouse Support

Spouse support represents an integral part of any successful relocation program — a trend that is set to gain momentum, as partner and family happiness is paramount for the younger generation of expat employees. Millennials want personal growth, as well as a healthy social life outside of work — not just the next career step. And they want this for their partner and family too.

The growing number of dual-career couples and the rise of professional ambitions on both sides of a relationship bring along a challenge, with more and more foreign assignments and international placements being rejected out of concern for the partner's career. New technologies and innovative solutions can help employers to address the ever-changing needs of the global workforce, advocating for a solution-oriented mindset that can help international companies to create better relocation packages for expat employees and their families.

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