“Strengthening the Expat Partner — the Backbone of Assignment Success”

Katharina von Knobloch, an Expat Partner Coach supporting women in transition around the world, answers some key questions about relocating spouses and why they need to be better managed and supported by employers.

1. You aim to change labels such as “expat wife” and “trailing spouse” and shed light on their missed potential. Why?

The missed potential in the management of expat partners was the trigger that got me involved in expat management. There is a considerable gap between the highly competitive profiles of expat partners and the percentage of women ending up in a prosperous career during their time abroad. More than 70% of expat partners are highly educated with a higher education qualification of four years or more. The majority speaks over three different languages and has used her time abroad to foster new skills. Moreover, expat partners who managed to adapt to a foreign culture show a high degree of intercultural competence and are role models of change management.

On the other side, only 20% of expat partners are able to continue their career abroad. This is a very small percentage in modern times where dual-career couples are the new norm. Many are working as volunteers or somewhere they can pass the time. Only a few manage to earn more after their return home or enter a higher management position.

This expat is often referred to as the "trailing spouse". This label does not do her justice at all. We should not forget that this spouse is an expat like her partner and not an appendix who got dragged along. She is the backbone of the whole adventure of going abroad for a company assignment and should be respected for this by being seen as a person with skills and needs herself. Pausing one's own career to support the partner abroad should not be taken for granted.

2. Why is your focus specifically on women?

About 80% of expat partners are still female. This number is only changing slowly, and I am not expecting a huge change over the next ten years. While more and more companies are pushing women into positions where they become visible as high potentials to be sent abroad, they often forego this opportunity. There are several reasons behind this hesitation. Studies show that women are more worried about their partner's career than men and hesitate to become the primary breadwinner. Family planning is another trigger to postpone such opportunities.

The bottom line: Women feel that they have to decide between family or an international career and struggle to combine the two, which leads to this high amount of female expat partners.

3. What misconceptions about relocating spouses and their expat journey would you like to set straight?

In the past, the focus on expat support packages was based on the family situation. Companies are supporting the move including finding a kindergarten, school, or family-friendly neighborhood. The fact that the spouse herself gave up a career to move abroad was mostly neglected. Today, companies offer language courses, CV training, and help with the work permit to show support. However, most expat partners are highly educated and ambitious. They don't need help with their CV translation or learning the language, but they urgently need access to a network and someone who gives orientation during this time.

The number one reason for an early return of expatriates is still the unhappiness of the partner. Professional fulfillment is one crucial factor to this happiness and can't be compensated for by a nice house or material things. Just like everyone else, expat partners want to be needed, they want to grow, and they want to contribute to society. This can't be bought with a simple translation of a CV. Their challenges need to be taken seriously.

4. What types of personal and psychological challenges do relocating spouses face?

Expatriation brings change to the expat partner's life in every dimension you can think of. From the outside, cultural challenges and the missing network of friends and family are easily spotted. Everyone can resonate with this by imagining how it would feel to live far away from home. However, expatriation brings change to some other areas most expat partners did not expect before going abroad. The dynamic within the relationship will most likely change. Most expats have to learn to adapt to new roles within the family and discuss the changed financial situation so that both parties will continue to feel equal. Most expat partners will experience a loss of financial independence they have not been used to in a dual-career couple scenario.

Yet, one of the biggest struggles is the loss of identity. Many partners are driven by the acknowledgment they get from their career. Our professional life is much more than earning money and going to work from nine to five. Working also gives us feedback and acknowledgment for our skills and projects. When this part is taken away, expats feel lost. This leaves many expat partners with a void that must be filled somehow. Expatriation offers the possibility to leave the hamster wheel and walk off the beaten path. However, it needs a lot of reflection to turn the newfound freedom into something that feels fulfilling and not overwhelming. Expat partners will go through a circle of cultural shock but also through a personal cycle of reinventing themselves all over again.

5. Based on these challenges, what types of support are crucial for relocating spouses?

It takes a lot of reflection to give your life a new direction that feels right to you. The most beneficial way to address those issues is expat partner coaching. Expat partners need someone who is familiar with the personal obstacles of moving abroad and who can function as a sounding board and mirror during this intensive time. They need to feel understood but challenged at the same time. An expat coach is able to put the partner back into the driving seat and empower her to see expatriation as an opportunity to embrace.

Coaches can also function as an accountability partner over a more extended period against the risk of feeling undermined when plans do not work out. Next to coaches, networks are highly effective to bring new ideas and possibilities into the life of expat partners. I am recommending companies to cover fees for professional and leisure networks and to research local organizations. While the costs of coaching and network access are only marginal for companies, the effect will be huge for the individual.

6. What gaps for improvement in spouse support would you like to highlight to employers?

Ask your employees for feedback and develop your package over time. Most HR departments I am talking to are willing to improve their packages but lack the creativity to think from an expat partner's mindset. Without having lived abroad for a longer time, it is hard to imagine what expat partners might need. Hence, I recommend getting in contact with the expat partner directly. I highly recommend expat partner coaching before the relocation. This way, the partner already has a go-to source when not feeling well during the expatriation.

7. Why should employers go the extra mile to support relocating spouses?

Most companies are aware of the fact that the spouse is the number one reason for an early return. An early return is not only costly for the company as it puts work projects and international relationships in danger, but it is also critical for the company's reputation of its international assignments. However, this is not the only reason why companies should focus on expat partner support. Studies show that short-term assignments often lead to long-term expatriation. The support of the partner will lead to an open-minded attitude towards this development.

If companies start to foster a location-independent career lifestyle for the expat partners, they get high performing, resilient, and flexible managers in return. Remember that you are not only sending abroad your employee, but the whole family. Strengthening the expat partner in resolving her identity dilemma will be the backbone of the overall assignment success, and it does not come with a huge price tag but smaller gestures at the right time.

Think about expat partner coaching in the beginning and continuous support with local networks during expatriation, and you will have a more competitive expat partner package than most companies have at the moment.

Katharina von Knobloch_Expat Spouse CoachAbout the Expert: Katharina von Knobloch is an Expat Partner Coach helping women in transition around the world. She is on a mission to empower relocating spouses to find their own professional identity. As an expat partner herself, she has lived and worked in five different countries and has used her own experiences in combination with her coaching education and research in the field of expatriate management to make the modern challenges of expat partners more transparent. She also has a blog called Share the Love.