A Response to “Threatened Identities” from the Journal of Global Mobility

“The inability of an accompanying spouse to adjust to life abroad has been the most frequently cited cause of failure in international assignments.” (Tung, 1987; Cartus Corporation, 2014) … “The spouse can be an influential source of either stress or support for the expatriate (Lauring and Selmer, 2010; Lazarova et al., 2010) making “the adjustment of the expatriate spouse…an issue of concern in the management of the expatriate relocations, whether company assigned or self-initiated.”

It was 2014 when I first met Ted and Karl (given American names to protect their identities).  As a culture, language, and business consultant serving in the ex-pat space for over ten years, I had the opportunity to meet, support and even befriend numerous ex-pats like Ted, Karl and their families.  A unique perspective, which made me privy to personal details that even their bosses were not.  The ex-pat’s equivalent to the bartender/customer or therapist/patient dynamic.

Ted was a quiet but somewhat rigid man in his early thirties with an intelligent wife whose professional acumen rivaled his own in their home country.  As a top performer in his company, with significant statistical experience that had served the organization’s bottom line well, and above average English skills, he was a prime candidate for re-location to the United States.

Karl was more outgoing, also in his early thirties with a young wife and two infant children.  Due to his outgoing nature and excellent cultural and communication skills, he too, was a top candidate for re-location, adding greatly to the performance of his multi-national company.

But this story isn’t really about Ted and Karl is it?  That’s the truth that most organizations, who are re-locating professionals on an annual basis, fail to see.  The real story revolves around Alice and Emma – because Alice and Emma ultimately determined the outcomes of these “failed” re-locations.

Case Study 1: Alice and Ted

“Without the benefit of continuity provided by work-life, (Brown, 2008), expatriate spouses have recently been described as undergoing identity loss or change.” (Mohr and Klein, 2004; Kupka and Cathro, 2007; McNulty, 2012)

Alice and Ted were likely viewed as a “power-couple” in their home country – two highly educated, skilled professionals in dedicated careers and matrimony.  At first, they viewed the re-location as an adventure.  Over the first 6 months they traveled to New York City, California and various other popular destinations.  They explored cultural customs and enjoyed outdoor activities on the weekends.  But as the pressures of Ted’s career increased, Alice began to feel more and more isolated – despite formal language education, Alice lacked the cultural contextual cues and social skills needed in conjunction with that language ability, to help her appropriately adapt.  Her cultural identity at home was significantly linked to her status as a career woman.  Ted’s company offered little to no support for Alice.  Not only were they unable to secure a work visa for her, but they offered no connections to her new local community and no cultural awareness beyond what she could glean from the other spouses in similar situations within her own nationality.

“Concern with changing family roles appears especially salient for dual-career couples, where the loss of an accompanying spouse’s career and altered financial status may place strains on relationships during expatriation.” (Lazarova et. Al, 2010; Cole, 2011)

I remember Ted’s growing frustration with his wife’s unhappiness and lack of fulfillment in the absence of her own career; his inability to console her – the feeling that this was his fault, because she was sacrificing her career for his.  Perhaps, some of this dissatisfaction began to transfer to his own role within the company, as well, as he began to mention being dissatisfied in his daily work.  He experienced diminished productivity and pride in his work.  Ultimately, within 18 months, less than halfway through his re-location, they decided to return to their home country prematurely, without any pomp or circumstance – leaving most everyone in the picture to wonder what went wrong.

Case Study 2: Emma and Karl

“Being more socially isolated than their working partners, subject to the pressures of dealing with everyday life in a new cultural environment…”

Emma was young, beautiful, capable, intelligent…and a mother of two small children living in a completely foreign world with a husband who spent long hours in office and travelled frequently for work.  Emma was the epitome of “socially isolated” – unable to leave the house due to both the demands of infant childcare AND the struggles of functioning in a foreign cultural environment – the ultimate catch 22, since there was no time to pursue outside relationships, even if cultural awareness and language skills had been more present.

“Shaffer and Harrison (2001) developed a model of expatriate spouse adjustment which has been used as a basis for much subsequent research in the field.  In their model, spouses are described as experiencing adjustment in three interrelated dimensions of adjustment: personal, interaction and cultural adjustment…adding a personal adjustment construct to measure how well spouses had a sense of becoming part of, belonging to, or feeling at home” in the host country.” (Shaffer and Harrison, 2001, p. 239)

I went to Emma and Karl’s apartment one afternoon to meet and greet her and the children, as well as to assess Emma’s language skills and those of their oldest daughter, who was developing both her English and native language abilities simultaneously.   I saw two children playing happily and one adult woman under great stress and sadness.  She tried with clear effort and all the skill she could muster to articulate her experience and predicament, while the children showcased their favorite dolls and toys intermittently- oblivious to the woes of their mother.  It was obvious that there was little to no means for Emma to establish a new identity by building new interpersonal relationships in her new host country.

Within twelve months Karl explained, that Emma and the children would be re-locating back to their home country due to Emma’s “mental health” issues.  This caused considerable expense for the company, who wanted to retain Karl, but had to see part of the re-located family through a premature reverse transition and also provide Karl with additional travel budget for family care and visits over the next four years.

As Karl and I became closer, he later confided that in truth they were divorcing – him not willing to give up his career and her not willing to remain in her expatriate status for such a lengthy period of time, if not indefinitely.

Indeed, I watched it all unfold.  Although, the company retained its star employee, I am hesitant to label this re-location a success.  From a purely clinical standpoint, the cost of re-location was drastically increased due to the familial strains.  Although one cannot disregard the potential that there may have been other factors present impacting the negative outcome, from a more empathetic, human perspective, one certainly observes a correlation between the lack of “personal adjustment” in her host country and Emma’s retreat to her home country, sans Karl.

“Highlighting cultural identities as a crucial facet of adjustment, Berry (1997) describes acculturation strategies in terms of the degree to which newcomers seek to maintain their cultural identity and seek daily interaction with other cultures.  In his typology, Berry (1997) defines four different acculturation strategies: integration, assimilation, separation, and marginalization.  As emphasized by Berry, adaptation or adjustment does not necessarily imply a positive adaptation as an outcome, but may involve resistance, attempts to change the environment, or attempts to move away from it.”

In both of these tales, adaptation was not possible in the positive sense, as resources were not readily available to promote a healthy development of a new cultural and personal identity as an expatriate spouse in the host country.  This is a clear and well-cited problem, challenging not only expatriates, but the global mobility leaders, organizations, and even governments responsible for the success of their relocation. Certainly, work visas for spouses are an obvious place to start.  Culture and language training are also appropriate, but how can this solution be scaled and what methodology truly solves the problem based on the stories and data we know exist?

“Identity adjustment is an overarching characteristic of the expatriate spouse adjustment experience…when spouses are unable to easily find reinforcement of central identities in the new relocation, varying degrees of reconstruction are required for successful adjustment across not only an identity adjustment domain, but also in interactional and cultural domains…Opportunities to receive identity-reinforcing feedback required for modification or redefinition of identities arose from the development of new social networks…For successful identity adjustment, the breadth and depth of social interactions required to maintain, modify, or redefine their identities will depend on the degree and range of identity threat experienced.”

The notion that the single greatest threat to expatriate retention, inability to culturally adjust, and more specifically spousal adjustment, can somehow be resolved by providing language lessons or even consultant support alone, is clearly debunked.  In order for an expatriate to adjust, they must actually construct a new cultural identity congruent with their new role and lifestyle.  So, encouraging them to lean only on their own nationality’s ex-pat community is also misguiding.

What is clear is that an expatriate must gain feedback from their new community in order to construct this new identity – this means being equipped with culture and language within the context of their new community.  It also means interacting with diverse populations from their new community and finding ways to engage meaningfully at the local level, even if they are unable to engage in the ways they were at home.  For organizations, tracking relocation progress and feedback would also go a long way in targeting and optimizing training types, budgets, and processes.

And for heaven’s sake, if we have learned nothing else from these case studies and cited research – organizations dare not neglect to include the spouse of an expatriate employee in their relocation and training budget.

Imagine what life could have been like for Ted and Alice, if Alice had had a work visa, or if there was a non-threatening way to gather track and make decisions based on employee feedback; or if she had been able to construct a new identity by connecting in a meaningful way with her local community outside the four walls of her husband’s organization and their home.

Imagine if Emma had been able to access online culture and language training that she could utilize at home, while watching the children, that would also connect her to local resources, such as support groups, day care and meet ups, so that she could be have found a safe place to connect with others in her community while her husband was traveling for work.  Imagine the confidence she might have had by being exposed to the dialects and customs of her new city and practicing online before venturing out.

Imagine if there were a way to understand the identity threats facing these expatriate spouses and mitigate the damage before it ever had time to occur.

Having had more than 15 years in this niche space and encountering these stories first-hand; understanding them through the lens of aggregate research, I have chosen to focus my efforts on creating methodology-based solutions that can scale – serving the relocating family, its host organization. While also connecting internationals to the local community and government – spurring economic growth on main street and through foreign direct investment.

A tale of two spouses should never end with “it was the worst of times.”  It should begin AND end with “it was the best of times!

Berry, J.W. (1997), “Immigration, acculturation, and adaptation”, Applied Psychology, Vol. 46 No. 1, pp.5-34.

Cartus Corporation (2014), “2014 trends in global relocation: global mobility policy & practices”, Cartus Corporation, Danbury, CT

Cole, N.D. (2011), “Managing global talent: solving the spousal adjustment problem”, International Journal of Human Resource Management, Vol. 22 No. 7, pp. 1504-1530

Collins, H., & Bertone, S. (2017). Threatened identities: adjustment narratives of expatriate spouses. Journal of Global Mobility: The Home of Expatriate Management Research, 5(1), 78-92.

Kupka, B. and Cathro, V. (2007), “Desparate housewives – social and professional isolation of German expatriated spouses”, International Business Review, Vol. 19 No. 1, pp. 59-69.

Lauring, J. and Selmer, J. (2010), “The supportive expatriate spouse: an ethnographic study of spouse involvement in expatriate careers”, International Business Review, Vol. 19 No. 1, pp. 59-69

Lazarova, M., Westman, M. and Shaffer, M.A. (2010), “Elucidating the positive side of work-family interface on international assignments: a model of expatriate work and family performance”, Academy of Management Review, Vol. 35 No. 1, pp. 93-117.

McNulty, Y. (2012), “’Being dumped into sink or swim’: an empirical study of organizational support for the trailing spouse” Human Resource Development International, Vol. 15 No. 4, pp.417-434.

Mohr, A.T. and Klein, S. (2004), “Exploring the adjustment of American expatriate spouses in Germany”, International Journal of Human Resource Management, Vol. 15 No. 7, pp. 1189-1206.

Shaffer, M.A. and Harrison, D.A. (2001), “Forgotten partners of international assignments: development and test of a model of spouse adjustment”, Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 86 No. 2, pp. 238-254.

Tung, R.L. (1998), “American expatriates abroad: from neophytes to cosmopolitans”, Journal of World Business, Vol. 33 No. 2, pp. 125-144.