(Full Disclosure: Dispatches is working with the Expat Spouses Initiative on a digital project.)
For some expats, this international lifestyle is addictive. Great careers in exotic locales with travel opportunities and the disposable income to take advantage of them.
For others, a foreign assignment can be a nightmare, disconnected from support networks while dealing with strange languages and customs.
As we were emailing back and forth with Kavitha Varathan last month for our post on the Expat Spouses Initiative, Kavitha referred to an unfortunate byproduct of foreign assignments gone bad – divorce – as one of the problems her initiative is addressing by reviving the careers of trailing spouses.
“Expats are well-known to be the ‘champions for divorce rates,’ ” she wrote. Up to 50 percent of expat corporate assignment contracts fail, and around 30 percent of those expats who return home early attribute the inability of their family to settle in to the decision to come home.
This is a very bad thing for employers who have to spend time and capital to turn around and find and recruit new talent.
A 2010 survey by Brookfield Global Relocation found that 65 percent of the expat failures were attributed to spouse or partner dissatisfaction in the new location. It costs companies between $250,000 and $2.5 million for every prematurely terminated expat contract, according to the Brookfield survey.
So, how much of an impact does expatriation have on a marriage? The answer is, no one knows because there are so few studies … even at this historic epoch when attracting global talent is increasingly important to multinational corporations.
Why is information on divorce rates so hard to find? Because basically, companies don’t want to know. A Wall Street Journal post from 2008 has some of the best insights about the stress foreign assignments put on marriages.
“The Marital Strain of a Life Abroad,” by expat Alan Paul, who wrote the award-winning “The Expat Life” column for WSJ.com from 2005 to 2009, delves into the reasons no one has analyzed the cause of expat divorces:
“Hard facts and statistics about expat divorce rates are surprisingly hard to come by. This is no coincidence, says Mila Lazarova, a professor of International Business at Canada’s Simon Fraser University who specializes in expatriate management. ‘The less companies know, the better, so they never ask,’ says Dr. Lazarova. ‘I am not aware of anyone, not a company, not an academic, not a consultancy, having published such a statistic.’”
In the post, Paul discusses the pitfalls including extended separations as one spouse travels on business, spouses who can’t resist the temptations of sex and drink in the often lax mores of expat communities, the lack of normal routines couples would follow back home and the resentment and frustration of the trailing spouse putting his or her life on hold. He even tried to do his own small poll asking friends and colleagues about the pressures on their marriages, only to be ignored by 24 out of 25 people he approached.
The single respondent wanted to know if Paul was crazy: “I wouldn’t touch this with a 10-foot pole.”
Paul’s failed survey aside, the major stressor on expat marriages is the fact one spouse works, and the other often isn’t allowed to, depending on where they are in Europe.
A 2008 study by the Permits Foundation, cited in The Economist report “Up or out: Next moves for the modern expatriate,” found that 82 percent of trailing spouses or partners had a university degree and 90 percent of them were forced to relinquish their own jobs in order to pursue their partner’s move abroad. Of these 90 percent, only 35 percent worked during their overseas assignments.
As Kavitha noted, it’s bad for the region’s economy and attractiveness as an international hub:
If you have approximately 9,000 highly-skilled, highly-educated, yet unemployed expat spouses in the Eindhoven region alone, that’s an incredible amount of man- (or woman) power wasted, not to mention the loss of those expats who move back home, yet could have chosen to stay and contribute economically to the region.
Kavitha and Expat Spouses Initiative co-founder Anne Yianni were inspired to found their organization, which helps trailing spouses continue or revive careers, by their own frustrations.
It is especially important in the Netherlands that companies and organizations do something to address the “expat spouse problem,” given the overall low opinion that expats have about the Netherlands,” Kavitha wrote. In 2012, Forbes Magazine ranked the Netherlands as one of the “most unfriendly” countries in the world for expats. A study conducted in 2016 by Z Today (and reported by Nu.nl) found that 60 percent of expats have trouble making friends with Dutch people. That said, the easiest place to make friends was at work.
While we don’t know what the exact expat divorce rate is, we do seem to know that restarting a career is likely the best antidote. And expat spouses really want to work! A report published in 2009 by the Permits Foundation, which polled 3,300 trailing spouses and partners in 117 different countries found that 75 percent of the participants who weren’t working in their new country wished they could.
Another study found that 90 percent of participants were employed before their relocation, but only 35 percent in their new country.
So the bottom line is, getting expats out of the house and contributing their skills is likely an important factor relieving stress on expat marriages.
If you would like to know more about how Expat Spouses Initiative is becoming a model for reintegrating expats into the work force, check our their website.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.