Relocation Mistakes of a First-Time Trailing Spouse

Guest Author:
Rachel Yates – Definingmoves.com

[Editor’s Note:  We are very excited to share with you the assignee’s spouse perspective on international relocation, from someone who has lived through five such moves.  Rachel Yates edits a website, Defining Moves, devoted to assisting relocating families around the world. ]

Ten years ago, my partner was offered his first international relocation to Kenya. We saw it as an opportunity for adventure, travel and fun, and with that in mind, I made every mistake in the book. With hindsight, I had watched too many period dramas; in my mind, relocation was going to fall somewhere between Out of Africa and Downton Abbey. The reality was far less glamorous, and involved me spending the first six months sobbing, wondering what on earth I had done. So where did I go so badly wrong?

No Preparation
My husband’s career was driving the relocation, and I assumed that ‘everything would be taken care of’. But I hadn’t taken the time to consider what my definition of ‘everything’ was; if I had, I would have realized that I was describing a vacation, not a life. My lack of research meant that I had no idea what we as a family were getting into, what we would need to transition and integrate successfully, and what the relocation package provided. Instead of days spent writing my opus magnum, I was in daily crisis management, trying to plug all the holes in our very leaky life plan.

No Self Assessment
I hadn’t taken time to explore my own vision for our new life, how I would cope with the loss of career and professional identity, with being defined by my relationships rather than my self, and what skills I needed as an individual not only to survive, but thrive. I didn’t realize how important my family, friends, colleagues and support networks were, and so hadn’t ensured that I stayed connected to my old life while I was finding my feet in the new one.

No Ownership
Relocation is an intensely personal, emotive and stressful process, and yet I signed all control and responsibility over to people I had never met, and assumed they could read my mind. Not only that, because of my lack of planning I had no idea what I wanted, what was realistic, and what was a complete waste of time and energy. I waited to be told what I needed and what I had to do, and didn’t realize that once I arrived in Nairobi, the work of the relocation company was done and I was on my own.

No Focus on Fundamentals
I saw life as a set of basic physical requirements, and underestimated the importance of the social and emotional needs. I was swept away by the need to pack, to select what seemed indispensable, and to stockpile ‘essentials’ that would we would be unable to get in location. And of the stuff that I took, ironically only the plain white dinner service and the silverware was ever really used. If I had done my research and pre-move networking, I could have found out what people already there really wanted, and bribed / bonded my way into a whole new social network. I was too busy thinking about what I should take, rather than what I could give.

So what’s changed?
I view relocation as a process, not a product. It’s an enormous challenge – the sheer volume of paperwork, physical practicalities, social isolation, and navigation of the unknown – but I am aware of it at the outset, and do a great deal of research, networking and preparation to ensure success. By clarifying what’s really important to each member of the family, I’ve simplified our requirements and thus the work involved. I have identified the non-negotiables – I know what we can survive without, and so the ‘essentials’ list is small, but I know to give them priority. We abandon furniture but ship the pets; we can live without power, but not human contact, and if it’s really important, we can buy it, borrow it or import it later.

I appreciate directness
On our first relocation, I was working, had two small children, and an absent partner already transferred to Kenya. Impersonal emails notifying me of mandatory attendance at vaccination appointments, consulates and the like felt rude and demanding, and I took the lack of social niceties personally. Time and travel have taught me the value of clarity in communication, and if you give me a choice between one email with a clear list of objectives vs. fourteen chatty emails with one task in each, I’ll take the former. While personal skills smooth the transition and soothe ruffled feathers, the relocation company’s role is not to be my friend, but to do a job – move me quickly, quietly and legally.

I don’t place all the responsibility on the relocation company
The move is a partnership – and while they are responsible for managing many of the practicalities, I need to fill in the blanks. Standards and practices vary between companies and locations, and so it’s essential for me to understand what we need to transition effectively, and how the company can help, if it all. In many locations, support services that we take for granted simply don’t exist, and so no amount of phone calls to the relocation manager will make a difference. There are many excellent companies out there who do a wonderful job, but there is a reason it is a multi billion dollar industry, and it isn’t because global transitioning is easy.

What About You?
Have  you relocated internationally?  What are some key learnings you can share with us?  Please leave a comment with your story.

More About Rachel

Rachel Yates is the editor and publisher of definingmoves.com, a website that provides information and inspiration for relocating individuals, partners and families with the knowledge, experience and warped humor of expatriates and locals from all over the globe.

Rachel on LinkedIn

8 responses to “Relocation Mistakes of a First-Time Trailing Spouse

  1. Pingback: Relocation Mistakes of a First-Time Trailing Spouse - International HR Forum - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. I seriously doubt if there’s anyone who’s managed a completely smooth transition first time around. There’s so much more involved than you could ever wrap your head around, even if someone sat you down and painstakingly explained every last nuance. Like having kids, you are incapable of comprehending all the subtleties until you’re up to your neck in it! By then it’s just sink or swim!

  3. What Rachel has described is what a good number of expatriate spouses have experienced, myself included. Lack of research and relying solely on the recruiting organization has prepared the ground for a hard landing at a new duty station or post which in turn led to disillusionment and even to expatriate failure for some. A big part of my relocation problems were related to culture shock and adjustment issues . The thought that the country we were being transferred to was not as developed as my country hence the marketability of my qualifications was far from reality. I had not considered the protectionist rules thrown in the path to work permits.

  4. We didn’t use a relocation service but moved ourselves from London to Sydney two years ago. We didn’t move with work but in a way I was the trailing spouse because my husband looked for work straight away and I took charge of settling the children and organising everything else about our daily lives. I too wasn’t prepared for the emotional side of our move; I didn’t expect to feel such a loss of identity by leaving family, friends and work contacts behind. We had some tough times but I always believed we would get through it and that time and experience would make us feel more settled and comfortable in our new home. I’ve learnt that you can never do too much research about a place you’re moving to and that you should expect six months to a year of transition before you start to feel at ease again. Really enjoyed reading your experiences and insight, thank you.

  5. I think you are being a bit hard on yourself when you claim lack of self-assessment as a failure. What I hear time and time again from those who work with the families of transferees and the spouses themselves is “you don’t know what you don’t know” and this is where I think more support should be offered. When you look at the potential cost of assignment failure, some upfront counselling would be a bargain.

  6. Great article. The lack of providing information about the fundamentals – for our first move overseas as a family – was huge.

    We moved with little to no relocation assistance and did most of it on our own. Looking back on it, everything from here on out should be relatively simple, but the one thing that stuck with me was had I *felt* like someone was there for me (HR, relocation, etc.) I would have been assured that at least there was one person on my side. Even if all of the questions aren’t answered, at least an effort made would be better than nothing.

  7. I’m a single parent and I moved my son, dog and cat from Chicago to India in 2007. We’ve been here ever since. We had no relocation assistance. I managed to research as best I could, but still made plenty of mistakes in my first year here. It takes time to get settled in a new country. Developing countries, like India, I estimate that it takes at least one year to figure out your basic necessitities or you learn to live without them. Cultural issues were and still, to this day, are a major consideration. Life, although harder than it would be at home, has its strengths here. Once you make it past that hump – accepting the new country without prejudice – it all starts to fall into place.

  8. What a wonderful article! I think that a huge lesson for me (and I am at the very, very beginning of our first assignment) is to be gentle with myself and realize that we’re doing this for the first time, and there’s going to be mistakes. My husband and I are two months in and something things we would totally do differently (um, moving our stuff? what were we thinking?!). Others, while they seemed silly at the time, now are seeming smarter and smarter (we kept our cars in storage back home, and low and behold, the assignment changed and we’ll be back before we know it!). It’s all a risk, it’s all a learning experience, and the important thing is to see what you can do better next time and laugh off the “silly” mistakes you make along the way…