Relocation Mistakes of a First-Time Trailing Spouse

Guest Author:
Rachel Yates –

[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, 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