How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Expat Life

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All dual-career couples face substantial challenges in balancing partners’ opportunities and aspirations; pursuing an expat lifestyle in tandem introduces an additional layer of complexity. Too many dual-career expat couples relocate without thinking through the long-term implications for both partners’ careers. Failure to anticipate the inevitable challenges and plan to meet them can contribute to unforeseen career setbacks for either or both partners. The result can be frustration, resentment and even serious relationship strains. However, with thoughtful and systematic planning, both partners can pursue their respective careers successfully and thrive in their global lives.

More dual-career couples are pursuing expatriate life…

Around 70% of expat assignees move with a partner. Expat couples have different arrangements – or ‘models’ – when it comes to how they pursue their respective careers. The traditional expat model assumes one main earner – the expat assignee – often accompanied by a non-working spouse and, in many cases, children.

As family structures are evolving, however, dual-career expat couples are becoming more and more common. These couples may choose to pursue their respective careers simultaneously (every move needs to accommodate career progression for both partners); sequentially (partners take turns ‘leading’ the moves from a career advancement perspective, being mindful of maintaining an overall balance over time); or through a combination of the two approaches, depending on the move and opportunities available.

…but they confront substantial challenges

It’s very challenging for couples to pursue their careers in parallel or sequentially while moving internationally. Whatever the original arrangement of the couple, and often with the best intentions on the part of both partners, usually one has to take a step back ‘temporarily’, to make the expat path possible. According to BGRS’ 2016 Global Mobility Trends Survey, while 65% of the partners of the married/partnered expatriates were employed before the start of the assignment, only 16% of those previously employed were working during the assignment. Keeping in mind that expat partners are often highly educated, highly accomplished professionals helps understand why spouses who are able to find rewarding work are more likely to report a positive impact on adjustment to the new location and on family relationships than spouses who are not.

Careful planning and communication are the foundations of success

How can expat couples help ensure that both partners continue to develop professionally and pursue their careers through successive relocations? From my experience researching dual-career expat couples and coaching the partners who decided to sacrifice their careers to make the move possible, I have found that couples who manage to make smooth transitions without damaging either partner’s career in the long run follow some basic ‘rules of engagement’:

  1. They take the time to sit down together regularly to review their career goals and progression;
  2. They assess the implications of upcoming moves on their careers and agree on how the benefits and sacrifices will be apportioned; and
  3. They proactively line up appropriate resources to cope with potential challenges.

Open, rich communication within the couple is fundamental. This means sitting down and discussing goals, ambitions, dreams, ideally before a move is even on the horizon. It means asking questions such as: What’s the big picture of how we see our lives and respective careers evolving? What do we each need to thrive? Are we willing to support each other with that? Are we open to give and take over time and to renegotiate the terms of our arrangement as circumstances change?

Making a dual-career move is a joint project

Succeeding as a dual-career expat couple requires careful planning and alignment of incentives and resources.

If you’re the partner who gets to place more emphasis on your career in the next move, help your partner manage their professional transition too. It not only enhances the odds of success of your relocation, it also strengthens your relationship. Take the time to discuss how your partner’s career – not just yours – can benefit from this move. Be interested and involved in the process of planning for and making the move. Be proactive about helping your partner secure the support they need. Ways to do that include:

  1. Clarifying the legal framework and documentation necessary for them to work (visa; work permit; legal requirements for setting up a business, if relevant; language fluency requirements for working), ideally before you accept the assignment. Identify potential barriers and address them early on.
  2. Ascertaining whether your employer provides career development assistance to expat partners. Companies increasingly recognize the crucial link between dual careers and talent attraction and retention, and know that expat partner career concerns are a key reason for assignment refusal.  They therefore are more open to providing partner career assistance. If that’s the case with your company, get information on the types of support available and ideally negotiate that support into your contract. This could be an education allowance, job search assistance, access to specialized training (for example resume preparation, interview or presentation training) or help connecting to relevant professional networks. Make sure the resources provided are tailored to the particularities of the job market and your partner’s specific needs and aspirations.
  3. Securing access to coaching and other career advice resources. Whether they are looking to continue an existing career, reinvent themselves or are not sure what exactly they want to do, expat partners in transition benefit from access to coaching, especially thinking through career issues early on in the process of planning the move. A coach can help expat partners identify alternatives and opportunities they want to pursue. A coach can also add value by playing the role of accountability partner as they move, settle in and work to turn their ideas into reality.

If you’re the partner who is making career compromises, think carefully about how you can make the move work for you, even though you’re not the one leading it. It’s essential to recognize that you always have choices, even when it seems like you don’t. A mindset of empowerment and possibility will allow you to see the areas that you can control and make conscious choices to shape your future. In practical terms, do the following, ideally before you move:

1.Think realistically about the implications of the move on your ability to pursue your career, specifically: What are some key hurdles or challenges you are likely to face? Which ones can you work around? What resources will you need to help you overcome those hurdles?

2. Research the job market at your destination. Get a good understanding of the local recruitment processes and practices. If your partner’s employer offers it, ask for support in this area, perhaps through a local mentor or career coach specializing in the local market. Find out whether your qualifications are transferable in the new location and, if not or if they are only partly transferable, understand what steps you need to take to remedy that. Do you need to get your credentials approved? Do you need additional qualifications?

3. Make yourself more marketable Get your paperwork in order, based on a thorough understanding of the legal framework and requirements (see previous section). Get career support either before or after the move. For example, get assistance with your CV/resume or some of the other kinds of trainings mentioned above. If possible, get support in defining and honing your marketable skills for the specific market. This kind of support should also offer insight into the cultural specifics of the recruitment process in the local job market. For instance, it should allow you to update and adapt your CV to meet local requirements.

4. Jumpstart building your network  Reach out or ask to be introduced to professional networks in your field. If you plan on returning home and continuing your career there, maintain your existing network, stay knowledgeable about your field and keep your skills up to date.

As you evaluate your options, keep the time frame in mind. Depending on how long the assignment will be, and/or whether there are follow-up assignments on the horizon, what do you expect the impact to be on your professional identity and options? How will the assignment affect your career prospects, long-term earning potential, financial independence and pension contributions? Armed with insight into your goals, identify the resources that you have and those that you will need to build up or seek. Be explicit. Many of those resources can and ideally are negotiated into the acceptance of the assignment.

A clear intention helps navigate the hurdles

Finally, remember that when it comes to big, life-changing decisions, such as making an international move, being mindful and clear about what you both want to achieve – your intentions for the move – makes a difference between just getting through and thriving. To connect with your intention, it helps to ask: What do we want to achieve, individually and as a couple? What would make this move a great one for both of us? Connecting to your intention will not only remind you of your shared goals – your ‘why’ for making the move – but it will also help keep you on track in challenging times.

Katia Vlachos is an expat coach and author of A Great Move: Surviving and Thriving in Your Expat Assignment (LID Publishing, 2018). Katia is also Key Resource Person on transition and expat assignments at here we are global

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