Prevent Family Separation

Expat Spouse employment Bringing the family on board in global mobility Expat Family Support

Prevent Family Separation in Global Mobility

Stop me if you have heard this before. Still, the general belief among people seems to be that separation rates among expatriates are higher than those among native (aka stay-at-home) professionals. I want to point out that this is not the case. The reality is that this idea comes from the fact that the impacts of family separations are much more significant. Consider the difficulty of handling separation and potential custody disputes through geographical boundaries. Discussion among multinational Global Mobility circles is centering on the issue of Dual-Career Expat Couples. 

Why You Need To Care About This

You may be wondering how their relationships and related problems impact businesses. The answer is simple: 

People would choose to leave their international assignment to save their marriages or, as one Partner in one of my former GM Leader roles once said, “Happy Wife, Happy Life.”

A McKinsey study shows that 70% of expat assignments fail, meaning the position gets vacated, and companies have to spend extra money to replace and train personnel, meaning their growth slows down.  Businesses, therefore, have a vested interest in seeing these relationships succeed. 

To get the professionals’ perspective, research conducted by PwC found that most employees listed the spouse’s career as a barrier to mobility. 

Many would not choose to disrupt their spouse’s established careers and move them to another country.

Reports from Crown and Brookfield pointed out that family challenges of international relocation remain a top reason for assignment refusal and failure. At the same time, a growing body of anecdotal evidence suggests that many expatriate marriages often fail at massive cost to organizations (McNulty, 2015). Nearly 70% of expatriates and their spouses reported “marital breakdown” as the most crucial reason relocations fail (Lazarova et al., 2015; Lazarova & Pascoe, 2013). 

The reasons for Expatriate Failure are usually not well captured. There is a data hole here, and we must assume that family reasons are a significant reason for expatriate failure rates. This lack of data needs to be addressed shortly as the importance of this issue rises, as a recent survey from Mercer highlights. According to the NetExpat and EY Relocation Partner Survey, 71% of the companies surveyed claim that Expat Spouse’s unhappiness is the primary reason for Expatriate Failure. 

In light of all these findings, improving spouse and family assistance as well as spouse career support clearly needs to feature at the top of the list of challenges and priorities of Global Mobility programs.

Regarding Expatriate Failure rates, one example that I tend to criticize is that assignments often end prematurely because of business considerations, expats accepting a new role in a new location, or ending school years. However, the project was still a success. 

The current definition of Expatriate Failure would categorize such an assignment as a “failure.” 

In contradiction to “Expatriate failure,” “Expatriate Adjustment” is used as a common way to measure the “success” of an international project and is often equalized with carrying out the assignment during the assigned period.

There isn’t a quick or easy solution to this issue, especially with the data hole present. Let us look at possible solutions to this issue, how to improve the Expat Experience (XX) for your spouse or life partner, and how best to handle the problem in case the worst outcome becomes inevitable.

Besides Expat Spouse’s career, KPMG identified another main demographic reason that leads employees not to take up an international assignment: sexual orientation. 

In 2018, only 40% of the companies they surveyed had Diversity and Inclusion objectives as part of their Global Mobility strategy, while only 20% had actually planned to review their policies after reassessing the demographics of their globally mobile employees based on diversity. 

Additionally, excluding gender, other points such as ethnicity, age, religion, and disability status have not yet been captured in the global mobility space. 

Like in most of today’s international companies, you have probably come to recognize the proven benefits of a diverse and inclusive workplace. However, if you are in a same-sex relationship, the reality of Global Mobility can be complex. Even if your Global Mobility Manager is open, you could face immigration challenges and prejudice in the host country.

How do we Define Expat Spouse?

As most countries require you to be legally married to enter their borders, I will also use the term Expat Spouse for life partners. Also, this term applies to all genders and same-sex relationships. For clarity, the gender-neutral ‘spouse’ is the expatriate’s life partner, and the word is also commonly included in contracts and policies for international assignments. We will also use the time Expat Couple. For further definitions and terminology, consult “The Global Mobility Workbook”(2019).

What you can do: Eight  Ideas to Avoid Family Separation on Your Expat Assignment

1 – Involve Your Spouse 

You (the Expat) must appreciate and contribute in any way possible to not let your Expat Spouse compromise their career. Many Expat Spouses can probably relate to the experience of living in a country that is not always of their choosing. 

Often, they also have very high professional qualifications and years of solid work experience behind them. Suddenly though, they are left without any employment despite real efforts to find work and might even struggle to have their degrees recognized in the new country. 

The most crucial point here is that you involve your Expat Spouse in the decision-making process from the beginning, not only when the moving truck pulls up the driveway.

2 – Understand Immigration

Many countries do not automatically grant the right to work to the Expat Spouse. You need to check if your company will support your Expat Spouse with obtaining a work permit. You can check the host country’s immigration websites for initial guidance.

3 – Support as long as necessary 

Assist your spouse in getting a job or starting their own business by being financially supportive. You can agree on a temporary loan so they don’t feel dependent on you. Discuss the financial situation during the assignment and what it will mean for their old-age pension and other saving plans they might have. Make sure you aren’t troubling them by overemphasizing.

4 – Spend Quality Time Together

A new place can feel daunting and scary, often lonely. Spend quality time with your spouse so they don’t feel alone in a new place. Plan weekends away to learn the positives about living in a new culture, not just daily life. Explore the new culture and meet other people to build a network of friends fast.

5 – Consider Joining A Support Group

Joining a support group of people going through similar experiences can also guide your Expat Spouse in adjusting to change. Several online and physical communities around the world are worth looking into. And when it comes to Switzerland alone, the choice is large: from the well-known Internations to Expatica and from the Zurich Spooglers to the Hausmen of Basel, the opportunities to connect with fellow Expats and Expat Spouses in the country are plenty.

6 – Help Your Spouse In Finding Volunteer Work 

In Switzerland, a lot of associations depend on volunteers. Search for English-speaking groups your Expat Spouse could support, like SINGA Switzerland or Capacity Zurich. If you have children, you can also help international schools and kindergartens. Generally, this is easier done by joining parent associations like the ones at the Zurich International School or the Inter-Community School Zurich.

7 – Give them a Coaching Voucher for a Session with Angie Weinberger – Expat Coach

We have a lot of experience helping clients mend their broken relationships. One session can help shift the Spouse’s mindset from victim to self-reliant, strong, and active professional. You can also buy “The Global Career Workbook” (2016).

8 – Step Back For The Next Career Move of your Spouse

Even though this one idea is pretty self-explanatory, it is hard to do in practice, especially if your income is a lot higher than the income of your Spouse. Take turns in whose career is leading the decision for the next assignment. That means stepping back when it is your spouse’s turn to advance in their career.


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Black, S. J., Mendenhall, M. E., Oddou, G. (1991). „Toward a Comprehensive Model of International Adjustment: An Integration of Multiple Theoretical Perspective”, The Academy of Management Review, DOI: 10.2307/258863

Bruno, Debra. (2015, March 18). „Divorce, Global Style: for Expat Marriages Breaking Up is Harder to Do”, The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved April 29, 2020, from

KPMG. (2018). „Inclusion and Diversity in Global Mobility”, KPMG. Retrieved April 30, 2020, from

Hsieh, T., Lavoie, J. & Samek R. (1999): „Are you taking your Expatriate Talent seriously?”, The McKinsey Quarterly. Retrieved April 29, 2020, from

Lazarova, M., McNulty, Y. & Semeniuk, M. (2015). „Expatriate family narratives on international mobility: key characteristics of the successful moveable family”, in Suutari, V. and Makela, L. (Eds), Work and Personal Life Interface of International Career Contexts, Springer, Heidelberg, pp. 55-76. 

Lazarova, M. & Pascoe, R. (2013). „We are not on vacation! Bridging the scholar-practitioner gap in expatriate family research”, in Lazarova, M., McNulty, Y. and Reiche, S. (symposium organizers), ‘Moving Sucks!’: What Expatriate Families Really Want (and Get) When They Relocate, Symposium at 2013 US Academy of Management Annual Meeting, Lake Buena Vista, FL.

McNulty, Y. (2015). „Till stress do us part: the causes and consequences of expatriate divorce”. Journal of Global Mobility, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 106–136.

McNulty, Y., Selmer, J. (2017): Research handbook of expatriates.

Weinberger, A. (2019a): „The Global Mobility Workbook, “Third Edition, Global People Transitions, Zurich.  

Weinberger, A. (2019b): „The Use of Digital Intercultural Coaching with Expats and Implications for Transition Plans in Global Mobility”, Master’s thesis, The Institute for Taxation and Economics, Rotterdam, from

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