When I say I have been lucky for the last fourteen years, I’m not just talking about best bits of life as an expat partner. There have been some wonderful moments – but when I look back, I can also see the stark reality of a high risk cross border life. And while most expat briefings on security refer to carjacking, personal protection and home security systems, we rarely address that dirty little secret of the expat idyll – the increasing vulnerability of the partner.
It’s a trap many of us fall into, but thankfully, it’s one we can climb out of with a little effort and attention. I’m firm believer that the simpler you make things, the more successful you are likely to be, so in consultation with expat experts in personal, cultural and career development, legal and financial gurus, here’s my definitive 7 trait checklist for simple, smart and secure life as an expat partner.
1. We define and defend our value.
Most of us are clear about the vital role that we play in expat transitions, but when it comes to articulating it outside of our close relationships, we struggle. We tolerate diminishing terms ‘Trailing Spouse’ and “dependent partner’ while project managing an international move, and singlehandedly managing our family’s lifestyle, welfare and day to day cross border administration. We can advocate powerfully on behalf of our children, but when it comes to our own worth and wellbeing, we use throwaway phrases like “I don’t work” or make light of the challenges of leading international and intercultural transition.
The ability to acknowledge and articulate our own skills to the rest of the world is a key part of our security, because expat life has no inbuilt framework for recognising and rewarding our personal and professional development. Typically, professional value is reflected in monetary terms, and so even voluntary roles – no matter how complex or demanding – struggle to offer the same sense of credible, transferable attainment.
There is good news, however. In The 100 Year Life, Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott discuss how the traditional lifespan model; Education – Work – Retirement – no longer reflects the reality of increasing longevity, and suggests that one of the critical skills that we need to master is successful transitioning in and out of differing work and life roles. For those of us who have swapped professional titles for international partnering and parenthood and understand the personal, societal and cultural work involved in adapting to those changes, it is welcome acknowledgement of the growth that global mobility demands.
The first step to building security is acknowledging – both to yourself and the world – that what you are doing has both personal, organizational and commercial value – and you probably couldn’t afford the market rates to pay someone else to fill your roles to the same standard. It’s a healthy reminder that while your name might not be on the payslips, it should be there on the voting rights, joint assets and pension planning.
2. We are able to negotiate effectively for ourselves.
Hot on the heels of recognizing worth is the ability to leverage that value. All too often we are have the impression that we should be passive in the assignment negotiation – and discover that we are now far more vulnerable as a result. Lucy Greenwood, partner at the International Family Law Group talks about the many legal myths that surround moving overseas – and the belief that our rights as a partner and/or spouse are universal is one of the biggest mistakes that we make.
Once you are in location, the realities of an expat move can quickly undermine your ability to find the time, words and self confidence to not just take strong decisions, but advocate for yourself effectively. We procrastinate, we compromise and we become complicit in our own disempowerment.
One of the most powerful steps that expat partnerships can take is to have a regular, honest discussion about where both individuals see themselves, their roles and the family – currently and at 2, 5 and 10 year timeframes. Once those dates are set, we can to use them as a deadline for specific reviews, personal targets and if necessary, rehearsed negotiations.
Devon Smiley, a Negotiation Coach and guest expert on the Global Girl’s Guide to Creating a Back Up Plan, has run training for UN Women and the Clinton Foundation, and talks about the importance of preparation in any successful negotiation. She recommends that before you start, you should know what your ideal and your walk-away limits are, and have prepared scripts to help you communicate your position. She points out that none of us are born with an innate ability to negotiate, so success is inextricably linked to prior preparation and practice… On the family dog, if you need to.
3. We take ownership of our own choices – both good and bad.
One of my favorite phrases is “No plan is actually a plan – just a really, really bad one”. And yes, before you ask, I am guilty of this one too. I agreed to a one year temporary assignment to Kenya, and here I am, 8 homes and numerous moves later, writing this in San Francisco. And you know what? I have to hold my hand up and admit that for the first five years, I just went along with it.
It’s all too easy to blame circumstances, finances or the lack of work visa as a reason to not take responsibility for our long term situation, but we are where we choose to be, for better or worse. Not all the choices that face us are easy or pleasant, but to effectively chart our own course, we have to be honest about the choices that have got us here – even if they were unconscious or ill informed.
We can’t predict the future, but we can do two things: take responsibility for our own knowledge and make intentional choices. Some will be great, some might be awful, but if you are going to be a partner, it’s always better to be a voting one…
4. We take practical steps to safeguard ourselves
I have lost count of the number of women I know that have no independent access to money, no clear understanding of any retirement plan, and yet countersign the tax filing, year in, year out. And while I fully intend to be a burden to my children (I’m in the throes of the second round of the US college admission process, and feeling a strong need for payback), every one of us should have a back up plan. It’s a huge problem for women who don’t move, but for those of us living internationally, the stakes are even higher. Navigating the cross border healthcare, judicial, welfare and taxation systems takes money and expertise, so no matter which way you slice it, you’ll need to know what you have, where it exists and how to protect it, with or without your partner.
Ask yourselves this – would you allow your nearest and dearest to go overseas without their own money and all the paperwork they need? No, me neither. Yet we settle for a joint bank account, limited access to the household documentation and no local legal identity outside of our relationship. It’s something that is prevalent in the expat community – the belief that we are immune to the forces of real life – job loss, relationship breakdown, illness and untimely death
It’s why I created the ‘How Protected Are You?’ Quiz and Starter Kit – to help you identify the (often forgotten) areas of vulnerability – and take steps to redress the balance. Whether that be setting up your own bank account, creating an expat Family File or creating a comprehensive back up plan, committing to consistent action, no matter how small, will make a huge difference.
5. We are informed about matters that affect our future
Whether it’s the first move or your fifteenth, we need to understand the impact that our choices have on our future life. We embark on our expat adventure with enthusiasm, optimism and curiosity – and I would never want that to change. However, expat partners need to protect our own interests as individuals, and it’s not always as easy as you might imagine, especially when children are involved. The Hague convention, for instance, forbids the removal abroad of children – which includes you returning to your passport country with your kids – without explicit permission from the other partner.
There are similar pitfalls with access to college education, social welfare, healthcare and credit; in most countries, a significant amount of recent (and proven) residence is required to access services as a local, regardless of whether you are a citizen of that country or not. We often tie up all those bureaucratic loose ends in our passport country to simplify life, but in doing so, cut the ties that not only bind, but also buffer us.
Ask expats about their long term plans, and you’ll often hear “I can’t plan because I don’t know where we will be in three years time, let alone twenty”. But here’s the thing – we all want the ability to send our kids to college, to withstand life’s bumps, have healthcare and be able to retire comfortably, None of these are globally guaranteed, so we need to put them in place for both the short and long term, somewhere – individually, and as a family.
6. We make great role models.
Aha. Here’s the big one. I didn’t start out with a driving need to change the way women live international life. I liek many of you reading this, was living a comfortable – if slightly chaotic – life in the ‘expat bubble’ with a solid household income, the ability to take a career break and a blissful ignorance about the implications of my life choices. My wake up call was realizing that I was no longer a positive role model for my own children – against all the opportunities of my upbringing, I had not only been influenced by gender inequality, I was now embodying and nurturing it.
I had been using global mobility as an excuse – “it’s too complicated”, “I don’t have enough time”, “I’ll never earn as much as my partner”… All phrases that I am mortified to admit to when compared to the life and lack of opportunities that so many women face.
We need to do better. The overwhelming majority of expat partners are women, and while I would love to tell you that our rights and roles are universally acknowledged and protected, I can’t. For the last century, women have fought for the right to define our lives differently – with a independently defined trajectory rather than one that requires and revolves around someone else’s.
We are in strange situation – a life on the outside that looks exotic, exciting, privileged, but scratch the surface and you see rights, and future security channeled through a single partner. We are effectively putting all our eggs in one basket – and giving it to someone else to carry. It’s not an example I want to set, either as a women, a partner or a parent – and certainly not a path that I want my daughter to take.
I still have a long way to go before I have all the answers – if I ever will. I struggle daily to balance the needs of family, home and running a business. Life is messy, frustrating and full of dropped balls. Figuring out how to sustain a location independent career, support children through geographical and cultural transitions, run a household (with a partner that travels a lot), keep 4 dogs in check and maintain basic personal hygiene is an ongoing challenge, but it’s one worth taking on. I know from all your emails, conversations and comments that I’m not alone in this – and so if you can’t learn from my less than perfect example, at least you can avoid my mistakes. And that, in my mind, is one of the most precious lessons I can teach my kids – don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Because it shows you cared enough to try out loud.
7. We have a strong support network
I’m ending on a happy note, because here’s one expat partners do brilliantly but rarely give ourselves enough credit for. With every move,it takes time, effort and sometimes, enormous courage to get out there in an alien, unfamiliar and intimidating world and build the networks we need to sustain life overseas. We find friends, places, systems and services that make life run smoothly (ish), often with no support, little preparation and on a punishing timescale.
The act of registering kids for state school in California, for instance, is extraordinary – requiring multiple separate appointments to verify residency (which is a nightmare when you only arrived three days ago and don’t have a pay slip, utility bill, or state issued ID), submit required vaccinations records (which constantly change), pick up registration paperwork, apply for a student ID, sign up for extra curriculars, buy the required PE kit, order the yearbook and if you have navigated it all successfully, get your child’s class schedule. It’s exhausting, and you have to do it for every. single. kid. Every.Single.Year.
Yet, we all know that those school gyms, playgrounds, grocery stores, night school classes and volunteer hubs are the places where we find our ‘tribe’ – the people who help us figure out the next steps, warn us of the pitfalls and catch us when we fall. We have an incredibly community spanning the globe that ‘gets it’ – recognizing the hard work behind the happy smiles. We work together, support one another and make life lived globally safer, kinder and more rewarding.
Here’s the thing. We have to take care of ourselves as well as we take care of each other. The stronger we are individually, the stronger we are as parents, partners and a community. I’m trying to build a community of well padded women (and yes, men) who have cushioning in place for life’s knocks. We’ll all do it in different ways, with different goals and different timelines, but we need to get started now.
If you don’t know where to start, start here. The ‘How Protected Are You?’ Quiz will help you pinpoint the areas where your safety net has holes, and the Starter Kit will get your on your way to a better informed, more secure life. It’s time, don’t you think?