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Long distance relationships

Taking on an international assignment is a great way to boost your career and prospects. Getting the tap on the shoulder from your boss is a vote of confidence in your abilities. The challenges you face will give you a chance to shine, and eventually return to a hero’s welcome with a better title and a bigger pay packet.

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of an offer of a job overseas, but while there are undoubted benefits to relocations for many international assignees, there are also other issues to be considered: the impact on your personal life.

Whether the assignment means taking your partner abroad or having a long distance relationship, the disruption is not something to be entered into lightly.

The reality of working overseas

About 80% of expat workers move with their partners, and their happiness is often a deciding factor in how successful the international assignment is. It’s hard to focus on work when domestic life is in turmoil. So, what are the big changes for everyone to face?

First, moving overseas means interruptions to all parts of your lifestyle – for example, only strong friendships will continue while previous acquaintances will fall by the wayside. The upside is that there are plenty of new friends to be found and other expats are often keen to establish new friendships.

Second, working across time zones can prove more challenging. While most executives who take on an international assignment will be familiar with conference calls, they will have been used to having meetings scheduled to suit head office. Being overseas often obliges the assignee to re-arrange their working day and work earlier or later, which also has an impact on their partner and family.

There can also be immense privileges to working overseas, both cultural and financial. Expats in some places benefit from being exotic, even dressed in a grey suit and sensible shoes, which means access to people and places that might not be available back home.

Relocating with your partner

Avoiding a long distance relationship by moving overseas together is often a sensible choice, particularly for long-term assignments. However, the assignee’s partner – often referred to as a “trailing spouse” – may face greater challenges. The initial tasks of establishing a new home and a social life can be all-consuming and overwhelming, and very few feel supported by their partner’s employer. The trailing spouse often has no power to make things happen, which makes them completely reliant on their partner.

A partner’s career can also take a hit. Research indicates that only 15% of partners find work in their new country, and many face limited chances of obtaining a working visa. Although volunteer work and community-oriented activities can be a replacement, there is both a financial impact on the family budget and potential problems resurrecting a career when and if they return home after a lengthy break. Many people become entrepreneurs and set up small businesses, perhaps leveraging their new expertise to provide advice on their home country and their new one. For example, Amel Derragui, a business and marketing advisor, founded the Tandem Nomads podcast while on assignment with her husband. After six years it has become a significant business in its own right – proving that problems are just opportunities in disguise.

Leaving your family behind

Not everyone is able to bring their family along on assignment. For those on short-term assignments of a few months there is little benefit in the upheaval of moving countries. Even some partners of people on long-term assignments choose not to travel, or return home quickly if they find their new home hard to deal with.

Riina decided not to move to Beijing with her husband when he embarked on an eight-month assignment. Instead they conducted an overseas relationship while she remained at their home in Estonia with their 18-month-old daughter.

“It helps to know that the situation is just temporary,” she told internations.org. “We’re still very much part of each other’s lives.” She continued to teach at secondary school, which avoided any issues of career breaks.

They kept in touch as much as possible and she kept him abreast of the latest developments at home.

For help and advice on how best to manage relocating to a job overseas, get in touch with Santa Fe Relocation or find out more at our Relocation page.

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