Women no longer choose to chain themselves to railings in order to make a point. But when it comes to following their partners round the world on international assignments they dig in their heels. Women are no longer willing to assume the outdated and derogatory title of trailing spouse. The half of a couple who would have been expected to follow, rather than lead is refusing to go.

Losing a satisfying and, often lucrative, career, is a good enough reason for staying behind. But it is by no means the only reason. A person's identity is tied up with more than just a job. We see ourselves according to our natural context or habitat. We reflect off the people we live amongst, and losing that support team or network of familiar faces causes at best culture shock. At worst it causes depression, breakdowns and divorce.

Rather than chaining complaining partners to their aircraft seats, there has to be a better way of encouraging partners to embrace expatriate life.
Shell has come up with a portfolio of solutions. First it offers financial assistance with long distance learning programmes to spouses. Its Spouse Employment Centre in The Hague provides careers advice, information and a resource library. Their website of location specific information and recommended organisations and literature is an invaluable tool. Created and maintained on a voluntary basis by the Outpost team it is a fine an example of online support.

There is no doubt that career issues pose the greatest problem.

At a Career in Your Suitcase training workshop, conducted by myself and Bobby Meyer for Shell's London LINC, the message was clear. Many spouses know they want to work, are aware of their professional strengths and are prepared to retrain for careers that are more portable. But the constant threat of being uprooted and moved on after all that hard work takes more than self-motivation.

Cindy van der Wees talked about her work as a physiotherapist. After six months in London she had found a health centre from which she could rent space and work part-time. She had offered discounted sessions, gone halves with another therapist on a local leaflet drop and advertised in the local paper. Her client list has just reached capacity. The day before her talk she had learned that her husband was being relocated to Holland.

Successful expatriate partners need to be more than self-starters. They need resilience, determination, thick skin and the ability to launch their careers again and again. They need to create careers that fulfil their own needs while adapting to the needs of each local community. Only optimists can survive in this emotional battlefield.

Perhaps if employers of the working spouse were to take more time interviewing the non-working partner, things would be different.

About the author: Jo Parfitt is an expatriate partner, who has lived and worked overseas for almost 20 years, in five different countries. She makes her living from writing, speaking and teaching about what she has learned along the way. Find out more at her websites http://www.career-in-your-suitcase.com  and http://www.summertimepublishing.com , where you can sign up for her free ezine, The Inspirer.

Copyright 2006, Jo Parfitt

Posted 12Oct06