Moving abroad – The spouse situation

This article is basically written for expatriates moving to Indonesia for a shorter or longer period, the article’s main focus is on the wife who decides to follow her husband abroad, as this is still the most common case when a family moves to a developing nation.

Indonesia, Java, Jakarta. Blok M Plaza and Pasaraya Grande are main shopping centers in Blok M. (Photo Bjorn Grotting)
Indonesia, Java, Jakarta
. The spouse is normally the one who goes to the supermarket or the market to do the shopping. Blok M Plaza and Pasaraya Grande are main shopping centers in Blok M. (Photo Bjorn Grotting)

Every move abroad starts with a decision (still) most often made by the husband, or more correctly, by his employers, and by the time the spouse hears about it she sometimes feel there is little left to discuss.

First step: the decision to move abroad

The wife does not want to be discouraging and she does not want to get in the way of her husband’s career. Chances are that she will go along with the decision without feeling like she has either a choice or a full understanding of what the move involves. This situation is now fortunately changing as there is today not the same obvious expectation that the wife will follow her husband.

The wife often has her own career that needs to be considered. However, the husband’s career is still in many cases considered more important and the wife tends to go along with her husband’s desires. The point here is not that the wife should refuse to give up her job to follow her husband to a foreign country. The point is that there needs to be a thorough discussion of the issue and the wife needs to be included in all parts of the decision making process.

Added difficulties for the spouse

There is no doubt that the move abroad and the following culture shock can be difficult for the whole family. The experience is however more intense for the non-working wife because she has little else to focus on

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. The husband, while submerging himself in a new culture, is also very busy at work where he is often surrounded by other expatriates, or at least by people who have an international background and who are used to dealing with people from different cultures. The children usually have school or pre-school to focus on. This may be at an international school where they meet children from all over the world and from their own country as well. We do not suggest that starting at a new school in an environment where everything is strange and different and where you might not even speak the language is an easy and pleasant experience, but children have an amazing ability to adapt, and once they are adjusted school becomes the focus in their lives.

The wife, who has probably left a job behind, has no work, initially has no friends or extended family around, and no organizations to belong to. In many developing nations, including Indonesia, there are servants who take care of the household duties such as washing and cooking and looking after the smaller children, so these activities are taken away from her as well.

The wife is also in closest contact with the locals around her. She is the one who goes to the supermarket or the market to do the shopping and she is the one who tries to communicate with the servants. The culture shock can therefore hit her harder and faster. The problems may be highlighted by her husband’s work when it involves a lot of traveling and she feels he is never there when she needs him.

Creating a meaningful life

The point is not to paint a picture of how horrible moving to a foreign country might be for the spouse. It is rather to indicate that the problems she faces could have repercussions on everyone, and it is therefore in the best interest of everyone involved to make sure that she adjusts and that she is happy. The wife should, therefore, be included in any pre-departure orientations. The more information she gets to prepare herself, the easier it will be for her to adjust. The happiness of the wife is not solely the responsibility of those surrounding her, however. It is very much up to herself. If she has made a conscious and informed decision that she wants her and her family to move to a different country so that her husband can be involved in an international project, knowing she leaves friends and family behind and usually opportunity to work, then it is up to her to make the best of it.

We will recommend that any wife takes the opportunity to live abroad for a period if she feels it fits into her own goals. Living in a foreign culture, although at times very frustrating, can be a very enriching experience. It is a chance to be a part of something very different from what you are used to, and not been able to if you had not moved. It may also be a very good opportunity to develop yourself. Although the wife is an important support system for the rest of her family she also has a lot of time for herself. Not having to work or to do household chores means she can focus on other things.

It is not adequate to say, however, “this is great, I’m going to have two years vacation”. You have to make a conscious effort to figure out what you will do with your spare time, you need to create a meaningful life for yourself. Creating a meaningful life abroad remains the most neglected aspect of the spouse’s experience in a foreign country. People talk about the initial culture shock, learning a foreign language, and adjusting to the new culture. But adjustment is only half of the challenge, it brings a potentially negative situation to neutral, not to positive. Adjustment only brings the wife to the point where the foreign environment no longer constantly frustrates her, it does not provide motivation, direction and a meaning to daily life. The spouse will need to decide what she finds fulfilling, and what she would like to accomplish during her stay abroad.

There are no right or wrong answers. Each person will have a different response. Some examples are: developing one’s artistic side, teaching the mother language and history to compatriot children who have spent a long time abroad, volunteer work, taking the opportunity to have babies, using her education and professional experience to pursue something on a volunteer basis (an architect can design an efficient playground for needy children), learning in depth about the history, culture and language of the host country, learning a new sport (tennis, golf etc.). The important thing is not what she decides to do, but that she decides to do something that is meaningful to her. If her husband moves from one foreign country to another, it is important that this meaningful activity is portable.

As mentioned earlier, this move can be a very interesting and exciting experience for the whole family, but you can not be passive and expect things to happen. You have to make the effort to meet the people you want to meet and do the things you want to do. The expatriate community can be a real strength both socially and in terms of getting helpful information on what to do. It is important to make an effort and to keep a positive attitude whenever possible. Another obvious support system is everyone else who are about to go through the same experience. Help each other so that you can stop focusing on the frustrating aspects of living in Indonesia and start enjoying everything this beautiful country has to offer.

  • Living in Indonesia Interesting and useful site with experiences of expats who have stayed in Indonesia, many links


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Bjørn Grøtting

Photographer based in Norway. See a collection of my best photos in the portfolio. Licensing of images is done through Photoshelter or alamy.
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