You resigned from your job, sold your house and said goodbye to your family and friends. Your partner got this assignment in the US and it’s a “once in a lifetime” opportunity. You decided to follow and uproot the whole family. The children will become fluent in English, you’ll get to know another culture, you’ll visit new places.
A unique adventure.
Upon arrival, you work hard to settle in: finding a new house, an appropriate school for the kids, securing a car, a bank account and an internet connection, re-creating routines, filling the necessary paperwork, networking with other families, taking care of household chores.
But after the excitement of the first months, you’re missing something. While you’re in good health, have a roof on your head and enjoy a pleasant neighborhood, you’re not happy. When you were preparing the move, organizing farewell parties, supporting your partner and children, you forgot someone. Someone very important: yourself.
Before the move, you were so excited. You didn’t think about losing your financial independence, your social life, your colleagues and your friends. You didn’t think you’d be drained by the efforts required to live in a completely new environment: learning a new language, paying attention to local customs, or drive on the other side of the road. Worse, you didn’t expect to do it all alone.
Just arrived, your partner has been working 10 to 12 hours a day and traveling regularly. You’re mostly on your own. You left because it was required by your partner’s corporate function. You work your tail off to ensure a successful relocation. You play a key role for the family’s well-being – a stable presence amidst a sea of changes. You’re key in enabling your partner to be fully dedicated to his work. And how is it acknowledged?
Your name appears merely as a byline on a health insurance plan, an addendum to the visa, a sentence in the expat contract. You’re not even able to open up a bank account without your partner’s presence (he’s the one earning the money!), to get a credit card on your own merit, to enroll for a phone plan without the authorization of your partner. You’re stuck. It’s frustrating and humiliating. You’ve become… a child. So what can you do? Ask for a spouse stipend.
What is a spouse stipend, exactly?
The spouse stipend is a portion of the expat assignee’s salary, directly paid to the accompanying partner. The exact percentage is to be defined by each company. I would suggest between 10 to 25%. In some cases, it can even be an extra amount of money to the normal expat package. But companies already offer cross-cultural trainings and language courses.
Why should they provide accompanying spouses with extra money?
Because you, as a trailing spouse, work hard to support your partner, ensuring thus that working corporate employees perform at their best. Because you have the right to decide for your own well-being: whether this means more cultural knowledge or a subscription to the gym, a fancy haircut or a new dress! Because you don’t have the network, the cultural knowledge, the language proficiency to apply for a job two weeks after arrival. Even worse, in many cases, you are not even granted a working permit!
Without a source of income, you’ve become fully financially dependent. In a society where money plays such an important role, you’re not equally valued. This is a major change in identity and sense of self-worth. Add to it what expats already have to go through: grieving losses, managing culture shock. Without a source of income, you lose your freedom: freedom to enroll for a yoga class or for IT lessons. Freedom to support a local charity or participate in a running competition. Freedom to invite a friend for lunch. Without a source of income, you’re limited in your participation. Hobbies, transport, networking are all involving some money spending, even minimal. Why should you work so hard and be penalized?
Identity, participation and freedom are not frivolous wishes. They’re part of our 9 human fundamental needs according to economist Manfred Max Neef. He also adds subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, creation, leisure to the mix. Subsistence obviously is the first condition for life. But when this need is fulfilled, there is no priority order for all the other needs. “On the contrary, simultaneities, complementarities and trade-offs are characteristics of the process of needs satisfaction” says Neef. A spouse stipend can definitely help to fulfill those conditions. Last but not least: some people may argue that the move was a couple decision. And couples may have found a perfectly fine financial agreement between themselves.
Why should corporations mingle into family life and couple arrangements?
- Because the imbalance in the couple is so strong and so brutal that it destabilizes both spouses. It places the accompanying partner in a very vulnerable position.
- Because many people don’t think to discuss it beforehand.
- Because an unhappy wife greatly increases the risk of a failed assignment costing corporations even more money wasted, time lost and organizational chaos.
Is the spouse stipend really revolutionary? Paying somebody for a job isn’t. But the spouse stipend remains very seldom. It’s not wide-spread. Far from it. So in this sense, it’s revolutionary.
Finally, is the spouse stipend the ultimate solution to trailing spouses happiness?
The answer is a resounding no. Money can’t buy happiness … that’s for sure, but it lets you choose your own form of misery :)
In that sense, it’s an empowering tool!
Now over to you: what do you think? For or against the spouse stipend? Do you have examples where it can be applied or where it could have changed your life?
Speak your mind in the comments!
Bio: Anne Gillme founded Expatriate Connection, a free online resource for what’s missing in expatriates’ lives: how to deal with loneliness, expat grief and uprooted children. She has been living abroad for 20 years but she’s constantly looking for more answers in the latest developments of psychology, anthropology, social and behavioral sciences. Her dream is to build a thriving and supportive online expat community and make the world a more sustainable place. She’s got 4 children but only one (Muslim) husband.