Shifting Sands

Marriage Day

Marriage Day (Photo credit: Fikra)

The term “expat wife” is a remnant from the past and represents a stereotype that is rapidly disappearing. The idea that a young woman will marry, have children and follow her husband around the word for 30 years without having a career of her own is risky in a world where divorce rates approach 50% in western nations. Young women are raised to expect a career of their own, a development multinationals didn’t have to deal with 40 years ago. The male equivalent, “expat husband” is not a term in general use. Historically men did not follow their careerist wives around the world. For this reason, “expat wife” can sound sexist and old fashioned.

I assume “expat husbands” exist, even if they are not described as such, but I’ve yet to meet one in Nigeria. The likelihood of meeting a man who has followed his wife on an overseas assignment varies according to location and industry.

Nigeria is dominated by oil and historically most employees in this field are men. I meet women like me who have given up careers and homes to follow their husbands. “Expat husbands” are more common in Europe or Asia where industries that employ more women, such as finance, are prominent.

I use the term “expat wife” to describe a woman who follows her husband on a (usually) temporary overseas assignment. Apart from that broad definition, it is impossible to generalize. The lives of expatriate wives are as varied as the lives of women everywhere.

Some are able to continue their careers without disruption, particularly if they have technical qualifications. Others focus on raising children and running a busy household in an unfamiliar environment. The move is often a chance for women to pursue opportunities not available at home.

The world of  expat wives in some locations will disappear or be greatly diminished over the next few decades. Multinationals are selling ventures in riskier parts of the world or hiring local staff. This is the case with my husband’s former employer. Rotating shifts mean families can be based in their home country with the husband living abroad for a few weeks at a time.

Recent upheavals as a result of the Arab Spring have meant companies are unlikely to allow families to live in countries such as Algeria, Libya and Egypt. Employees (usually men) are sent to these locations on “single status”.

This is how I ended up in Malta. My husband worked in Tripoli during the week and flew home Fridays. I have friends living in Malta who were evacuated from Tripoli during the war and they have not been able to return. This was a traumatic experience. Their possessions left in Tripoli were destroyed or stolen and pets abandoned. Being an expatriate wife is not always a round of shopping malls, coffee mornings and parties, although we know how to enjoy ourselves.

I attempted to research the divorce rate for expatriate couples and was unable to find reliable data. It’s not information companies are keen to collect! A move overseas can put an intolerable burden on a marriage already under strain. The bonds holding a couple together such as work, friends, family and a familiar routine are gone. Couples are thrown back on each other and may not like what they find.

The sense of freedom offered by an overseas assignment can affect couples differently, with the men having a lot more personal freedom than their wives in many locations. Some cultures have a much more lenient attitude towards infidelity and the easy availability of prostitutes can cause chaos in marriages. Older western men are able to attract young, pretty girlfriends and this can be a temptation some men cannot resist.

This is evident in Lagos. When Jeff and I go shopping on the weekends I tease him about being the only older western guy with an older, western wife. I have no idea if any of the western men shopping with Nigerian beauties arrived with a western wife or if they have one waiting for them back home. But Lagos does provide a lot more opportunities for men to be unfaithful or trade in their wives for a younger model.

I don’t see any older western woman strolling the supermarket aisles with young handsome Nigerian men but I suppose it happens. Who knows?

Moving abroad can refresh a long term marriage or give new life to a failing one.  Husbands and wives may see each other in a different, more positive light as they demonstrate skills and attributes not evident back home. Financial burdens often abate as companies frequently pay for accommodation and travel expenses. A new closeness can develop as couples are forced to communicate more and spend time together away from the distractions of friends and extended family.

The keys to keeping a marriage together in an expatriate environment are the same as for any marriage: communication, consultation, respect, support, equality of decision – making and love.

Keeping the romance alive by stealing away for a night in a five star hotel also helps!


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