Grateful or in debt – what does it feel like to you? An accompanying expat spouse’s dilemma.

by Margarita

Much has been said about the role of financial dependence in expat marriages. FeeCultureOne spouse gets the transfer to work abroad, the other decides to follow thereby giving up his/her job and with that — the ability to contribute monetarily to the household.

Although situations vary, most non-working accompanying spouses contribute to the family in many other ways: they organize households in the chaotic “before” and “after” of a move; they take care of children and pets; they figure how things work in a new environment and smoothen transition for everyone else; they run the house and errands; and they play a very important supportive part that allows the other partner to work.

We all know they contribute – and they know it too – however, concerns of being financially dependent and spending “not my own money” has always been high on the expat spouse’s list of feeling unhappy. So why is it that perfectly accomplished people with a large list of things they do for the family still feel like they don’t deserve the money they spend? Why do they feel guilty not to make a paycheck?

Thinking about it a little more after a conversation I recently had with some fellow expat women, I came up with three reasons:

(1) In today’s society (the Western kind), you are only as good as the size of your paycheck and the title on your business card. Money you make elicits more admiration than the impact you make as a parent, a partner, or simply a human being.

(2) The reason above contributes directly to how accompanying spouses feel about their self-worth. Many a client with whom I’ve worked told me how they cringe when asked “what do you do?” – one of the first questions that you get in a gathering of any kind. Or how they notice that people’s eyes glaze over as soon as they mention that they are not working.

(3) And then there is the third reason – the most poisonous of them all. There are actually spouses that will hint or point out that they are the ones bringing home the bacon – and that no amount of support, or of household chores, or of parenting impact, or of simply moving around on a whim of someone else will ever be as important as their paycheck. And unless you make the same amount or more while doing everything else you are already doing, you should stop feeling smug about yourself and your contribution and start feeling very grateful.

My question is: grateful or in debt?

The answer is, of course, your choice! We can always choose the way we feel about our surroundings and the way we react to them. And perhaps it’ll work the first, the second, and the third time around. But then the fourth time, it’ll be harder. And the fifth time – even harder. Why? Because if you live near the toxic plant, you won’t be healthy no matter how many vitamins you take and how many vegetables you juice. The plant has to stop emitting toxins or you have to move.

Your thoughts on this “grateful” or “in debt” dilemma?

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