Expatriate Spouse and the Power Imbalance

Photo credit: Tommy McMillion, meme agency

Culturs-expert-flagI always wondered what it must have been like for my mom as an expatriate spouse. When my parents met, my dad worked for a multi-national French company. They lived together in Paris and a couple of years later, the company offered him a new position in Tokyo, Japan. He took the job and off they went with my older sister in tow, who was only two years old at the time. They later moved to Dusseldorf, Johannesburg, Vienna and Hamburg. As an adult, I finally realise how much of an impact these assignments must have had on my mom, the expatriate spouse. Whereas my dad was moving for a financial improvement, an exciting new role, and a guaranteed social network in his workplace, my mom was moving to a city without a job, friends, or any foreseeable financial resources of her own. She had become an expat without the perks of a new career move.


I came across a relationship study that showed that an expatriate spouse has an increased sensitivity to interpersonal interaction. Researchers found that one of the many reasons for this was the power imbalance in the couple between the expatriate and the spouse. They explain that the person who has the new job, monetary resources, and assured connections from the workplace is independent, whereas the expat spouse is dependent on that partner for those different aspects.[1]


Our world is becoming more globalised, and the chances that you or your partner will be offered a new position in a new city in your lifetime is a likely possibility. I never realised what it might mean for the person moving for their partner, and how it might affect their relationship. A move means both people in the relationship can discover a new city and new customs creating a sense of adventure and excitement.  However, it seems to me that one person, without the crutch a professional routine provides, will be worse off in the scenario. For the person who is along for the ride, the first battle is finding a new job, especially when a language barrier exists. Secondly, the struggle lies in finding new friends: the vital social support that you need to make you feel fulfilled and begin to build roots in a new place. And finally, you would be more likely to be financially dependent on your partner, at least at the beginning. This makes for a tricky and perhaps unexpected change in the relationship. I’m not surprised the study found that the non-working expat partner reacts more sensitively to day-to-day interactions, sometimes exacerbating small sources of friction.

I have since asked my mom what it was like moving to Tokyo without friends, a job, or a salary of her own.  Without hesitation, she answered that she was never alone. At first, I didn’t understand. How could she not have felt alienated in a country where she did not speak the language and she spent long days at home without her partner? She explained that she barely had time to worry about this as she had to take care of three toddlers, keeping her incredibly busy. She met other mothers at the school we went to, allowing her to begin building a social network of her own. Finally, she pointed out that not everyone is quite ready to embark upon a professional career; at that point in time, she was happy to stay at home.  Eventually, she went back to school and became a French teacher, finding a challenging and rewarding vocation.

The findings of this research has made me realise that if I were ever to move because of my boyfriend or partner, it’s vital to remember that this kind of scenario can create significant power imbalance in a relationship and requires additional awareness and communication.

[1] Van Erp, K.J.P.M., Giebels, E., Van Der Zee, K.I. & Van Duijn, M.A.J. (2011). Expatriate adjustment: The role of justice and conflict in intimate relationships. Personal Relationships, 18, 58-78.


Cover photo image credit: Tommy McMillion, Meme Agency


  1. Hey Olivia!! found you through your interview with my buddy, Tayo Rockson 🙂

    I too had no idea about the power imbalance between couples where one is an expatriate spouse. very interesting article and definitely fodder for great conversation 

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