Unique Relationship Issues Foreign Assignees Face with Non-Working Spouse

What’s wrong with this picture? Two foreigners: One partner or spouse is working, and the other is staying put at home, taking care of the children, if they have any. Who do you think would be able to adjust to their new environment faster? The imbalance can breed insecurities, resentment, and a host of other negative emotions.

It’s hard enough to handle the top three issues that put a strain on any relationship — lack of personal time, financial problems, and miscommunication. Foreign assignees, however, will see this imbalance magnified away from home. 

The Business Insider breaks it down: 

Let’s take a look at the first situation. A foreign national arrives with their partner in the United States. Frequently, it is only the assignee who has the visa legally granted the right to work in this country. 

This article on foreign workers explains how an assignee is given an H-1B visa while their partner is provided an H-4 visa. The spouse or partner might apply for a work permit, but its approval usually takes time, like a number of years. 

While waiting for this visa, the non-working spouse spends a lot of his or her time at home, making sure everything is clean and organized, including school and leisure time for kids. Once he or she becomes more familiar with the neighborhood, he or she becomes more involved in social activities that cannot be classified strictly as work, e.g. a book or dance club. He or she can even enroll in courses that will enhance his or her skills such as English fluency. The rest of the evening is usually spent catching up when the assignee returns home, again usually through a family dinner.

In time, the assignee’s spouse can get bored with this kind of set-up. In all likelihood, many of them were respected professionals in their home country, earning their own salaries, and enjoying their own executive perks. 

The assignee might not intend them to feel like “second-class citizens,” but that is one possible outcome. If this issue is not addressed, the spouse might even start reflecting — and regretting — the opportunities he or she feels she had left back home. The accumulated frustration and sense of loss can lead to a withdrawal that then explodes into arguments that can damage their marriage or partnership.

One possible solution, while waiting to process that work permit, is to involve the unhappy spouse in activities that can tap his or her gifts and make him or her feel valued. Volunteering in charitable and non-profit organizations is one option. One can find some of these listings on the San Jose CA website

“Advising” friends of her spouse in projects he or she has a knowledge of can be another confidence booster. Producing blogs, vlogs, videos, and articles can give him or her a space to express ideas and be duly recognized. 

The second issue that couples have to watch out for is closely related to the first. The assignee’s integration with the new world he or she is living in, no matter how difficult at first, will be faster than his spouse’s. 

After all, the working spouse will get a first-hand view of the industry he or she is working for, learning new trends, and having a hand in major decisions. The daily interaction with many American citizens will allow the working spouse to pick up more idioms, pop culture references, and even watercooler jokes. The non-working spouse might regard this transformation as excessive “Americanization.”  This is one problem that some expat couples face in Silicon Valley.

It is not unusual for the couple to feel anxious during this phase. Not only will the non-working spouse feel idle and useless, but he or she might also start to fear that the salaried person is losing their cultural identity to a new one. While the dependent’s conscious mind agrees that integration is important to both of them (and their kids), too quick of an assimilation is worrying.

On the surface, the non-working spouse might show irritation that certain traditions are no longer being honored. But deep within, buried under his or her psyche, what he or she actually fears is that the bond that holds them together as a couple, and which was forged in their homeland, is disappearing. 

To allay these fears and prevent a romantic train wreck from happening, the assignee must be a little more sensitive to a spouse’s emotions. Little sarcastic remarks or hints that they drop here and there about missing a religious holiday or failing to cook an ethnic dish should not be ignored. 

Addressing it does not have to be a full-blown conversation; what might help is that the assignee does participate in this important day or at least get the taste of that cuisine right. Taking the lead in any important ritual in front of their children can also dilute the non-working spouse’s insecurities.

On the other side of the coin, the assignee can also take an equally vibrant role in introducing their partner to the joys and pleasantries of the culture of their new home in the Bay Area. Weekends spent in cultural centers and celebrations, attending out-of-office dinners given by the assignee’s colleagues, and traveling together can grow his or her confidence, while having fun.

These two issues can be addressed shortly after the assignee and his family settle down. The assignee and his global mobility manager do not have to wait for a crisis to happen. All it takes is a few endearing acts from the assignee, coming from his own acute sensitivity to their partner’s needs. Preparing for these issues might not just save the marriage — it might even make it stronger.