Cultural Chameleon BLOG

Breaking up is harder to do for expats
Posted by admin on 1st March 2016

With more and more Australian families living and working overseas, it’s worthwhile exploring some of those more sensitive issues that we don’t see a lot of discussion about in traditional media. Things like the pressures that overseas assignments can bring, and what happens when a marriage ends on foreign soil.

I’m not one to be morbid. In fact, I consider myself a true optimist, but, speaking from experience, sometimes living and working as an expat can be hard, especially on trailing spouses and families as they try to find a sense of ‘home and harmony’ in places that might be lonely and unfamiliar.

Recently, Yvonne McNulty, an associate faculty member at SIM University in Singapore, completed a study called Till Stress Do Us Part: The Causes and Consequences of Expatriate Divorce.

Ms McNulty studied 38 expat divorces in 27 different countries. Her findings showed that expat life brings a peculiar set of challenges to a marriage, particularly for trailing spouses who can find themselves with a loss of identity, a sense of isolation and a lack of intimate friendships and family/ community, both of which can be particularly supportive to struggling relationships.

Another incredibly destructive factor is long work hours and extensive travelling.

Other problems McNulty’s study group encountered were toxic expat communities, the illusion that ‘home rules don’t apply’ which might lead to condoning or justifying extra-marital affairs, and the simple fact that in some countries Western men are considered such a prize catch that the local women will do anything – anything – to snare one.

Against this backdrop, it might be easy to assume that expat marriages are doomed before the couple gets on the aeroplane, but this is not necessarily true. McNulty found that even though these challenges are prevalent for expat marriages, they are not necessarily the cause of higher divorce rates, because spouses far from home might consider that it’s easier to stay in an unhappy relationship than to flee.

Beware the law

However, if things do become irreconcilable, it’s important to remember one thing: If you divorce on foreign soil, the rules of that particular country apply.

And there are extremes. In Malta for example, there is no divorce, although couples may be granted an ‘annulment’ – which is a lengthy and complicated process. In Scandinavia, by comparison, the approach to divorce is simple and relatively straightforward. In some Asian countries it is acceptable for men to ‘hide’ assets, in other countries it’s not possible for spouses to have joint bank accounts, so in both of these situations, the wife may not have the complete and accurate financial picture when assets are divided. If the marriage is a same-sex marriage, in some countries it won’t even be recognized, leaving both parties with no rights.

Custody of the children

Divorce is hard on everyone, but particularly the children. While The Hague Convention of 1980 requires that children remain in the country where custody is disputed, some Middle Eastern countries aren’t members of the convention. In some countries the father will automatically be awarded custody. And in some cases where families have travelled for successive years on corporate assignments it is not simply a case of ‘returning home’ with the children. Where, exactly, is ‘home’ with all the necessary support structures required for the divorced spouse who is responsible for raising the children? Where is ‘home’ for children who might have been born in a different country from their primary parent/caregiver ?

The reality is that some marriages won’t last an overseas posting, and while employers and employees approach these assignments with the best of intentions, very few companies are set up to adequately support couples in crisis. For anyone in an unhappy relationship seeking divorce, the advice is: Don’t do anything rash. Conduct the appropriate research first, use the Internet, speak with the HR team of your sponsor company if appropriate, seek legal counsel in the local jurisdiction if possible, and aim to understand your position thoroughly before making any moves.


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