In one of my recent posts I discussed the issue of dual-career couples. As noted, dual-career challenges remain one of the key expatriation challenges, influencing both the decision to accept an assignment and the assignment experience itself. Due to several possible reasons, families may decide to split for the period of the assignment, so that one spouse is able to accept expatriation, and the other to maintain the life (work, children etc.) back home. A recent insight survey by Cartus (2013) looks into the topic of split family status and the related best practices.
Given the family life disruption involved in split family assignments, it is clear that organizations should ideally try to prevent such cases. Helping the spouse with career options abroad, providing language and cross-cultural courses, and facilitating expat children’s schooling in the new location are some of the strategies to use here.
If a split family move is unavoidable though, organizations should try to make this disruption as brief and painless as possible. Commuter assignments, or short assignments linked with holiday and frequent home-leave allowances can be quite helpful. Such fly-in-fly-out solutions may serve as a temporary remedy for the situation. In a way, it doesn’t sound so bad if the expat gets back to his/her family once every few weeks, right? However, there are still days, weeks, or months of separation, which, as argued by psychotherapist Pauline Boss, are not that harmless after all.
Orphan spouses and ambiguous loss
Referring to split family spouses as orphan spouses (a term first coined by Pamela Leach), Dr. Boss introduces the term of ambiguous loss. Specifically, Dr. Boss argues that an orphan spouse misses his/her other half, and vice versa, because there is a feeling of psychological presence, but the reality of physical absence. At the same time, when spouses reunite for short moments during the assignment period, it is possible that although both spouses are physically present, they might not find their psychological connection. As such, both situations entail a sense of loss, which Dr. Boss classifies as ambiguous. In essence, there is no definite loss of a person (like death), but these countless ins and outs of the travelling spouse may be quite stressful, because family members miss each other, hope and wait for reunions, and finally experience deprivation every time they are separated again.
In one of her interviews, Pauline Boss argued that companies should pay more attention to the health of their employees, especially with regard to split family assignments. As she noted: ‘I’m just thinking of all these men and women who are on assignment somewhere, who must feel very lonely at times and also wish they were home for a birthday with their child and their spouse’.
Practical implications for split families
On a practical side, Pauline suggests that apart from the obvious aim of decreasing separation time, families should try to connect in a predictive manner. This requires communication via technology and physical visits back home, both of which should be regularly scheduled in order to decrease the ambiguity of the situation.
Another emphasis concerns the continuity of family life. Specifically, when the travelling spouse is visiting home any disruption of the regular life of the home-based family members should be avoided. Children and the home-based spouse should not cancel their plans and live a different kind of life while the travelling spouse is back home. As Pauline suggests, the person who is coming back needs to fit into the family. Naturally, family dinners and get-togethers can be planned for the time the family is reunited, but not at the expense of other established routines of family members. Finally, it is suggested that the home-based partner would be in charge of the family life, which should not be changed once the travelling spouse is visiting home.
All in all, predictability and regularity of family reunions, as well as maintaining continuity of family life back home seem to be critical for making split family assignments work for all family members without making them feel like orphans or creating the experience of ambiguous loss.