Women suffer stress when they move abroad, study shows

by Ray Clancy on March 16, 2011

Women more stressed than men in moving

Women who become expats because their husbands’ job takes them abroad often suffer stress with the move and having children helps them to integrate, according to a study.

Different factors influenced what women viewed as stressful and what affected how they adjust to their new country, the report from the US based Interchange Institute shows.

It quizzed, mostly, white married American women living in a new country temporarily because of their husbands’ jobs who were expecting to return home or to another country within five years.

There was no single world region that women found easier to live in or in which they could adjust more easily. Nor did having been on prior international assignments protect women from adjustment problems.

The research found that only 6.2% of the spouses were consulted by their husbands’ employers before the decision to move was made and 31% said they and/or their husbands/partners felt pressured into accepting the assignment.

Women who were consulted by the employer, felt equally involved in the decision and did not feel pressured have significantly better adjustment.

Women experienced some gains and some losses as a result of the move. The most important of these for their adjustment were their professional identity, social status, material comfort and housing, and time with friends. Those who experienced gains in these areas had better adjustment while those with losses had poorer adjustment.

Mothers of teenagers and women with no children had poorer adjustment than mothers of younger or adult children. Having children meant both having more opportunities for entering the new culture yet the possibility of worry and stress.

Also women who started their assignments well prepared in terms of language skill, cultural understanding, and career strategy had an easier time fitting into the culture.

‘I have spent so much time supporting my spouse and helping my children adapt that I feel as if I have no energy left for me. After a 12-year stint as a stay at home mom and then finally finding the perfect job part time, we were uprooted. The resentment is some days overwhelming. I wake up every day wondering what I’m going to do until it is time to go to bed again,’ said one woman.

While a few aspects of international living got easier with time, most did not, nor did adjustment. And some things got harder with time, suggesting that in some ways, as women become more accustomed to a culture they become more aware of and distressed by the ways they are different and marginalized. Even when things did get easier, it took at least three years to do so.

A very different culture was not necessarily more stressful. ‘Our experience living in Japan was fabulous. We lived in Tokyo where there is a large expat community with all of its resources. Where we live now in England, there are not many expats. Believe it or not, life was much easier as an expat in Tokyo than it is here,’ one woman explained.

Some of the most stressful issue resolved around language, being treated differently because of their nationality, missing family and friends and losing contact with their home country.

For those living abroad for the first time the main issues were learning everyday customs, grasping everyday living costs, the quality and type of food, shopping, and getting daily tasks done.

When asked to give advice to other expatriate spouses, one of the most common suggestions from participants was to study the host language. ‘When one is not fluent in the native language, even small frustrations are amplified to giant proportions. Articulate, intelligent expatriate adults are viewed as difficult to understand or incomprehensible by locals who would find life much easier if the expats were not there,’ said one woman living in Austria.

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