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  • Writer's pictureShanghai Expat Association

A Recipe for Success

By Liz Anderson

If there was a recipe for a successful trailing spouse in Shanghai, I think it might read something like this:

  • Start with one curious human

  • add a generous cup of adventure

  • a dash of determination

  • sprinkle in friends from all over the world

  • and let simmer in the biggest city you can imagine for at least two years

Much has been written about the obvious necessities of living here: the right apps (see page 46 of the 2018 September/October issue of the Courier for our list), a great ayi, a good driver, and friends with whom you can really connect. If you ask 100 people if learning Mandarin is necessary, you will probably find as many in favor as against.

But is that really it? Is there anything else you need to do or have in order to succeed? I wanted to explore the psychological needs that a spouse has when moving abroad, because no matter how happy you are at home, there are bound to be issues in a new place.

I believe most people come here hoping for an exciting season of life. Many know that it will only be two or three years, so they want to see and do what they can before they move on to the next chapter. If it’s your first overseas assignment, though, a critical component of happiness as a trailing spouse can be managed before you even arrive: research support networks and activities that you enjoy. Vivian, a British expat with a young daughter, said that before arriving she “had already connected with Shanghai Mamas and the Rooster Moms groups.” Her advice is to “research how to have a similar routine to back home if possible. Discuss with your spouse the dynamics in your relationship and how things will change, because they will change!”

Even for the most adventurous family, the important thing to remember is that you will likely experience some negative emotions as well. Therapist Dr. Vilia Lyell from Community Center Shanghai sees three common themes when treating expats. “The first one is grief over the loss of both tangible and intangible items: the sale of a house or car, missing a friend’s wedding, even missing someone who ‘gets’ your humor. I call it expatriate grief.” Lyell assures that you don’t need permission to grieve these things just because you willingly made the decision to move. Sometimes, expatriate grief is wrongly diagnosed as depression and people end up on antidepressants unnecessarily.

The second problem she sees is what she calls the “orphan spouse.” The trailing partner in the relationship “has given up career and financial independence, and the working partner has incredible pressure on him. He works long hours, travels extensively, and is sometimes too focused on career success and not equally on relationship success, and thus has taken his eye off the couple. Loneliness, resentment, and anxiety can happen in the orphan spouse, especially if the children aren’t with you or you don’t have any.”

As Vivian noted, “For me, what’s had the most impact on me has been not finding a job and not working. I thought I would find a job seconds after I got in, and I spoke to every recruiter I could find and joined loads of job groups on WeChat. I went from being relevant in my career back home to being nothing career-wise, and I think that’s been what I struggled with the most, and I wasn’t prepared for it.”

The career (or lack thereof) can be a big issue for many couples, and one that doesn’t necessarily have a financial component to it. After the first three months of settling the logistics of living in Shanghai, spouses often wake up one day and ask themselves, “What next?” You may not have to work as a trailing spouse, but what if you want to? Work in Shanghai can be tricky without a proper visa, but there are still several options. The easiest way might be to take an unpaid job with a non-profit like Shanghai Sunrise or Bloodline, which adds experience to your resume despite not bringing home a paycheck.

The International Professional Women’s Society (IPWS) is a great organization for women who are actively seeking full-time work and wish to connect with other like-minded women. Groups like AmCham and other national chambers of commerce can also be ways to connect and network with potential employers.

No matter what you want to do, it’s important to have honest conversations with your spouse about the expectations you both have for your time here. Your life will be different here than it was at home. Dr. Lyell says that healthy relationships need to be cultivated—they don’t happen automatically. The keys are communication, seeking out therapeutic support as soon as you think someone in the family is struggling, and keeping the connection to home and to your spouse. Self-care and relationship care are vital.

Lyell’s final point is our children’s integration into the expat lifestyle. “They have to say goodbye so often, more than we as adults ever do. They experience peer-group-related difficulties, feelings of disconnection from their parents as their parents are struggling with their own adjustment, or perhaps they are high achievers back home who lose the chance to excel here.” As with the spousal dynamic, it’s important to seek counseling early when a child is experiencing issues abroad.

Beyond the research and expectations, innate or learned personality traits can mean the difference between success and failure. What do people say are the best traits for success as a trailing spouse?

“A sense of humor, positive attitude, friends, and a great driver.” Sonya Mertens, recently repatriated American

“Flexibility, independence, resourcefulness.” Jen Bunty, American

“Be open to traveling alone, be open to meet new people from all over the world, keep telling yourself that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and you can always go back if it doesn’t work out. Be patient and have a sense of humor!” Meirav, Israeli

“Know your own boundaries, know when to say yes without feeling resentment or no without feeling guilty afterward; have self-awareness, a sense of humor, and hold onto your short- and long-term goals.” –Dr. Vilia Lyell, South African

In other words, no matter what happens, try to be resilient. If you’re open to it, this city has so much to offer and the time can truly fly by. Everyone has different priorities, and your family’s stage of life plays a big part in what you can do while living here. There are so many great opportunities available. Do a little research and stay open to all kinds of experiences.

As with any recipe, the best ingredients yield the best result. Resilience, perseverance, humor, and self-awareness will really help make your time in Shanghai something to savor.

About the author: Liz Anderson is an American wife and mother living abroad for the first time. Between juggling two kids, volunteering, and coffee with friends, she can be found blogging at

Original Courier publish date: March, 2019

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