The Irrational Anger of an Expat Spouse

"Oh, no, no. I couldn't possibly have anything to say about it. Why, I'm just a spouse..."
“Oh, no, no. I couldn’t possibly have anything to say about it. Why, I’m just a spouse…”

I barked at my husband this morning.

More than once.

He didn’t do anything. He hadn’t said anything or implied anything. He was just reading his book.

Yet I was angry at him because he was there.

Sometimes as an expat spouse you find yourself in situations you have no control over. Most of the time your spouse has  zero control either, but that just shores up the irrational part of my title. You find yourself in a state of confusion and delay and while there are lots of states that are nice to visit (might I suggest Rhode Island, oft overlooked), confusion and delay is not a nice state to spend any time in.

So you blame your spouse.

They get the blame for no other reason than it’s their fault you are here. Or there. Or waiting to decide whether you are here. Or there.

It’s their stupid job, their stupid company, their stupid rules and regulations. If it weren’t for their stupidness you’d be cooking up vast pots of Goya black beans you bought at Target complaining about that guy in your neighborhood who has a Trump sign on their lawn.

But you’re not, because you’re somewhere else. Because of their stupid job.

I don’t know if I ever told you this, but my husband works for the World Heath Organization. You’d think we’d have the best medical care and coverage and insurance ever, right? You think we’d be getting MRIs and biopsies with the vitamins. But nope. We have suck ass health insurance. I get infuriated about it even thought’s not my husband’s fault. But when I get into irrational angry expat wife mode, it’s his fault because…well, we’re here because of his stupid job.

Don't make me call HR.
Don’t make me call HR.

(In irrational angry expat spouse mode, the benefits don’t get a look-see. Irrational, remember?)

A close friend confided that while she and her spouse were deciding between two job offers she was inclined to let her husband make the final decision, not because she didn’t care, but so that she could hold him responsible if it all went wrong.

She didn’t mean it of course, and the decision was made by both of them. But still…

I get it.

His stupid job. Hers. Yours. Whatever. It’s his/her/their fault you are here. Or there. Or somewhere in between.

As an expat spouse you get very little say in the way things work. You might have equal say at your own dinner table, in the ultimate decision that takes your family from country to country, but you get no say in things like what health insurance plan is offered or how the pension scheme is set up or how they deal with moving families.

And sometimes the lack of control over even the little things, let alone the big ones, makes you feel cornered. And since most of us can’t actively lash out at the companies our spouses work for, we lash out at the next best thing.

Our spouse.

Expats spouses aren’t the only ones who feel cornered. But those feelings are amplified when your spouse’s regular old stupid job becomes a stupid job in another country.

I’ve talked to expats who were expected to pick up and move within weeks. Can I explain to you the stress of having to pack up a family and move them to another country, to find schools, a place to live, supermarkets, doctors, dentists, hairdressers, babysitters and a liquor store with a good wine selection in a place there’s a good chance you’ve never even been before? A place without cheese doodles, even?

People do it. That doesn’t mean it they don’t want to brain the head of recruitment at their spouse’s company while they’re doing it. (And since they can’t get close enough to the HR guy, their spouse makes a handy understudy)

a-harvard-psychologists-advice-on-how-to-argue-when-you-know-youre-rightI’ve talked to expats who have been forced to live in different countries because companies don’t take into account the difficulty or consequences of moving school children mid-year. Or in their last year of high school. Or the fact there may not be openings. Or housing. Why? Because they don’t care or they expect the employee to figure it out, or think throwing money at the problem will fix it. Or they just suck ass.


I haven’t met many (if any) expats who felt their spouse’s employer did anything to help them or their family adjust to the general trauma of moving. In fact, there is a whole cottage industry of companies who, for a fee, will help you settle into your new home, school, country, etc.

(p.s. HR guy, that nice fruit basket doesn’t really cover the trauma of packing up and moving three kids and a dog across continental borders, but thanks, I guess.)

You know what most companies who hire expats do? Suck. Ass.

Like our health insurance.

Come to think of it, most of these things are pretty rational things to get angry about. But not at my spouse.

Irrational angry expat spouse mode isn’t fair and it’s not even productive. But it’s real. And it happens.

Don’t worry too much about my husband. He went back to reading this book. And I still brought him coffee, so he knew it was ok. Only rational angry expat spouse would deny him coffee. And she’s a bitch.



32 thoughts on “The Irrational Anger of an Expat Spouse

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  1. AND all that other stuff falls squarely on your shoulders. While Spouse just moves offices, we end up with all the hard stuff. Like

    “What do you mean the bill was due a month ago- it says right here May 23, 2020?”

    “That’s in the year of the emperor , not the western year.”


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the laugh, I needed it! I think I’ve used an analogy similar to the ‘you get a new stapler, I’ve got to figure everything else out’. It always makes me feel better to realize I’m not just making things up!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. When we moved to Switzerland, his job was at the World Trade Organization (before it was a pariah, mind you). There was a wonderful woman there, Ann, who acted as interpreter and explainer of everything, went with us to look at houses, gave us explicit instructions on how to get drivers’ licenses, lists of everything from doctors to shops, and organized a day camp for the kids. I thought that was the way it was done until she retired and I heard how difficult it was for everybody who came after Ann left. We were so lucky. I would have been a very unhappy/irrational wife without Ann.

    My boss at the WHO told me of an early TB doctor working in Egypt. He was being chased out of town and he stopped by the flat to leave this note for his wife: “Pay, pack and follow.” That sums up life as an expat wife nicely, I think.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. How lucky you were to have an Ann! I think most of us have had at least half an Ann to help us out,. But to have to rely on luck seems incredibly unfair. And callous. And so many other words that spring to mind!


  3. Oh, wow. I so identify with these feelings – not as an expat wife, but as the wife of a person with depression and other diagnoses. Irrational, intense anger for something that is totally not my husband’s fault. It comes out unexpectedly – or, as I’ve been dealing with recently, I keep it to myself because I know it’s totally not fair to rail at him about all the crap I have to deal with due to his illnesses. And that “keeping it to myself” is causing major emotional turmoil for me. At any rate, I have deep empathy for you in this situation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a really interesting comparison and I can see how it would be very similar. Feeling cornered is a feeling I think many of us are familiar with and it’s universally disliked. I imagine the gamut of feelings is extreme in the situation you’re describing, but you are expected to ‘put a brave face on’ and as you say, keep in in. Which almost always results in some sort of boiling over. I only say very similar b/c at the end of the day, what I’m dealing with is not life-threatening or life-altering, whereas what you are dealing with is.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, that pretty much covers it. In our situation we’re no longer dealing with a life-threatening illness, but life-altering most certainly.


  4. I think what sets me off is when there is something I could easily fix if I were home, and I have to rely on his sucky employer to fix it. And that sucky employer usually won’t even communicate directly with me, they insist on going through my husband. Which means he feels like I am nagging him when the only reason he even knows about the problem is that I can’t fix it myself because of HIS sucky employer. Phew, I feel better now.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sucky employers suck ass. Several IRL friends read your comment and regaled me with their own similar stories. I imagine its worse in certain postings as well, where people may not be used to or willing to deal with a woman–even if the woman is the employee!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh this is so very, very true. I can remember being very angry this time last year when the employers told us we had 2 weeks to sort a relocation to a new office (in country thank goodness but to a completely different part from the island we had been on) 9 months after we had arrived, mid year and with a 6 month baby and 2 dogs. We moved AGAIN 9 months after (internationally) that but at our own volition – we changed employers!


      1. I was interviewing an HR manager two weeks ago, collecting data for my master degree dissertation (“the impact of family dynamics on the expatriation cycle”) and he welcomed me saying that the expat spouse should be grateful for the struggle since it makes her/him stronger. I let you imagine my inhumane effort not just to maintain control and a positive attitude but not to hit him with the crystal paper holder he had on his desk…
        Anyway, I love your article, as a seasoned expat I totally relate, nonetheless I try my best to balance the irrational anger with rational gratitude for all the great experiences and opportunities we have had so far.
        P.S.: I would have loved the fruit basket, never got it


      2. What an asshole! ;-). I’m not sure I would have resisted throwing the paperweight. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t trade in the experiences we’ve had or the way it’s changed us all individually or as a family either. But there’s a nice middle ground on which they could make things a little more pleasant (the employers, not the spouses ;-).) Factoring in school is the huge one, really, and it’s the one that most people I know stress the most about. Oh, and we didn’t get a fruit basket either, though some I know did!


      3. I will be submitting my dissertation by the end of August. I will send you a copy of you wish.

        The bottom line is that recognizing the family’s needs and helping the settling in process, in order to make it smooth and quick, benefits the organization and drastically reduce the expatriation failure rate.
        It’s not rocket science, right? But I can assure you that many companies seem to fail to grasp this basic concept, wasting money on practices that really do not target the family’s need, basically because they refuse to assess them in an organic way. I believe that flexibility of the support practice and communication between company and family are crucial.


      4. Marta, you might want to consider presenting at the next Families in Global Conference. The call for papers should be going out in early August. The conference will be in the Netherlands in March 2017.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh hell yeah, exactly what Kelly said – this is what I find SO FRUSTRATING! It is having no control because I have to do it ALL THROUGH HIS FLIPPING OFFICE. Or him. And he is too busy you know catching criminals or whatever it is he does to chase things like setting up a bank account so that i can do things like pay for the kids swimmng classes. Jeez yes it is frustrating and one of things that is hard to explain to people who don’t lead this life 🙂


    1. I want even tell you what I had to do to get my new bank card sent to the right address (not a new bank account mind you, a replacement card for the one which was expiring which the bank sent to the wrong address…), all the while having a series of one line email communication pretending to be my husband….


  7. Thank you, thank you! Just been giggling as I read this aloud to my spouse. What I particularly ‘love’ is the HR Managers who have never left HQ and tell me how fortunate we are to be able to travel, experience new cultures blah blah. They are right, of course, but when I ask them (politely and in a sort of non-sarcastic manner) why they have never moved countries, the response is usually along the lines of ‘well, I would love to of course but I have….(fill in the blank): family commitments, aged parents, young kids, HS kids……..AS WE ALL DO! Every country move has involved me loathing the incumbent HR organisation more than I thought possible..and of course my dearly beloved ends up bearing the brunt of my frustration….but it ultimately works out. Thank you for expressing the feelings so succinctly.


    1. Would you like to know the kicker? My husband actually is HR ;-). Not in that capacity, but STILL. It’s like the irony of ironies! I hear you though. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but sometimes, man, there could be some serious throat punches!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Here I am in Japan 4 months now, tearfully biding my colleagues and workplace which i have faithfully worked for 21 years.

    These 4 months were filled with boredom, anger, frustrations, despair you name it. Packing, moving settling down is easy. But the days that followed weren’t. For no reasons, I began to loathe the sight of him being at home and I find myself getting irritated with his delayed short and unclear WhatsApp message.
    Theres nothing wrong with the country, Its lovely, it’s safe and people are generally nice. But I hated it all.
    I hated myself for agreeing to come as a trailing spouse for his career sake knowingly there’s basically nothing for me. Picking up the language is no longer my objective. I lost all drive. I wallow in self pity and anger. We are growing apart & I cant bear to think of our future anymore.


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D.E. Haggerty

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