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Expats less successful when having relationship problems

11 January 2011

Living abroad for your work can put enormous strain on your relationship. What expats and their partners go through can be compared with having your first child. Expat couples should therefore prepare well for missions abroad. Companies can also play a role in this. By not only assisting their employees but also the partners, they increase the chances of a successful mission. This has been revealed by research conducted by behavioural scientist Kim van Erp, who will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 20 January 2011.

Every year, large numbers of the Dutch go abroad for shorter or longer periods of time for their work. Previous research revealed that whether these expats are successful in their work partly depends on their partner’s wellbeing. If the partner is unhappy living abroad, then the chances that the mission will fail are greater. Kim van Erp studied this relationship in more detail. She investigated the influence of relationship stress, among other things, on the success of missions abroad. To this end she asked over a hundred Dutch expat couples from all over the world to complete questionnaires.


Greater dependence

Van Erp’s research has revealed that as soon as they move abroad, the roles of expats and their partners change. The expats spend more time on their work and their partners usually have no job at all. This means that the chores and responsibilities are also less equally shared. In addition to financial dependence, a stay abroad can lead to feelings of injustice. This in turn can lead to conflict, which prevents couples adapting to their new life. Van Erp: ‘The results of my research are extremely similar to those of research into having your first child. Couples go through similar experiences in these situations.’


Avoiding conflict

Much psychological specialist literature states that it is not sensible to avoid conflicts in a relationship. If you do, unresolved conflicts can get larger and become more threatening, at least that is the assumption. However, for expats avoidance can be effective, Van Erp’s research shows. ‘Expats and their partners know that their situation is temporary and realise that the problems they are experiencing cannot be solved while they’re abroad. As soon as they return to their home country, the relationships shift back to normal’, according to the PhD student. Unrelated to this, Van Erp points out that avoidance behaviour need not stem from disinterest but can also result from sympathy and work in a protective way.


Invest in the partner

Couples sent abroad for a mission should realise that they have a major influence on each other, says the researcher. Van Erp: ‘Don’t think I’m going abroad for my work and my partner’s coming along, but realise that you will operate as a team. You really do affect each other.’ Companies should also do much more, according to the PhD student. They should not only prepare their staff member but also his or her partner. This could be by providing information, networking opportunities as well as help from a social worker or relationship expert. Van Erp: ‘Companies should also assist the partner properly. That will increase the effectiveness of their staff member and reduce the chances of that staff member throwing in the towel and wanting to return home early .’


Curriculum Vitae

Kim van Erp (Eindhoven, 1979) studied Industrial Engineering and Management in Eindhoven and conducted her PhD research at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences of the University of Groningen, in the Kurt Lewin Institute. She is currently a researcher at Eindhoven University of Technology.  The title of her thesis is ‘When worlds collide. The role of justice, conflict and personality for expatriate couples' adjustment.’ Her supervisors were Prof. K.I. van Oudenhoven-Van der Zee and Prof. E. Giebels.


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Last modified:15 September 2017 3.30 p.m.
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