An expatriate’s life can be tough on a marriage
A Belgian living here was charged with killing his son while in the midst of a custody battle. How tough is it for expatriates here when relationships fall apart?
Jasmine (not her real name) has no family here, save her 11-year-old son and ex-husband.
But she won't go back to the UK yet because her son needs his father.
"Even though the marriage failed, I made a decision to stay here so my son has access to his father.
"But that also means I have no family support and very few friends I can turn to for help.
"And it is depressing," Jasmine tells The New Paper on Sunday.
Jasmine's story is not uncommon, says Dr Yvonne McNulty. In fact, divorce rates among expatriates have hit "epidemic levels", she wrote in The Straits Times on Oct 10. She says expat marriages can come under significant stress because of factors like relocation and isolation.
The murder of five-year-old Keryan Graffart allegedly by his own father, Philippe Graffart, a Belgian, prompted the international business scholar to write to The Straits Times.
Graffart was charged in court last week and his case will be heard on Oct 28.
Dr McNulty, a Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) lecturer who has 15 years of consulting and lecturing experience, says the perception that expat families come to Singapore and live it large is not true and the reality is that expat life here can be very stressful.
Jasmine's nine-year marriage was ended last year after four years of legal tussles. The family moved here in 2007 for her husband's career. Their boy was a toddler then.
Jasmine, who was on a Dependant's Pass, found herself often alone and dependent on her husband, who was the sole breadwinner.
His job often meant long hours in the office and overseas business trips.
Jasmine says she left everything behind - family, friends, a job and home.
"I was in a foreign country and basically left to fend for myself."
With her husband's increasing absence, Jasmine searched desperately for a support network in other parents at her son's school.
"Even when you make friends in a foreign country, it is most of the time different from what you have back home. The dynamics, the foundation, the values and beliefs - it's all quite different.
"But it was sink or swim. You're not used to it, but you befriend them anyway because that's all you have," she says.
Jasmine feels she was naive and too quick to agree to the move.
She says: "It was hard for me as an expat wife as it was but the fact that he restricted almost everything worsened the already tough situation."
She says that the fancy lifestyle that most people think expat wives lead is far from the reality.
"The idea that you are given a heftier allowance and a fantasy lifestyle is not true.
"After leaving my job back home and moved here, I felt like I lost my sense of identity.
"I had to reinvent myself and find a purpose in my life. I couldn't be a freelance model or actress like I was before because it's a different market. My qualifications are vocational not professional.
"And it was because I couldn't dedicate my time to a career and that intensified the loneliness and didn't help the re-establishment of my identity."
Eventually their marriage started falling apart and they divorced, with Jasmine receiving a settlement and getting custody of her son who attends school here.
"I'm here so that my son can be close to his father - who is very doting - but I have to continuously put in extra effort to make myself happy every single day," she says.
By the numbers
Number of non-residents including dependants, international students and individuals working here
16 per cent of non-resident population are dependants of citizens, permanent residents and work pass holders
'I had to become everything I didn't want to be'
Alice (not her real name) gave up her job as a social worker and headed to Hong Kong with her husband, who was in the finance industry.
She says: "When I got there, I was suddenly surrounded by a bunch of women who sat around and complained about their maids.
"I received a call from a woman saying that she was 'a Goldman wife' (Goldman Sachs) and since I was a new Goldman wife, she invited me for a coffee meet-up.
"It was like I had to become everything that I didn't want to be to keep up."
She stayed away from the group but that only made making friends harder.
Not having a support system of friends and family meant she struggled to acclimatise to her new environment.
Her husband, too, kept long hours because of his career.
Originally from the US, Alice adds: "It became incredibly lonely. There was no adult companionship and after months of that, I ended up resenting him for it.
"Subsequently, the bitterness made me someone that was tough to get along with. That, inevitably, took a toll on the marriage and I didn't know how to fix it."
Over the years, Alice has moved to several countries with her husband and her children were all born overseas.
To fill the void, she focused on her children.
"I focused so much on the kids that it came to a point where I wouldn't want to even go for work events that he had.
"He wanted me to be someone other than the mother of our children but the long periods of loneliness made being a mother the only purpose in my life.
"It became who I was and as a result, the marriage was neglected."
Talking about it to someone or at a support group meant that other expat wives would know the truth and that was not an option for her.
"I didn't want that to happen. I didn't want to announce that things weren't good at home.
"And because I couldn't talk to someone who understood my situation, I bottled it up."
They are now separated and in the midst of an acrimonious divorce that is taking place overseas. "I just need my family. A support system is all I need especially now, in the midst of this divorce.
"This situation that it has become is certainly not ideal for me and the kids.
"Custody terms have said that I must live in Singapore. That also means that I'm stuck here with no solid support system.
"And there's nothing I can do about it."
'Strong and stable marriage' a crucial adjustment factor
Dr Yvonne McNulty has had her share of experiences as a "trailing wife" as she accompanied her husband to countries including the US, Singapore, and China.
The 47-year-old lecturer, with 15 years of consulting and lecturing experience under her belt, has had her research featured in a number of publications including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times .
In one of her studies, she explored the impact relocation has on expats and their trailing spouses.
Dr McNulty, who specialises in expatriation and global mobility research, gathered data from 264 trailing spouses using an online questionnaire.
The study found that "99 per cent of trailing spouses rated 'a strong and stable marriage' as the most important adjustment factor during an international assignment.
And 71 per cent indicated it is harder to adjust in a new location when there is a high degree of marital stress".
The study added that sources of marital tension were due to spending insufficient time with their spouse and a lack of understanding about the deeper adjustment issues and challenges they faced.
Dr McNulty adds: "Trailing spouses have to re-establish a sense of purpose when they move abroad and if they can't do that, it will most likely start straining the relationship.
"My research has shown that the biggest struggle (for accompanying partners) is reinventing themselves, finding their identity in a foreign country."
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