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  • Tanya Arler

An Expat's Hierarchy of Needs

Updated: Apr 5, 2022

Heirarchy of Needs for the Expat Spouse, by Tanya Arler
Expat Hierarchy of Needs

For decades companies have been trying to crack the code on how to increase expat assignment success rates. Studies have shown around half of all failures are due to spouse/family issues and an inability to adapt. In response, Global Mobility Teams have ramped up support services such as cross-cultural training, career coaching and language support in order to turn this around and help spouses adjust. Nonetheless, the failure rate of 40% hasn’t changed much.

So, what are we missing?

Everyone wants to feel happy. Most would settle for content.

Having been an expat spouse for over 20 years with 8 International moves under my belt, I've seen the range of services expand with each move, but somehow they haven’t quite hit the mark. So I started to explore – what makes us happy? How do we define it? What are our needs?

I referred back to Maslow and his hierarchy of needs to find my answer when it comes to expats and expat spouses. It isn’t just that we have needs (physiological, safety, belonging, esteem and self-actualisation) but there are levels and an order of importance. Each of these needs is a building block for the next. Putting that in the context of an expat, I started to see the picture.

In a typical expat situation, between contract negotiations, the look-see, housing and schooling - our first and second level needs are (generously) met.

This is where the working partner and expat spouse part ways in their journey and experience.

Level 3 refers to Belonging. In the context of someone moving to a new country to create a life, this is a big ask. No matter how much research you do, landing and quickly finding a sense of belonging in the context of a new culture is an obstacle course at best.

There's no built-in mechanism to make it easier for spouses. The working expat walks into an established community with shared goals and experiences through their jobs. Their sense of belonging is intact, albeit in need of some tweaking. The spouse, however, must actively seek out opportunities to find belonging and put in concerted effort to integrate themselves into a group or community.

Level 4 refers to Esteem. We develop our self-confidence by using our strengths and abilities that set us apart to pursue purpose and meaning in our lives. Before we do so, however, we need to have found our place in the world (level 3).

Again, the working expat – having been able to transport their sense of belonging – has a new task in the company where they can use their skills, not only to contribute but to distinguish themselves and therefore cater directly to their self-esteem. The spouse - still searching for belonging - adds the loss of purpose and meaning to the void. Abilities or activities that were previously lauded often fall flat in the new environment so they need to search for other tools in their toolbox to boost esteem, or find a new context where their strengths shine.

That is the order: Belonging then Self-Esteem. Unfortunately it isn't that cut and dried in real life, it's more like blurred.

Activities back home, whether it is a job or something else, could have served either of these needs. Some people have jobs to solidify a sense of belonging outside of the family unit, others see their career as their meaning and purpose. The same holds true for a whole host of activities in our day to day lives.

Concretely, where does that leave us? It's true that career coaching and even language classes can help us find our belonging and/or esteem, but we need to be honest and fair – it will be at least 6 months before a spouse that wants to work finds a job, and I am being optimistic here. The same holds true for being able to comfortably converse in a foreign language. So what happens in the meantime?

6 months is a long time to feel lost and overwhelmed. And it's precisely these 6 months that set the tone for the entire assignment. This is the part where the spouse needs support, direction, and a good dose of self-awareness.

Right now, spouses who struggle in the beginning are flailing to stay afloat. For lack of a better idea, they try to replicate circumstances and activities they did back home, but when finding a job seems a long way off and their activities don’t offer the same sense of belonging, they assume it’s because they're inadequate or doing something wrong. If this situation isn’t caught and turned around, it spirals.

There’s no set procedure that can account for the complexity of individuality. Some spouses can walk into a room full of strangers and walk out having found a whole tribe while others panic or simply can’t even get themselves to turn up to such an event. Some thrive in the adventure of their new life but can’t overcome their financial dependance and others feel invisible and alone without the comfort of their routines.

So what is missing?

Individual, personalised attention from pre-departure until 6-months should be non-negotiable. There is a plethora of reasons why spouses struggle in the beginning; homesickness, overwhelmed by the staggering change, frustrated with the culture, lacking structure, feeling invisible, unhappy children, missing their job, practical challenges, pressure from family back home, lack of purpose, feeling inadequate…and the list goes on. Any of these reasons, if not caught in time, could cause the spouse to plummet.

Realistic expectations for themselves and their new life, and support that is personalised to their emotional and practical experiences during the beginning of their expat journey can turn loneliness into belonging and failure into success.

It’s important to remember that it takes a special kind of person to say yes to being a ‘trailing spouse’. The expat spouse is a smart, confident, adventurous person who is willing to take a risk and put themselves out there. They are highly regarded people back home and will have a list of accomplishments that has given them the confidence to take on this challenge. If being an expat spouse were easy and straight-forward we wouldn’t be having this conversation, so under-estimating the personal and situational complexity of being one is a mistake, a mistake most company's shouldn't afford themselves.


Tanya Arler is a coach, workshop facilitator and author, specialised in helping expat spouses manage the major life change they face in a positive way. She offers practical tools, mindset coaching, and advice on how to navigate the staggering change they are going through, all the while remaining the rock their family so desperately needs.

So they too can become...

A Happy Expat


Are you in Global Mobility and want to increase your assignment success rate?

My 4-part Transition Coaching for expat assignees and their spouses offers guidance, insight and tools to help them better navigate the process of change and adapt more quickly and easily so your assignee can focus their energy on performing to their potential.

To set up a call or get more information, contact Tanya at

Are you and expat spouse struggling to adapt to your new life?

I dedicate myself to helping any way I can. You can follow me on Facebook for tips and insights, get your free ebook with insight on how to navigate expat change, order my book UNPACK - a guide to life for an expat spouse or email me at to set up your free discovery call with me.

Expat Spouse

Working Expat

Working expat has far more opportunity to fill these needs. Adapting challenges lie mostly in cultural, language and procedural differences

Working expat has far more opportunity to fill these needs. Adapting challenges lie mostly in cultural, language and procedural differences

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