International relocation is undoubtedly a source of stress for families, and in particular for married couples. Yet, despite familial challenges and the fact that “family concerns” remain a top reason for assignment refusal and assignment failure, including a growing body of anecdotal evidence suggesting that many expatriate marriages fail often at huge cost to organizations, there is not one academic study yet published on expatriate divorce. The purpose of this paper is to empirically examine the causes and consequences of expatriate divorce.
In this exploratory case-based study, the author uses respondent data from 13 face-to-face interviews and 25 online survey participants.
Findings demonstrate that expatriate marriages end in divorce for two main reasons: first, a core issue in the marriage that exists before going abroad (e.g. alcoholism, mental health problems) and which continues while abroad; and second, when one or both spouses is negatively influenced by an expatriate culture to such an extent that a form of “group think” results in polarizing behavior that is counter to how they might behave “back home” (e.g. infidelity, sexual misconduct). The consequences of divorce for expatriates are immense and include bankruptcy, destitution, homelessness, depression, psychophysiological illness, alienation from children, and suicide.
Data are cross-sectional and findings are limited by single-response bias. Future studies would do well to research matched samples of couples engaging in global work experiences over different points in time in order to track longitudinal changes in marital quality, including why some go on to divorce while others recover from marital breakdown and stay married.
One of the strongest pieces of advice offered by most of the respondents is for spouses, and trailing spouses in particular, to know their legal rights and entitlements in each country where they are living in the event of divorce.
This is the first study to empirically explore the lived experience of expatriate divorce.
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