Literature is replete with research on expatriation. Expatriate failure, as a particular niche of expatriation research, nevertheless still poses a large gap in our understanding of the expatriate journey. With assignment failure rates and associated costs continuing to climb, research has called for a more detailed examination of expatriate failure, including its causes of and effects on all stakeholders involved. One such stakeholder in the success of expatriate assignments is the trailing spouse, the partner who relocated due to his/her spouse’s international transfer. According to Brookfield (2014), the leading cause for failure is spouse dissatisfaction, and as such it warrants a proper examination of why and how spouses can influence expatriation success.
The role of multinational corporations in expatriation success is largely based on providing a support structure for the expatriate rather than a support structure for those accompanying the expatriate. Therefore the aim of this thesis is to develop a better understanding of the adjustment process of trailing spouses accompanying expatriates to international assignment destinations. Uncovering the trailing spouse general adjustment process can be informative to trailing spouses themselves in order to understand their role on assignment as well as help inform multinational corporations on how to extend their currently limited or non-existent support mechanism for this stakeholder in expatriation success. Generally speaking, the idea is that if trailing spouses successfully adjust to a new assignment location, it is likely that they will act as a better support mechanism to expatriates and thereby help to reduce expatriate failure rates. As a result, the following research question was identified: How does a trailing spouse adjust on an international assignment?
The thesis was of exploratory nature and utilised the Straussian grounded theory approach. Sixteen semi-structured interviews with female trailing spouses were conducted. Findings revealed a theoretical framework consisting of four phases elucidating the trailing spouses’ process of adjustment. This process appears to be focused on the notion of continuous learning which has the potential to lead to better adjustment. The four phases of this learning process are: (1) identifying experiences, (2) constructing an understanding and consideration of the fundamental issues, (3) employing actions/ strategies and (4) engaging in reflection and self-realisation. The process draws parallels to existing experiential learning literature. The data further revealed that this learning process generates attributes which are linked to capabilities specific to the trailing spouse context.
The findings have theoretical and practical implications and contribute new knowledge about trailing spouse adjustment on international assignments. Moreover, findings have highlighted the responsibilities of both the multinational corporation and the trailing spouses in this process of adjustment. Recapitulating the above, a more encapsulating and holistic picture of the success of international assignment is painted through the examination of expatriation and expatriation success via the lens of trailing spouses.