Expat advice: Four tips for the happy trailing spouse

Image borrowed from ggevrey.wordpress.com

Last month when I posted about culture shock, I briefly touched on the difficulties of being an unemployed spouse in a foreign country and have recently discovered that I have my own title: the trailing spouse. While the term itself could use some help, ExpatiriateConnection.com defines us like this:

Trailing Spouse is the word used to designate the partner following his/her spouse on assignment abroad…The “trailing spouse” is the anchor in a successful relocation process. It’s the central element around which everything falls into place. While the working employee goes to work, the trailing spouse is in charge of all the “non-corporate” aspects of life for ALL family members: the children of course but the working partner and herself as well.

While on their site today I also stumbled upon this article, “Why Trailing Spouses Can’t Be Happy” and couldn’t disagree more. Perhaps it’s because I’d just come from a meeting with the American Women’s Club of Bogotá (which is comprised of women of all nationalities). Over the course of a couple of hours, I heard all kinds of stories from women who started their own business after having to leave successful professions behind or others who raise thousands of dollars each year to support local charities. These ladies had found their way!

I don’t deny that it’s hard to find yourself after you’ve left your profession, community, and support system. But that difficulty is temporary, not a place to live.

Speaking of an identity crisis, it’s funny how moving to a foreign country brings to the surface all kinds of biases, preconceptions, and beliefs that you’ve held for years but never really noticed. Once we arrived in Bogotá I realized that I just assumed there were two options for women—have a family or have a career (I suppose three options because you can also have a mix of the two!).

I don’t want the baby and I don’t have a visa permitting me to work, so what was I to do?!  I think these struggles are unavoidable and coupled with culture shock, it can be a pretty difficult time.  Check out my thoughts below about how to make the best of your trailing spouse transition.

Get back to basics. 

The better you know yourself, the easier your transition as a trailing spouse will be.  Many of us piece together our identities through our roles (mother, sister, wife) and duties (volunteer, student, worker). In every major life change, I’ve experienced a struggle with identity. This was especially difficult when I transitioned from student to professional.  Suddenly, there was far less time for the other areas of my identity: I felt like a bad friend, I had to cut back on volunteering, I didn’t feel like I could support my husband the same way.

My feelings when we moved to Bogotá were similar, only amplified. There is nothing wrong with having a strong professional or relational identity, but it becomes a problem when this is the only way you identify yourself because these are all external, changing factors and have nothing to do with who you are inside.

The identity formed from your values and from things within you are unchanging and can be a foundation upon which to steady yourself when you are reestablishing those external roles. Looking back on my experience, I very much have to attribute the ease of this transition to my faith. The things I know about myself in relation to my personal beliefs and view of the world are unchanging. That being said, our move was still a reality check of how much I rely on those external factors.

Talk about money with your spouse.

The term trailing spouse implies that you’ll be unemployed, so if you’re leaving behind a successful career you’ll have to make peace with the fact that your partner will be the sole breadwinner. If money equals power in your marriage, you need to be prepared for a demotion in the home politics. However, if you approach things where you both are considered an invaluable part of the whole, I think your transition will go much more smoothly. That being said, before you leave on your assignment, I cannot stress the importance of being on the same page as your spouse as far as how money is spent and how financial decisions are made.

One way I think that I adapted well to this shift in this situation was because Cody and I have always seen our marriage as a team effort. Perhaps this is because I have a more “Type-B” personality or because I’m accepting of traditional gender roles but to me, it doesn’t matter what I do as long as I am contributing to our shared goals. If you don’t keep score, you’re not competing; furthermore, we all know that nothing will squash love like arguing about who works harder.

Negotiate for yourself.

I can’t remember if it was asked for or offered to us, but my husband’s contract included a stipend for me to take language classes, a stipend that could be used for formal education or for assistance obtaining a work visa and one trip to the U.S. per year.

I mentioned before that taking Spanish classes was one of the most important parts of settling in because I was learning the local language, meeting people, and exploring the city. That being said, be sure that there are allowances (either in your partner’s contract or just between the two of you) to help you transition. This is a standard and necessary point of contract negotiation for expats, so do not be afraid to ask for support.

The article I mentioned above cites research that we increase our partner’s work performance when we adapt successfully. Furthermore, we trailing spouses need additional support because many responsibilities and practicalities of the move will fall to us since the working partner is expected to jump right in to their new position. One last bit of related advice is to do your best to meet the Global Mobility team (or whoever is manages the benefits) before your move. If you have a face to put with a name and a bit a rapport you won’t be so shy reaching out to them if something happens or you have questions about your benefits.

Take advantage of the fresh start.

Like the first day of school, you have the opportunity for a fresh start! Yes it’s cliche but the sentiment is valid—you are in a place where no one knows you and have an opportunity to try new things. Use it to do something that interests you. Take advantage of these tips to get involved in something and seek out community sooner rather than later. If you find yourself in a place where you now have in-home help, you may find yourself with more free time than you were expecting.

When I found I wouldn’t be working, I knew I would fill my time with volunteer work. I was able to find opportunities within my professional field (Library & Information Science) and I’m confident that even though I’m not drawing a salary I can use this experience on my resume. I’ve also helped an NGO translate their grant requests into English, which has provided me an opportunity to practice and gain confidence speaking Spanish.

As always, my opinions and suggestions are all colored by my point of view and personal experience, so I think it’s important to note where I’m coming from. First of all, I’m grateful to Cody’s employer, who came from a place of openness when considering our needs and not as if they were doing us a favor. Because of that, we had a huge amount of support from them.

Secondly, Cody and I took several years before deciding to take action on a foreign assignment. We had discussed the logistics and I was 100% on board with our decision.  And the last, probably most contentious point: I don’t believe that work is ever divided equally between partners. I just don’t believe it’s possible. If Cody and I spent our time figuring out who’s turn it is to do XYZ we’d argue more than get things done. However, I do believe that if you’re working together and toward the same goal, everything evens out.

Now that I’ve given all my little disclaimers, feel free to let me know what you think.

9 thoughts on “Expat advice: Four tips for the happy trailing spouse

  1. You and I are in very different situations, but I relate to so much of this. I’m kind of an expat of my old life lol. I think a lot of non-working or stay-at-home partners go through some of this. It’s easy to assume the trailing spouse would be “on vacation” all the time, but some of the behind-the-scenes work is hardest and least rewarding

    1. That is such a great point, Katy! I have read/heard comments from moms about how their work is unrecognized and think the feelings are the same.

  2. I too feel like a trialing spouse. Maybe not abroad, but to move halfway across the country it feels like going to another country, especially coming to Oklahoma. A lot of your advice would be excellent to use for people moving to even another state. If only people really understood that their true identity is brought out from within and not what they do or who they know. Wonderful point! To draw off that in order to steady yourself in different places or situations can help so much. You truly have an understanding of who you are and how to get where you want. This article should help anyone with any transition they are about to endeavor. Proud of you!

    1. Thank you, mom! I totally agree that moving across country is a huge change and would bring about the same feelings as going to a different country! Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts :-)

  3. “That being said, be sure that there are monetary allowances in your partner’s contract for you. This is a standard and necessary point of contract negotiation for expats, so do not be afraid to ask for support.” This sadly isn’t true for many of us, especially those whose partners work in Government roles eg diplomats or similar (as mine does), military, aid workers, missionarys etc. I realise there are some who are in this lucky situation but I don’t know many! I actually get zilch for accompanying my partner here to South Africa, apart from the amazing experience!! Luckily for us both I had a remote job I was able to bring with me as well as my blog and book marketing so have kept myself very well occupied (as well as looking after the children and running a household).

    1. Hi Clara, thank you so much for reading and the insightful comments! You are completely right that not all expats have this kind of opportunity for spousal benefits and I suppose that because it wasn’t my experience, I didn’t take that perspective into account here. Still, even if it isn’t offered, I think it’s a worthwhile thing to explore or ask for. I appreciate you sharing your experience!

  4. Danielle, what a wonderful perspective you have! So much of what you’ve written applies to my life as a military spouse…in fact, I think I like the term “trailing spouse” better! You and I have a lot in common, and I’m so pleased at the chance to get to know you better through your blog.

    1. Hello, Erin! Oh, I’m so glad to see you here :-D I completely agree that so many of the struggles and experiences are the same. I hope hope hope we keep in touch!!

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