Moving past the “settled-in” slump

trailing spouse syndrome

In my previous post, I wanted to acknowledge the emptiness and loss of focus that comes with rebuilding your life every few years. Experts call this lull trailing spouse syndrome and it usually comes to kick you in the shins around the time you’re patting yourself on the back for another successful move.

Yes, you must pause and let yourself feel those feelings. At the same time, it’s important not to linger here. Unfortunately, any trailing spouse will tell you that it’s also far too easy to lose your momentum and somehow end up simply existing in this place.

A couple of days ago I stumbled upon this New York Times article with a statistic that stopped me in my tracks.

Yvonne McNulty, a Singapore-based consultant who studies mobility issues, said the biggest issue for spouses was loss of identity. “What I found in my research is that almost all spouses face an identity crisis but only about 10 to 15 percent did something about it, by becoming authors, getting an M.B.A. or starting businesses,” she said. Most “felt they were victims, with no control.”

Uplifting stuff, huh? It’s disheartening to hear how many of us get stuck here and feel powerless as to how to find our way back. Only making it harder to find your way is that there’s no single path to steadying your shaken identity.

But these words above also hold the answer—the ones who got back on their feet were the ones who did something about it.

The lesson I’ve learned repeatedly the past three years is that this momentum starts in my mind. Like psyching yourself up before a big event, here’s what I do to keep myself moving towards getting my feet on the ground again.

I remind myself how important I am 

All the studies and articles about relocation assignments say that if a trailing spouse doesn’t adjust, then the chance of success for the working partner drops drastically. Some of these statistics are so dismal that I wonder why companies use this option at all. That part aside, what I take away from all this is that I am a crucial part of a team.

People come by these assignments in all ways, so I can only speak for myself when I say that this lifestyle was something I wanted and sought. When I start to feel lost, I remind myself of this fact and that I need to keep up my end of the bargain. My happiness is not my spouse’s responsibility. In a way, looking at this aspect of the transition as a task gives me something on which to focus while I’m waiting for my emotions to settle.

I stop thinking about money

If I’m a critical part of this team, then my contributions—though not measured in dollars and cents—are just as important. I depend on my partner for financial support and my partner depends on me for everything that happens outside of the office. I will probably always struggle with the fact that what I bring to the table isn’t quantifiable in the same way as my partner’s paycheck. However, I can’t deny that the opportunities this life has given me are far more valuable (and make me happier) than any gaps I’m creating in my resume or digits I could add to our bank account.

I’m extra careful with what I let “in”

The moments when I’m just starting to put my life together are when it’s most important to be aware of where I’m spending my time mentally. My mind is already playing weird games as I try to figure things out, so it’s better not to make it worse by reading Lolita or listening to The Wall on repeat. There’s plenty of time for that later.

Instead, I’m reading blogs from thriving expats and listening to this very cool podcast from Tandem Nomads, which features nothing but interviews with trailing spouses who share how they’ve started businesses or found success working remotely. Seeing how other people have found their way always helps me define my own.

If you’ve been through this—even if you’re not an expat—I’d love to hear about your experience. How do you find your feet after a huge change? What always catches you off guard? Sharing makes the rest of us feel a little less alone, so please leave your thoughts in the comments below!

6 thoughts on “Moving past the “settled-in” slump

  1. Hello Dear Danielle! Thank you for sharing your experiences with such precision and clarity. My biggest life change was moving to Bulgaria for a year. I lived in a city where I knew no other Americans and only a few of the British expat community and taught in a Bulgarian school. Having a social hobby grounded me. I went to dance classes in salsa and folk dancing every week so I could make friends and feel connected and feel like I knew something (anything!). It was the only time each week I felt normal, like I could overcome cultural and language barriers and not be so alone. Having a hobby with access points with others– yoga, knitting, painting, dancing, hiking, etc– is the best way to feel at home in the body and a new place that I’ve ever found.

    1. Hello, sweet Dana. I’m thrilled to see you here! Your advice is spot on and I completely agree, doing something you love is an awesome way to meet like-minded people and (hopefully!) future friends. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! xo

  2. Love this, you tap into a very real and ongoing concern for many (most) expat spouses. There is SO much out there now about becoming an expat entrepreneur, how to find your happiness abroad etc so non-working spouses/partners have many more resources at their disposal to help them make the shift. Glad to have found your blog!

    1. Hello, Lucille! You’re so right! Being an expat spouse is already difficult in many ways, I can’t imagine doing it before the internet or skype or all the sharing of experiences that happens through blogs and social media. I’m glad you found my blog as well, thank you very much for reading and commenting!

  3. I relate to this so much I could have written it word for word myself!! Thanks so much for sharing and reminding us we are not alone… it’s a tough transition and not nearly as glamorous as we would hope or like or think it would be.

    1. I’m so glad (but of course, not glad) to hear that you can relate. Sharing always takes the power out of things that are intimidating or scary, but it doesn’t make it any easier to put yourself out there. Thank you very much for taking a moment to say hi :-)

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