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  • Writer's pictureHenriette Johnsen

The missing piece - struggles of trailing spouses

For lack of a better term and fully aware that many consider it derogatory and an indication of a life without responsibility, direction and meaningful activity, the following is a piece on the possible challenges of trailing spouses.

As previously mentioned, the reasons for moving to another country are many and quite diverse. One of the stereotypical views on expat life is that the main incentives are lower tax rates and higher salaries. Though this may be the case for some, others seek career advancement, educational opportunities, personal development or a different family life.

Irrespectively of the cause for moving abroad and the term used to describe the partner moving along, there is no doubt that being the trailing spouse comes with a whole host of issues. Writing this piece, I have gathered personal accounts of trailing expats from around the globe. I have used my own contacts and social media to invite people to share their experiences with me. It has been a privilege to read these, and I feel very humble for the trust put in me to treat their stories with anonymity and respect. I shall do my utmost best to honour this.

I clearly recall my first encounter with the local expat community on my first posting. At the time, I was a novice to expat life, pregnant and exhausted after the move. I had made no friends yet. I felt lonely and was gradually beginning to feel somewhat resentful of the move. This was before internet became a stable inventory of all homes; it was difficult to keep in touch with people back home, and I found it even more difficult to reach out to people in my local area.

I attended a private expat Christmas party held at a big mansion in an extremely affluent area; and I soon felt out of sorts. Unlike some of the other spouses, I didn’t have a life consisting of school runs, gym classes, lunching, interesting hobbies or running my own business whilst the live-in Au Pair took care of domestic chores leaving plenty of time to socialise. I was a stay-at-home-mum, what was called a "home-maker", with two very young children and one on its way. We were living in a more modest area on the outskirts of a very expensive city; and I doing my own shopping, cooking and cleaning. Not only did I feel inadequate, I also felt ashamed of being envious of their seemingly perfect lives whilst beginning to doubt my own.

Much to my later regret, I left the party early and never saw any of the other women again. In hindsight, I’m sure they were all lovely people, some of whom I could have had meaningful and beneficial friendships with. Had I had the courage to speak up and tell them about my struggles, I could probably have had support through this difficult time, but as I had fallen into what is deemed expat blues or trailing spouse depression, I wasn’t able to connect with them. I later realised that rather than appreciating that they might have experienced something similar in their early days of expat life, I was projecting my own painful stuff and prejudice onto them.

Having heard numerous stories of trailing expats, I have since learnt that once the excitement of novelty wears off, expat life is not necessarily as glamorous as the cliché. Initially, time is spent setting up home, sorting out practicalities, exploring the new surroundings and, if a family, settling children into schools.

In doing so, there is a lot of hope and aspiration for the life to come; and during this phase, many learn a great deal about their host country, themselves and their view on their home country and own cultural values. Challenges are predominately practical. Annoying, but practical and solvable unlike the emotional turmoil, the trailing spouse can experience once the honeymoon phase dissolves.

Many expats express a profound wish of making the transition as painless as possible for their children, often focusing solely on their needs. For the trailing spouse, this often means neglecting themselves leaving them vulnerable to finding life somewhat meaningless once the family is well up and running.

When the culture shock sets in, many begin to realise that they suffer from depression, loss of identity and severe loneliness as well as a feeling of wasting away. I certainly did, and I truly recognise the despair in many of the personal accounts I have been blessed with from other expats.

One woman described this shock as a tsunami. Well educated and in previous fulltime employment, she had enjoyed being financially independent, but found herself stuck in a dilemma: She enjoyed having more time with her child, filled her time with home making, gardening and library visits, but felt socially deprived. Eventually, she decided to make a life for herself, gained a university degree and opened up her own business. Since finding purpose in life, taking initiative and feeling engaged, she feels herself an equal to her partner.

Her experience is by no means extraordinary; lack of meaningful purpose outside of caring for one’s family throws one too many expats into depression. A father of two told me that as much as he enjoyed raising his children, he felt alien in a “mummy’s school run world” and was afraid of falling behind with his career. He felt lonely and experienced a deep need to justify his status to others, yet met little empathy. He put this down to it potentially being every man’s worst nightmare: Being financially dependent on their wife and looking after the offspring; and as such, it was easier to dismiss his story than engage. Despite his emotional difficulties, he completed a three year posting as a stay at home dad, and in hindsight felt that he had set himself up for a life long close relationship with his children that he could never have established, had he been the main breadwinner.

Many have expressed concerns for their (marital) relationship. One woman, having lived in 5 different counties on three different continents and outside of her passport country for more than two decades, created an impressive career for herself and described her fears of her partner respecting her less if she hadn’t worked: “A marriage is like an economy, a gross national product in need of balance”. I love this analogy; any loving relationship should allow for both parties to develop and explore their potential which means they both contribute to the union – not just financially, but also socially, emotionally and mentally.

Another spouse expressed loneliness in her struggles saying it was difficult to make close relationships in the sense that many expats live in one location for a shorter period of time before moving on. And, she continued, the ones staying for longer often all interact within a secluded community. As she was afraid her words would be passed on and reach her husband’s work place, this particular woman found herself lonely with her marital problems.

Reading these personal accounts, there is no doubt that many spouses feel inadequate which puts strain on their relationship and their posting. In fact, due to spouse unhappiness in the host country, many couples and families repatriate before their secondment contract expires – making single people more attractive for companies to send abroad.

Many trailing spouses express a deep sense of loss of identity. In this day and age, many people’s identity lie in their professional role and leaving their jobs behind, the lack of identity and the social structure a work place provides leave many doubting their self-worth, efficacy as well as make them question life meaning. Too often, these struggles are accompanied by loneliness, dissatisfaction, sadness, hopelessness and eventually social anxiety leading to depression.

Many trailing spouses feel at a loss and have to work hard to reinvent themselves once they realise that the responsibility for creating a good life rests on their own shoulders alone. That said, it takes a great deal of emotional strength to start from scratch and create a fulfilling life in a different culture, in a different language away from one’s support network whilst often caring for one’s immediate family; and having learnt from my own experience, I deeply respect the people who have succeed in doing so. But perhaps even more so, I respect and feel the deepest empathy with the ones who for whatever reason are still struggling; it truly is testing times, and up to each and everyone to find the missing piece that will help make their life more fulfilling. 

During this phase, support from the working spouse is extremely important. Though extensive preparation has taken place, unexpected issues can arise, and acknowledging and supporting a partner's struggles whilst establishing oneself in a new role, in a new company and in a new country can be challenging and put additional strain on the working partner. Keeping the lines of honest communication open is key, and it may be necessary to seek professional support.

Thankfully, many spouses have expressed feeling closer to their partner and family as the lack of support network has made them grow closer. Spouses having had the internal resources alongside practical and financial opportunity to educate themselves or start up businesses have expressed a great sense of achievement, fulfilment and greater satisfaction than prior to expatriating.

During my second posting, I was much more aware of the importance of setting up an active and meaningful life for myself. So not only did I actively work towards making friends and pursue my hobbies, I also sought to do personal work on my emotional wellbeing; and seeing that my teaching degree didn’t allow me to work in main stream education, I qualified as a personal trainer.

That’s not to say, I didn’t experience bouts of homesickness, loneliness and depression the second time around. I did, but I was able to see it for what it was; and with the help from a good therapist, I was able to not only work through it, but also address some deeply rooted issues from my childhood which had been much too painful and difficult to address at home.

Following my divorce, I experienced a profound sense of existential loneliness and was grateful for having enrolled onto a university degree course in psychotherapeutic counselling and as such having a meaningful and personally developing purpose for when I wasn’t at work, with friends or when my children spent time with their father. I found that loneliness isn’t a question of being with people; to me, it’s a question of living a life authentic to my values, dreams and hopes. Long term, I couldn’t do that in England and I had to repatriate – more on that in a later post.

Missing piece of the puzzle


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