“Trailing spouse”: It’s a term that makes me grimace. The idea that there is one partner in the relationship that trails (by virtue of the word) behind the other. To me, the term “trailing spouse” brings with it a feeling of having less power, less say, less importance. That this person’s capacity is defined by their relationship to another person, that is, the non-trailing person.
How would you better describe this experience? Is there some catchy nomenclature we could apply that better accounts for the incredible courage and resilience that partners in this position display as they take on great challenges? What snappy term encompasses what it is like to approach the adventure of living abroad without the safety net of a job or post-doc to provide financial, social and professional security and consistency?
Beyond simple wordage, people in this situation encounter many challenges specific to being the partner who does not receive compensation and recognition for the difficulties inherent to living in their non-native country. We already know that people who live abroad are at a higher risk for anxiety, depression and substance use disorders than their domestic counterparts. But we know much less about the subset of individuals that fall within this “trailing spouse” category.
Here are some things we do know:
-Thanks to globalization, more people are living abroad than ever before
-Often, people are moving abroad at the same time when they are contemplating starting a family or are raising young children
-They may be giving up or compromising their own professional trajectories
-They are sometimes in bi-cultural partnerships
-There may be increased stress in the relationship with their partner as a result of moving or the partner’s new work responsibilities
-They have to set up new routines for themselves without a lot of information about what resources are available
-They may have to learn a new language
-There may be more financial stress
-There is less social support (at least initially)
-They may be exhausted from coordinating the move
-They may not know how long they will be living in their new country
-They may have to manage their family of origin’s reaction to their departure (i.e., guilt)
-They may have very little experience living abroad
-They may have felt pressured to move
-They may have a history of a mental health problem
There are many factors that could influence how well someone in this capacity copes with moving abroad. It is an almost infinitely complex experience that requires flexibility, courage and self-compassion along with a healthy sense of humor.
To those “trailing spouses” out there, you are not alone. You may be living in an incredibly beautiful country with more material or financial resources than you have ever had and still feel unhappy or lost. Your friends on Facebook may be in awe of the pictures that you post of your new domicile. In spite of this strange feeling of incongruence, it does not mean that you’re not adjusting or “doing it right.” Moving abroad with your family or spouse is a shock to the system and feels different for everyone. It is my hope that this post normalizes the experience of difficulty that so many experience when they move abroad.
When in doubt, talk to others in your position. Don’t be invisible. Or seek the support of a psychotherapist or other mental health practitioner. Other suggestions for making a smoother adjustment can be found here. It is certainly possible to survive and thrive as a “trailing spouse” but it takes time, self-compassion and courage to do and think about things differently.
(Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)