When I first heard the term “trailing spouse” I kind of laughed. It reminded me of the “ball and chain” reference old married couples use. Kind of like watching a three-legged race where one person is being pulled slightly behind.
But as it relates to expats, the trailing spouse actually takes on a much more significant meaning. Yay for us!
So What’s a Trailing Spouse?
Basically, it’s the husband or wife of their expat spouse that relocates abroad for their significant other’s job. In this case, it’s me. Maybe you?
Personally, I would rather see the term “supporting” spouse used instead of something that suggests “following behind”. If you happen to be a trailing spouse, you know the role is anything BUT that.
It’s a position not to be taken lightly, guys! The expat spouse is meant to focus on his or her new career – not necessarily ALL the other details that allow a family to settle and THRIVE abroad.
Like what, you ask? (Clears throat…)
The responsibilities can range anywhere from applying for VISAs and passports, putting your home up for sale, selecting a relocation moves company, packing and organizing personal belongings, selling vehicles, coordinating domestic pet specifics, notifying utility companies, selecting and enrolling children in international school…and those are all the things that happen BEFORE the family moves!
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Shall I go on?
What about once your feet touch the ground and you officially become expats? There’s temporary living to arrange, securing a permanent home, residency documents depending on the country, coordinating arrival of your goods shipment, unpacking and organizing your new home, finding new doctors…
I think you see where this is going!
Metaphorically speaking, if the expat spouse is the bird, the trailing spouse is the wings. One person is meant to focus on their new job abroad, while the other is meant to establish expat life outside the office.
But the trailing spouse role can sometimes feel…lonely! Your husband or wife is immediately thrown into the trenches of a career and you may be left behind to pick up the pieces. Especially if you have sacrificed your own career in order to move abroad.
Once you’ve finally settled your family, what comes next? How do you even begin to establish your identity and purpose abroad? In other words…
How Do You Thrive as a Trailing Expat Spouse?
1. Keep Communication Open
In the beginning, the trailing spouse can sometimes feel left behind…even isolated. They’re in an unfamiliar city, don’t know anyone and may not speak the local language. Talk about being on an island!
This is where the term “trailing spouse syndrome” came from! It’s a real thing and involves feelings of resentment and doubt as a result of the husband or wife sacrificing his or her career to move abroad.
But most spouses don’t want to bother a husband or wife with their struggles adjusting to life abroad. So instead they say nothing at all.
Which we all know in marriage is a recipe for disaster! Communication, while not always pleasant or convenient, is absolutely necessary in order for you to thrive as a trailing spouse.
One study reports a 6% failure rate for international assignments, with 65% of these failures due to spouse/partner dissatisfaction with the expat life.
There were plenty of days in the beginning of our relocation to Barcelona where I was ready to throw my hands up and say, “Forget this sh*t!” Had I hung onto those feelings and allowed them to fester internally, I may still feel that way 2.5 years later.
But because I’m BIG on communicating (sorry not sorry, Tony!), I always choose to express my feelings. And together we would work through whatever emotions I was dealing with at the time.
Sometimes, it just feels good to vent.
2. Tap Into Resources
Being an expat can have loads of nice perks – maybe a family car, schooling paid for, comfy health benefits and usually, resources for spouse support.
For example, if you plan to find a job overseas many companies offer services that can help find and secure one in your field. In addition, language courses might be offered, which I highly recommend if you’ll be home throughout the day and assuming many of the daily errands.
But what if you’ve relocated without the benefits of expat family support? That’s okay too! Hop onto Facebook and search for expat groups in your city. These groups range from professionals trying to find work abroad to stay-at-home mothers in need of schooling assistance.
These are vital resources that can really help navigate your identity as a trailing spouse.
3. Find Your People
The incredible thing about living in a city is that whatever you’re into, you can find and meet like-minded people along the way. Sure, it’s uncomfortable to put yourself out there and meet strangers, especially if there’s a language barrier. But what’s the alternative? To sit home inside waiting for your spouse to come home from work every day?
Since we have three young kids, the other parents I met at the school yard turned out to immediately be “my people”. And today they’re still some of our greatest friends.
Also, our church! We attend the International Church of Barcelona (ICB) and it has been instrumental to connecting us with other Christians. Maybe you’re religious too and church is where you find your center.
Or if that’s not your thing, find out what is! The sooner you meet others with the same likes and interests as yourself, the sooner your new expat city will begin to feel like home.
4. Take Care of Yourself
It’s really true what they say – a healthy body equals a healthy mind. When we take care of ourselves, get enough rest, eat right and even (gasp!) exercise, our mental clarity is so much more equipped to handle…well…life!
Stay in tune with yourself and how you’re feeling day after day. Getting back to that whole communication rant from earlier, be aware of signs of resentment or doubt. Don’t ignore them and choose to confide in your spouse or a friend.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m in a good state of mind, I’m motivated to go out and make the most of my day – check out a new park in the city, meet a friend for coffee, hit up an art museum or whatever!
You won’t be any good to your family or yourself if you aren’t taking care of the person that matters the most – yourself!
5. Learn Something New
There’s truly no better time than now to embrace a new skill or tap into those untapped talents! Learn the local language by joining an exchange program or maybe take your first pottery class. Ever thought about taking dance lessons or joining a cultural society?
As a trailing spouse, the success of your new life abroad is contingent on your willingness to embrace the new. While your husband or wife is defining their new role at the professional level, it’s your time to also discover something new personally.
I tried yoga for the first time a few weeks ago and felt proud of myself for stepping outside the good ole comfort zone!
For the record, I don’t think I’m a yoga gal, but that’s not the point. It was a new experience! And now I know.