The trailing spouse and identity

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We don’t like being called a ‘trailing spouse’!

expat partner trailing spouse memeLet me start by getting something off my chest… the term ‘trailing spouse’ might be a recognised one but that doesn’t mean any of us should like it. When you’re one half of a couple, making the decision to up sticks and move around the world is a joint decision. ‘Trailing spouse’ implies that one party is simply along for the ride and that’s not a good starting place.

Some alternatives to this out-dated title are; accompanying partner, expat partner and so on. Why don’t we like ‘trailing spouse’? A myriad of reasons! Synonyms for ‘trailing’ are straggling, lagging, dawdling, and bringing up the rear. Pah! There is nothing ‘bringing up the rear’ about us. And by no means are we all spouses, let alone women – plenty of male partners out there, even if they don’t seem to write the majority of blogs.

Don’t get me started on some hideous comments on a particular forum I found when looking at other alternative ‘titles’ – ‘living luggage’, ‘free-loader’ and, if you can believe it, ‘concubine with no gainful employment’.

Ugh. Is it any wonder I get ranty about titles? And, for what it’s worth, I don’t enter into arguments about the term ‘expat’ either. That’s not why I am here; I am here to help you live your life, not get into semantics.

Anyway, I digress – this article isn’t about titles, it’s about life and enforcing your own identity…

Making the decision

For most people who consider leaving their home country there’s a career involved. An irresistible job offer that causes great excitement and starts the ball rolling and yes, that job offer is normally for one half of a partnership. So, the other half is faced with a decision – agree to start a new life in another country, or be the cause of a lost opportunity. A decision which must be made with honesty and forethought.

For many couples this is a fantastic opportunity and represents the start of something amazing. You’re a team, you want to embark on this adventure together so of course you’re going to go! There’s a sense of excitement that persists throughout the preparations, the journey and the settling in to your new home. It’s what comes next that, for many, causes some difficulties.

Reality hits

Will you accept that role of ‘trailing spouse’ and allow it to become problematic for you, or will you grab life by the proverbials and start living it?

Your partner has a new job and with that comes a busy schedule, a new social circle and an opportunity to form new friendships. Off they trot nervously to work on their first day… leaving you in a new home, new town, new country without any of the advantages of a ready-made social network. This is when reality sets in. You have sacrificed family, friends and employment to take up this new life – but when does your new life start?

You have already made the biggest decision of your life in agreeing to the move – now you are faced with another one that is equally important. Will you accept that role of ‘trailing spouse’ and allow it to become problematic for you, or will you grab life by the proverbials and start living it?

Of course, it’s not that easy. Once your partner has gone off to work you’re left with a feeling of emptiness and unease. This is unfamiliar territory and you’ve been relying on your spouse for company in the transition period, when the excitement of unpacking and setting up home has been all-consuming. This is the honeymoon period and it’s hard to anticipate what happens when it’s over.

Be proactive

If you spend your days waiting for your loved one to return home from work, you’ll soon find you have little to talk about. They’ll be full of enthusiasm about their new role, but you’ll have nothing to contribute because your day was the same as yesterday, the day before and the day before that. This over-reliance on your partner can put a strain on your relationship and you need to prevent that from happening if you’re both going to get the most out of this fantastic lifestyle change.

Get out there and find out what there is to do and who there is to do it with. Isolation can easily become a habit and it’s not your friend. Be realistic; it will take time to settle in and establish a social network. Explore local transport routes, find people to talk to – other expats are a good start but try to integrate with local groups too; immerse yourself and learn the language and culture. Take up a new hobby, join a new club and maybe start to look for a new job. You may not need to work financially – but keep an open mind, Working is a great way of forging your own identity and you need that if you’re going to make this work.

Cultural differences

Approximately 84% of trailing spouses are women and this can cause some additional difficulties because culture plays an important part in your ability to find an independent identity. There are many destinations where the culture is predominantly patriarchal – where men are the head of the household and women are expected to do little more than follow their lead and be a dutiful wife. This is very difficult if you move from a country where there are equal opportunities. That’s why research before you move is so essential – you need to make your decision with your eyes wide open. Even in a patriarchal culture there will be things you can do to get involved but you may have to work harder at being accepted.

Keep an open line of communication with your spouse; be honest about the way you’re feeling and make sure the culture doesn’t seep into your private home life.

Until you’ve established your identity and feel comfortable in your new role I recommend setting yourself a small goal for every day. Go out to lunch; explore a new public transport route; check out a local leisure facility; brave the shopping centre; do the grocery shopping on your own… they don’t have to be big things of great significance but you do have to put in the effort to get the most out of them. Talk to people everywhere you go. Make small connections that will help you to feel less lonely and most importantly don’t ever give up.

Don’t lose sight of why you made this decision in the first place – to explore a new culture, to learn a new way of life and to experience something new. So, what are you waiting for? Get out there and experience it…

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  1. The change in country/ culture isn’t so much of a stark contrast if you have the structure of a job to go to, or in the case of a child, a school. These recognisable structures help to provide stability. If you’re the one without this support, you’re most likely the pivotal point holding everything together. It’s the hardest position when you don’t or can’t identify with your surroundings.

    1. Indeed, Helen. It’s the ‘normal’ structure of work and school that makes it easier for those who attend these. For those who don’t have this ready-made structure available to them, for whatever reason, can find it tough.

  2. This is so timely! I am a”trailing spouse” and have been living in Germany for almost one year. I am lucky that I was able to find two part-time jobs, but they are below my previous jobs and not fulfilling at all. I have started to feel a little depressed and your article is motivating me to get out and do something new.

  3. It is hard, it is hard to be left, on the first day in a new posting, groggy from the flight with a spouse having to go to work and you have to sort everything out in a language you don’t understand. It is hard to find out where to buy groceries and school uniform if you do not have a driver or someone to show you around. It is hard to make a home out of the unfamiliar, it is hard to bring normality to abnormal situations. Expat spouses are multitalented and awesome.

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