Sick of being a trailing spouse?

If ever there was a description less befitting the hard work of a partner accompanying their loved on a foreign adventure it has to be the ‘trailing spouse’.

dolls on fairgroundMany couples who move away from their home country express that it was a joint decision; “we always hoped that we could move to another country one day, and this was the opportunity we’ve been waiting for”, sighs Jennifer*, “so why am I feeling alone and misunderstood, and at times even jealous that my husband seems to be having a better adventure than I am?”

We always wanted to move abroad

I have also come to believe that the accompanying partner often has a very different experience from the one he or she expected. And in many ways it can be a better experience, as long as the old expectations can be re-assessed in a kind and compassionate manner.

I often ask accompanying spouses what their expectations were from moving away, and how invested they really were in the decision. Sometimes, after a great deal of reflection, they realise that they did it to be supportive to their partner. In other cases, despite having agreed that ‘a foreign adventure would be exciting’, they concede the timing or the location were not really of their own choosing. But now they’ve told themselves they will have lots of time and freedom to indulge in the adventure, forgetting that the entire responsibility of settling in to a new home in a foreign country will be resting firmly on their shoulders. The true significance of the contribution that the accompanying partner makes is only slowly becoming acknowledged by international employers. And even the partner whose work brought us abroad seldom realises that setting up home in a foreign country is tough.

Writer and author Julie Power puts it like this; “They waved their spouses off to a new, often exciting, job; unpacked the bags and the boxes; settled their kids into new schools; then found the supermarket, the post office, a doctor, and arranged to get the phone, internet, TV installed and connected. Only after all that, they thought – now what about me?”

A more realistic title than ‘Trailing spouse’ would be the Relocation expert, the International logistical planner, or CEO of international ops. While all families tend to experience a honeymoon phase before culture shock hits, most psychologists agree that the accompanying partner skips the honeymoon altogether. By the time they have done all of the above, they are exhausted and in need of some serious R&R. I often counsel accompanying spouses to take some quality time to ‘land’ in their new life situation. After all, you can’t jump while you’re falling. And all the plans of starting a new career or study, or writing that book during the foreign assignment don’t have to happen all at once.

Exploring the decision to come abroad, now wise to the reality of the move, can sometimes help to recommit in a different way. Not for the other person, not for the romantic ideals that were held, but with all the facts at hand. That re-commitment will help to move forward with a different sense of purpose. Or it may lead to the realisation you can’t commit and you want to go home.

Stereotypes and Projections

Top of the list of concerns expressed at my workshops are the kind of stereotypes that are projected onto accompanying partners. Too often they are still seen as ladies (or gentlemen) that lunch and shop, that are privileged to spend their days doing what they like with a sound financial buffer to boot. They are seen as being identified with their partner’s standing in the (professional) world, as a substitute for their own lack of direction. At worst, having no professional identity of their own, they are seen as uninteresting and just plain dull. You may have a PhD in Economics, but without a job title to back it up, you feel like people see you as a Nobody.

It is important to remember though that projections only ‘stick’ when there is a small part of us that believes them to be true. For example, unconsciously you have been socially conditioned to have a lower opinion of women who are ‘just mothers’ and yet, have chosen to use the time of the foreign assignment to focus on your children. My colleague Louise Wästlund, a Relate counsellor, has found that sometimes the assignee partner might also harbour an unconscious longing for his or her professional ‘equal’ from before, and then feels shame for even thinking like that. When we fight projections, stereotypes and prejudices, we need to begin by compassionately looking at our own. That way the projections of others do not take hold as easily.

Grief and loneliness for one, stress for the other

And on top of the unexpected amount of work, the lack of identity and reassessing our motivation, there is the aspect of unacknowledged grieving. In the rush to prepare for the foreign adventure we forget that our psyches will grieve for the people, places, and yes, identities left behind. Once the dust has settled, unacknowledged grief can lead to loneliness and isolation, especially if you think that everyone else is doing a better job of settling in than you are. The working partner will have colleagues and social contacts at work to distract them. The accompanying partner, with or without children, will be struggling much more with the local culture and the local language.

So while the working partner is experienced as HAVING a life, the accompanying partner may feel vulnerable and threatened because the other person has BECOME their life.

The relationship

Our partner, temporarily, becomes our new ‘best friend’, despite Skype and Facebook, and they seldom live up to these expectations. The assignees want to come home to a safe place where they don’t have to feel they are on their toes all the time, and instead get to hear how useless they are. Many foreign assignees experience increased levels of stress and anxiety. On the one hand they owe it to their employers happy to make good on the big financial investment to bring them into the country, and on the other, they feel a huge responsibility to their family.

What happens is that the couple end up in a negative downward spiral that is fuelled by arguments about who has it the hardest. An open dialogue, that respects that both partners are facing new challenges, and that shifts the relational dialogue out of the ‘needs deficit’ spiral into a ‘mutual support’ spiral can really turn the experience around. Many accompanying spouses find that once they have ‘landed’ (and remember, this can easily be a full year after unpacking the first boxes), they are ready to explore new frontiers for themselves. As internationals we may find ourselves doing things we may never have dared embark on in our home country. Many have starting studies, or small enterprises that grow into large ones, or truly embrace the joys of fulltime parenthood, revelling in the opportunity to raise strong and well attached children who see the world as their oyster. And most importantly, be gentle to yourself, look at what you HAVE achieved, instead of what you can’t do (yet).

Lysanne facilitates international workshops in for couples and trailing spouses on her houseboat close to Hilversum, Holland. 

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