Why it’s important to think through the challenges faced by a trailing spouse…
Making a big move as a couple is often loaded with romantic ideas of what such a move would be like. Family and friends often have comments like, ‘How exciting!’ or ‘What an adventure!’. And while it may be those things, there are also several challenges that arise from this adventure. Therefore, it is important for couples to think carefully before they leap. When a couple makes this move, it is mostly for the benefit of one of the partner’s careers, meaning that the other partner would have to follow and often not work.
This person is often referred to as the trailing spouse and much has been written about the challenges that he/she typically experiences. Although the wife tends to be the trailing spouse, gender roles are evolving and there has been an increase in husbands taking on the role.
Couples moving abroad face several challenges. Most significantly is the dislodgement of the support network that the couple has become accustomed to. The very friends and family referring to the move as an adventure will no longer be on hand when challenges arise. The couple is suddenly completely dependent on one another for support. Although this can facilitate closeness in the relationship, this largely depends on the couple’s ability to communicate effectively, resolve conflict, and meet one another’s emotional and material needs.
Typically, a minority of spouses work while their partner is on the work assignment as it is often difficult for them to find employment in the new country. Many of these women and men had their own successful careers and now must adjust to a different role. If the couple have children, there is the adjustment to the roles of stay-at-home parent and homemaker. Some view the move as an opportunity to start a family which often results in going through the pregnancy and birthing process far away from supportive family and friends. The trailing spouse may experience worries concerning that ever-growing gap in their CV and may also experience more pronounced homesickness and loneliness. Some have reported boredom, lack of purpose and may even start presenting with depressive symptoms and anxiety.
The working spouse often experiences guilt and worry and an inordinate amount of pressure as he/she feels responsible for uprooting their spouse and/or family for their career. There is also the loss of a second income and a feeling of responsibility to make the move worth the stress and sacrifice. Relationship roles become less flexible and there may even be a feeling of entrapment with these new roles. The working spouse typically carries the visa responsibility for the family and may be more restricted in job choices and changes. This may contribute to experiencing pressure and anxiety about having to make things work. Decision-making is often centred around what is practical and not necessarily around prioritising the relationship.
There tends to be an enormous imbalance in available time between the partners. The working spouse typically spends long hours working while the trailing spouse must ‘renegotiate’ what labour means in the relationship. There may be lack of agreement about roles but the opportunity to renegotiate these roles is severely constrained. Roles are dictated by the circumstances of the work assignment and visa limitations and this may place strain on the couple relationship that they previously would not have had to contend with.
Considerations before you move:
Moving is like children, it does not fix a broken relationship, it makes it worse. If there are already challenges in the relationship, these will be intensified by the stress of the move. Evaluate and work on relationship challenges before moving!
Talk about the reality of the challenges before making the move. Do not romanticise the expat lifestyle!
Find information about others’ that have already done the move.
Set a realistic time frame for adjustment – approximately 6 to 12 months. Be realistic and anticipate that the adjustment is going to be difficult.
Make time to talk about one another’s experience of the adjustment. Anticipate that the experience will be very different for each partner. Tolerate the differences and do not begrudge the partner that is having an ‘easier’ time.
Actively prioritise your relationship. Develop a shared social life together and spend time together, actively creating shared new experiences.
Know why you are making the move and set realistic goals in terms of achieving the objectives of the move. Re-evaluate at regular intervals whether you are on target for these goals.
Couples should bear in mind that this type of move is not for everyone. Be realistic about whether your relationship is ready for this!