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The Trailing Spouse: To trail or to lead is the question?

As an expat wife, I came across the term “trailing spouse” a few years ago at a talk arranged by an expat group. The talk was designed for spouses who had halted in their career paths. It addressed issues and highlighted opportunities, which existed in this role. I knew right then, I was one but it further helped me to see what was beyond this loosely coined title.

Research shows that the term ‘trailing spouse’ was a nickname first used by Mary Bralove of the Wall Street Journal in 1981, it applied to the partners of expatriates who relocated for career opportunities.

It has a deeper connotation however and is one of the most challenging aspects for a family when they move.

In 2008, a study by the Permits Foundation cited in Economist report titled  ‘Up or out next moves for the modern expatriate found that 90% of trailing spouses gave up their own jobs in order to join their partner’s move abroad and only 35% worked during their time living overseas. That’s a staggering low number.

In 2015, a survey ‘Expat Insider 2015’ compiled by the expat social group InterNations included a section on trailing spouses. Findings showed that only 24 % of the spouses had jobs, mainly owing to the strict rules on work permits.

The trailing spouse often bears the brunt of adapting to the new environment. While their primary movers are busy settling in at work, the spouses are left to deal with everything else. Setting up home, finding their way around a new neighborhood, language barriers in some cases, seeking resources like a doctor or even a hairstylist and getting the children settled into a new routine at school. These ordinary tasks can become pretty stressful for the trailing spouse given the loss of their support system back home.

For most of us, having a profession or job gives us an identity and a sense of purpose. If a trailing spouse has given up a job, they can experience a deep feeling of loss. It becomes harder as many countries won’t grant the trailing spouse a work permit.

The biggest challenge facing them in this case is the loss of identity.

A simple question of “what do you do” leads to a fumbling reply for the newly relocated spouse. Furthermore, by losing financial independence, one may experience frustration owing to the lack of social recognition and freedom.

However all is not lost and there is always another way to look at it. There are many ways to re-discover yourself as a trailing spouse even if you can’t legally work. The key is to re-invent. Treat this experience like an adventure.

  • Re-discover your hobbies: Have you always wanted to write or use a camera or paint, pick it up now! .
  • Learn a new language: It helps to integrate with local culture and people in new home.
  • Go back to studying: Now’s the time to do a masters degree or a teaching degree that you didn’t do earlier.
  • Active Volunteering: Volunteering at NGOs and local places can be fulfilling.
  • Be part of expat communities/associations: Join different expat organizations/committees and associations, they could benefit from your skill set and serve as a great place to meet like minded people
  • Quality time with family: Treat this, as quality time to raise a family, be locally present in school activities, coffee mornings. Build a local network.
  • Writing: Writing is cathartic to the soul and a blog on what drives you could be a great source of inspiration or guidance to others. Many expats run successful blogs in Malaysia.
  • Be an Entrepreneur: Many spouses find it best to create their own job. I can speak from experience when I say this isn’t easy but can be a great opportunity. Take one of your hobbies and turn it into a moneymaking venture

Not all of these solutions are right for everyone. Try a combination of several options before you find what works best for you. However, don’t hesitate to seek counseling if the sense of loss and depression persists.

In short, try not to look at your new expat life as an ordeal. Look at this as a wonderful opportunity to grow, discover, re-invent who you are. Trying new things, following your passion is a great way to connect with people and in the process discover ‘the real you’. To trail or to lead,  ultimately it’s the choice you make.

Last update: 26 February 2020