expat trailing spouse

How to get the best of your life as an expat trailing spouse

Relocating to a new country to support your spouse’s profession can be thrilling and tough at the same time. In accordance with nearly 70% of expatriates, it allows you to travel, take on a new culture, and improve your life quality.  

However, it can be difficult to get accustomed to a new country and culture. In your new location, you probably do not have the grips of a career in your field of specialty to equip you with some steadiness and peace of mind. It will take time and perseverance to succeed in dealing with these challenges. Consequently, how can you prosper in an environment you don’t feel familiar with? 

Let’s dive deeper into the expat trailing spouses experience. 

Definition of an expatriate trailing spouse 

A trailing partner is a term used to describe someone who follows their spouse or partner to another country because of a work assignment on their part, often for a large international company. 

The phrase was coined by Wall Street Journal writer Mary Bralove in 1981 to convey how some wives sacrifice their own lives and careers for the benefit of their husband’s work. Of course, times have moved on, and these days a trailing spouse can refer to any gender and any kind of long-term partnership. 

Partners of Google employees even have their own term for an expat spouse – a ‘spoogler’, formed from the words ‘spouse’ and ‘googler’. 

With regards to the website International School Parent, approximately four fifths of expat trailing spouses are still females despite the fact that there has recently been a steady rise in male trailing partners. 

Problems of being an expat trailing spouse 

While moving to another country and adapting to a new culture and language can be daunting for anyone, it’s often tougher for the trailing spouse. They may be left alone to run the family household and carry out errands in a strange city while their partner is at work and supported by a ready-made social network. 

The reality is that the trailing spouse often gives up more, has less support available to them, and can struggle with no longer feeling like an equal partner in the relationship. For such reasons, it’s unsurprising that many expat spouses have a hard time adjusting to the culture shock of living abroad. 

Additionally, if the change in lifestyle includes swapping a career for full-time parenting, an even bigger adjustment is needed. Whether you’re a female or male trailing partner, you need to be comfortable with your partner being the main breadwinner. 

What is trailing spouse syndrome? 

Trailing spouse syndrome refers to symptoms suffered by the partners of expats, which usually develop during their first year of living abroad. It’s when feelings of anxiety and regret about the decision to move start to take over. The main symptoms are: 

Identity loss 

For many people, their career is part of who they are. If that is put on hold, it can cause resentment. With reference to Expat Communication, some 85% of expat spouses were working before their departure, and many struggle to find their identity in a new, unfamiliar place. Playing second fiddle to your partner’s career means you can begin to question your self-worth and value to society. 

Homesickness and loneliness 

When you move to a new location, it’s normal to miss your old life until you settle in. But, for some people, that feeling of loneliness and isolation doesn’t always pass. Expats on assignment often have high-powered jobs, with long working hours and regular networking events to attend, leaving their spouse home alone for long periods. 

Disappointment that expectations don’t live up to reality 

Initially, you might be thrilled about moving to a new country, with the chance to start afresh. But once the novelty starts to wear off and reality kicks in, some expat partners can begin to feel bored and withdrawn. Negative feelings such as these not only cause relationship problems, but can even lead to expat depression. 

Relationship issues 

Loneliness and lack of self-worth can lead to feelings of jealousy, resentment, abandonment, and neediness, all of which can cause arguments and a decline in your relationship. The partner on assignment can also have feelings of regret if they’re returning home from a stressful day at work to someone who is miserable and clearly not enjoying their new life. 

6 ways to handle the problems of being an expat trailing spouse 

Although being an expat spouse can be challenging at times, there are some steps you can take to help you cope and seize the opportunity to enjoy your time away. 

To make the most of your new experience, experienced expat trailing spouses suggest you:

1. Become a member of an expat spouse support group. 

Some countries offer training and networking sessions to help the partners of expats find a new career path. For example, Estonia has a programme targeted at international spouses already living in the country to help them reinvent themselves professionally.  

Subscribing totrailing spouse blogs, joining local expat spouse communities, and sharing your experiences can also provide comfort and support if you’re struggling to adapt to your new way of life. 

There is also a so-called Permits Foundation you can check out. Permits Foundation campaigns run globally to improve work permit regulations, making it easier for partners of expatriate staff to gain employment during an international assignment.  

The best international practice allows legally resident spouses, partners, and other recognised family members to work freely, without a test of the labour market, and not restricted to a particular employer.

2. Get counselling ahead of relocation. 

When you’re uprooting your entire life to live abroad, it’s essential to prepare well. Taking couples or family counselling before you leave can help to address any concerns you have and keep lines of communication open with your partner.  

Many companies also offer pre-assignment training, covering things such as healthcare, education, and social etiquette in the new location. This can help you get a better understanding of what to expect.

3. Learn the language. 

Getting to grips with the basics of the local language will make you feel less isolated as you’ll be able to communicate with people, make friends, and carry out daily tasks like paying bills more easily. Practice with a language app like Duolingo before you go, then sign up for classroom lessons when you get there. This will also give you a chance to meet other expats with similar experiences.

4. Mark date nights on your calendar.

Your partner may be busy with work most of the time, but it’s important to schedule some fun so you can unwind together. Whether it’s date nights, sightseeing trips, or fitness classes, it gives you something to look forward to each week and shows that you value spending time with each other.

5. Experiment with new things

Occupying your time can help with feelings of isolation. If you’re not working, think about volunteering instead. Could you use your skills to help a not-for-profit organisation? You might also consider taking up a new hobby, joining a sports club, or even starting a family.  

These are all great ways to meet new people, get out of the house and feel a sense of purpose again.

6. Upgrade your skillset

Many spouses choose to return to college or university to study or upgrade their skillset. The opportunities are endless, whether you want to study for a master’s degree or take a teacher training course.  

You may be able to access free, part-funded, or cheaper education in your new location. You could also supplement your learning by doing some paid freelancing or virtual PA work. 

With various levels of cover, international family health insurance offers flexible, tailor-made plans designed for expat families relocating overseas. We provide international family health insurance to expat families in 140 countries. No need to worry if you’re a frequent traveler or have children in school overseas – your policy works in multiple countries. 

Final thoughts 

Overall, it is important to remember that your health and well-being is just as important as that of your expat spouse when working abroad. Make sure you are both protected with International Health Insurance that provides cover for your physical and mental health.