What is a trailing spouse? If you and a partner are relocating overseas for a job opportunity and you are not the one with the job, you are the trailing spouse. The term evokes an image of a lost puppy following his owner. It’s pretty accurate.
Typically trailing spouses trade their career, family, friends and basic identity to end up feeling lonely, isolated and homesick in a strange land. They find it harder than expected to deal with culture shock, learn the language and figure out cultural nuances. Meanwhile, the leading spouse has a job that provides focus, social interaction and a sense of identity. Resentment ensues.
Originally referred to as an “expat wife”, the term “trailing spouse” has entered our vernacular since it’s not always the wife who follows. It’s more difficult to be a male trailing spouse because most conventions for helping trailing spouses are geared towards females. Being the only man in a women’s support group is difficult without adding a language barrier and different cultural cues into the mix.
It is estimated roughly thirty percent of overseas assignees return early because they are unable to adjust to life in their host country. Who will finish their assignments? Those with training have a better chance. Many companies provide pre-assignment training on everything from what and how to eat, speak, dress and give gifts. However, once they reach their destination, many find they are on their own. The most successful programs train families before they go and continue to provide assistance upon arrival.
Attitude and flexibility impact success as well. If trailing spouses enter an assignment with an expectation for normalcy, they will be frustrated when they find “normal” doesn’t exist. Letting go of judgment, being open to possibility and using creativity in problem solving thwarts failure.
Diving into the new language helps. Immersion into the ebb and flow of daily life provides insight into the new culture, creates understanding and thus curbs culture shock. Learning the local language is the first point of immersion.
Being a trailing spouse is stressful and chaotic. With proper training, a positive attitude and a willingness to immerse into a new culture, being a successful trailing spouse can be a very rewarding experience.