Updated: Feb 1
Trailing Spouse Syndrome - What is it? How can you navigate through it?
Authors: Carol Yan
Let’s set the scene:
Your husband’s or wife’s prestigious job offer overseas was supposed to be the beginning of an exciting new chapter in your life. But ever since the move, you’ve been feeling empty, uncertain, lost, depressed, and anxious. You want to be supportive, but should that mean pretending you have it all together?
It all sounded almost too perfect and exciting, don’t you think? - A fresh start in a new country, with plenty of chances to enjoy, explore, and experience a new and exciting part of the world. Friends and family were congratulating you, your partner was stepping up in their career with this incredible opportunity, and a much-needed change of scenery was right around the corner.
Perhaps the downsides were easy to ignore at first, but then started growing into real problems. You left your job to come here, as well as your friends and family. Language barriers make it challenging to form new social connections, and you begin feeling like an outsider, lonely & isolated. Soon the pressure begins mounting, to find the best new school for the kids, make new friends, and figure out how to create a life in an unfamiliar and uncertain place whilst the unknowing still looms over your head.
Does this sound familiar as an expat partner?
You might feel alone, but what you’re going through is actually quite common for expat partners!
As a trailing spouse you have made the (often very difficult) choice to leave your career (and life) behind to support your partner in pursuing theirs. What initially looks like an ideal opportunity to take a break (a gap year or two) or the ideal opportunity to be a full time mom/dad for your little ones often ends up in intense frustration and disillusionment.
No wonder you may be feeling quite off balance! There are so many factors which can contribute to these feelings - culture shock, developing a new routine, being the supportive partner, learning the new nuances of a new country and so much more.
The trailing spouse is often challenged with reinventing themselves in order to have a feeling of self-actualisation. This process can be so difficult in a foreign country - especially if you also live in a country where you are either not allowed to work or where your qualifications are not recognised. Before you know it you are overcome with resentment, which can also quickly turn into feelings of depression or anxiety.
I often hear from clients complaining about the word ‘trailing’ and being the ‘trailing spouse’ saying it “sounds really passive. Like following behind. That is not what I ever wanted to do.” and “and yet, as I stood in that bar beside my impressive, successful husband and his impressive, successful colleagues, my year of trailing caught up with me.”
This is just it - the disillusionment of it all, the grand picture that has been setup and envisioned which can cause a great deal of distress when reality sets in.
While Trailing Spouse Syndrome is not a clinical diagnosis, it gives us a tidy way of packaging the symptoms that come with giving up (or at least, putting on hold) one’s career & life as they knew it in order to support their partner’s abroad. It’s characterised by loneliness, depression, and a loss of self-worth and identity - putting your needs on pause or on the back burner, being physically distanced from your support network, taken out of our comfort zone, feeling as if you have to overaccomodate to a certain degree to ‘make it all possible’ and be the ‘supporting spouse’.
So how can you avoid the downward spiral and allow space for yourself to start figuring it all out as reality stands now?
Good news! All Problems have solutions… at least, in this case!
Taking up a class, attending organised social gatherings (expat events), or volunteering your time to support a worthwhile cause can provide genuine opportunities for expats to meet people who share a common interest. This ability to bond over a shared interest often makes new friendships possible, which in turn can help with the struggle of leaving behind your personal support network at home and re-establishing a new one. In forming such a bond with other expats can be particularly helpful, as they tend to experience the same difficulties and will already have plenty of other things in common with you.
Finding a passion or hobby is another effective way to give your life a new sense of meaning and satisfaction. Hobbies help people become self-motivated, while striving to achieve a goal can also help to deal with the identity crisis you may be experiencing since the move.
It is also worthwhile to invest some time into learning the local language. Though acquiring a new language will be difficult at first, it will ease the transition of immersing yourself into the new community and culture. Generally speaking, the locals will greatly appreciate your efforts and this could even spark a whole new conversation about where you are from etc. (creating opportunities to break the isolation and monotonous or jumbled up routine) – and the classes themselves often provide an excellent opportunity to express your feelings about your journey and meet new people.
You may even feel like your privileged position as an expat partner with a successful husband/wife means that you have no right to feel the way you’re feeling - we are here to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. If you have a broken arm, you wouldn’t hesitate to seek professional help. The same should be true of mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
A therapist can help you through this challenging period of adjustment, working through the deep emotions which accompany what is often experienced as an identity crisis and reaching a place where you can think creatively and reinvent yourself.
Hang in there! You are doing your best and doing better than you think!
"The Storm Shall Pass"