Expat: You May Be an Orphan Spouse (and Not Even Know It)

Orphan spouse* is what happens when you’re in a relationship… but live separate lives.
orphan spouse
I hear you saying: “Why would you do that?” Generally because of your work, your partner’s work or both!
For days, weeks or months in a row, you’re on your own.

The family is divided: on one side, one spouse (generally the mother) with the children, on the other side, hundreds or thousands of kilometers away, the remaining partner (usually the father).
The distance makes it impossible for you to take care of each other in the reality of the daily life.

This separation for several days – weeks – months in a row, year in year out, is not harmless.

How does it affect expatriates?

Let’s have a look at two examples.

A woman’s story:

You’ve accepted to follow your partner in this new country because you think it’s good for his career. It’ll also benefit the entire family: gaining international exposure, learning a new language, opening up your horizon. Consciously or unconsciously, you may even have felt relieved to have some time off. The treadmill back home left you with a bitter taste: rush and stress. No time to enjoy the family life. You felt guilty. The kids are growing up, so quickly… This proposal, after all, came at the right moment.

Then you had to deal with the move, followed by the early stages of culture shock. All family members are struggling to find their landmarks. You work hard to support the children and put in place a routine to bring structure and reassurance in your daily life. You do your best to unload your husband from the household chores. He’s quite stressed by a demanding job.

But after the excitement of the first months, what you didn’t expect is this new project your partner is now in charge of. It’s supposed to be THE future of the company: leading a multinational team based… on 3 continents. Frequent traveling is required. Several weeks in a row.

From that moment, you’ve both become… orphan spouses.

A man’s story:

For her, nothing changed. She’s still in the cozy home, with the same job and the same children. However since you accepted this “short-term” assignment overseas, your life is not the same. You can’t share meals together anymore. You miss the moments of complicity with your wife after the kids are in bed. You can’t hear the laughter and the fights when the children are playing in the corridor, rushing down the stairs. You’re alone instead, in an anonymous hotel room. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re in Brussels, Paris, New-York or Singapore. The atmosphere in those international hotels is so impersonal. Everything is standardized. They’ve all got the same kind of mini-bar, fitness room, pool and sauna.

To trick loneliness, you turn on the television as a source of false comfort.

Often, when you wake up in the morning, you startle because you’re not sure where you are: at home? at work? in Europe? in Asia?

The most difficult time of the day comes with dinner. The colleagues are all gone back home, reunited with their own families. You’re on your own. It’s not fun to eat alone. So you drink, sometimes a bit more than you should. The silly thing is that with the time zone difference, you can’t even call your family. When you’ve finished your day at work (if that still makes sense in a 24/7 connected world!), they’re already sleeping. And when you wake up, the kids are at school and your wife in the office. Not the best place for an intimate conversation.

She’s telling you she’s afraid at night. She realizes how comforting your presence was. You feel a twinge. Now, you can’t be there for her anymore and she can’t be there for you either. You’ve both become orphans. Orphan spouses.

The company mentioned that the project was “only” for 8 months. For such a short period of time, you didn’t even question the possibility of a move as a family. You come back home twice a month. You’re the expat now…
And what seemed to be a temporary disruption triggers a much deeper change.

Whatever situation you’re in, what used to be family time together is no longer the same.

For split-families (as named by leading relocation company Cartus), weekends and school holidays feel awkward: on both sides. So much time to spend without each other. Going to a museum? Visiting friends? Up for a bush walk?

For the one remaining home, you feel like a widow or a divorced parent.

As French poet Lamartine asserts: “You only miss one single person and it feels like the whole world is empty” (Un seul être vous manque et tout est dépeuplé) Click to tweet

You’re seen attending school events, supporting soccer matches, organizing birthday parties… alone.
You lose those shared family moments together but moreover, you lose the shared memories! For the children, this means memories without Dad.
Your possibilities become restricted for safety reasons or lack of confidence: actually going for a bush walk with the kids might feel a bit risky without a second adult. Sleeping under the tent, no thank you. You’re too scared.

At home, not only do you have to take care of all the the household chores (including putting the trash out) but you need to play dad’s role too. Managing discipline is often exhausting.

Even with friends, it’s not the same. There’s an imbalance in the couples… except if you organize something with other fellow orphan spouses!

Orphan spouse feels like having a broken leg and walking with crutches. You can still move forward but you’re limping.

On the other side, you’ve got the opposite picture:

You’re definitely and desperately alone: new places, restaurants, hotel rooms. At first, you might actually enjoy it. Unlimited freedom. No kids complaining every five minutes about feeling tired. No reluctant teenagers criticizing the food, the location, the music. No partner complaining because you’re watching your favorite sports program.

But after the enjoyment of the first weeks, you miss them all. Your mind wanders in the meeting room… Is this supposed to be your life? So far away from your loved ones?

Being an orphan spouse means that you have to deal with a loss but not just any loss. The most stressful, traumatic and unsettling kind of loss: ambiguous loss.

Pauline Boss, psychologist and professor emeritus at University of Minnesota, coined the term in 1999 with her book “Ambiguous loss”. She has been working for more than three decades on this topic. Ambiguous loss occurs when the person is physically absent but psychologically present (or vice-versa).

In our case, the expression itself “orphan spouse” beautifully sums up the ambiguity of the situation. An orphan is, by definition, a child deprived by death of one or usually both parents. A spouse is a person in a loving relationship.

The expression “orphan spouse” brings with it the ambivalence of this type of loss: the sadness, the bitterness, the anger, the frustration of missing a loved one and the hope, the warmth, the support generated by a loving relationship.

The next question you’re asking with impatience is how do you deal with ambiguous loss? Well, this will be the topic of our next article. Make sure you don’t miss it and subscribe here.

(As a bonus, you’ll also get my 7-part course on expatriate grief and a video on “7 Mistakes Families Make When Moving Abroad”)

Now, over to you. Do you feel you are an orphan spouse? And if so, how do you deal with it?

* Orphan spouse is an expression coined by my friend, Pamela Leach, Ph.D.

Credit image Wikimedia Commons, Credit music Piano Society



  1. Michele Bar-pereg says:

    I like this article , however I have some issues with the term “orphan”. An orphan implies helpless and alone with no support from living Parents- a right that every child deserves. Parents are the ” guardians” of their childrens’ lives. But our expats are grown ups! Our expatirate couples in my opinion are not orphans, they do not need to be guided or directed by their Spouses. They can do a lot for themselves and manage their daily lives. There are starting to be many areas of support available and yes, there should be more support and yes, Corporates do have a duty of care which is mostly neglected. But helpless and alone? It’s not the spouses I know, indeed they feel like this some of the time, but often they can break through the lonliness and make a good temporary working relationship- that works for them. The choice is always there for the two of them to make a decision together- to go it alone and put a time limit on it, to agree what the acceptable terms are and if necessary bring it to the attention of HR and then get through it. Michele

    • Thanks a lot Michele for your lengthy comment. I agree that spouses are adults but I think “orphan” translates several emotional realities in the expression “orphan spouse”. First, it underlines the fact that the spouses can’t support each other: practically when you’re located hundred or thousands of km away, you can’t just step in and pick up the kids at school for example if your other half has an urgent dentist appointment. Second, it underlines the emotional suffering of being separated from each other on a regular basis and thus of being deprived of each other’s care. Third, this expression conveys the ambiguity of the situation, which is an ambiguous loss. As says Pauline Boss in her book, “it feels like a loss (orphan) but it’s not really one (spouse)”. This is why I like this expression. Any other suggestion otherwise?

      2013/9/22 Disqus

  2. Amanda Wilby says:

    I’m with Michele on this – the term ‘orphan’ is not appropriate. I would probably choose something along the lines of ‘corporate widow’ or ‘career estranged couple’. What really comes across strongly here is that nobody is talking about the choices that are being made here. As an orphan, your parents have died, there’s no choice in the matter, but as adults we are responsible for our own lives and the consequences of the choices we make. There is an undertone of helplessness and victim hood which I do not buy into. The tone is ‘well, I have to do this job, my whole career depends upon it, I have no choice’. I challenge that perspective. I also say that every complaint is a request yet to be communicated and boy, there’s an awful lot not being said here. Education and support for the business and the couple is essential for assignments such as this, as is having a rock solid relationship. There’s certainly more that corporations can do to assist and improve these situations but there’s nothing to stop we, the adults putting in strategies for success to. Don’t play the orphan, play the adult.

    • Amanda, thanks for your thoughts. You’re talking about choices being made in the expat life. I agree, there is an element of choice albeit sometimes very limited. When you have a family to feed and a mortgage to pay, in the current economical situation, you might not be in a great position to simply resign. In some cases, you don’t see it coming: it just happens. A family is relocated abroad, the job is on site but then after 6 months, it becomes a global function requiring frequent traveling. What is your choice when the whole family has just been relocated, the children have just settled and you need an employer to sponsor your visa? Sure, you can decide to quit but with which consequences? Orphan can be used in several contexts (not only for a child). In the free dictionary,
      one of the possible definitions of orphan is “Lacking support, supervision, or care: *A lack of corporate interest has made the subsidiary an orphan.” *Another
      meaning is “not developed or marketed, especially on account of being commercially unprofitable”. Indeed we speak of orphan disease, orphant drug or orphan technology. Some food for thought to fuel further discussions!

      2013/9/24 Disqus

  3. Integrated Expat says:

    Neglected spouse springs to mind, coupled with absent parent. Not exclusive to expats of course, but the isolation can be more difficult to deal with if you’re somewhere new and don’t build up a network. Even then, it’s not easy to be the only one whose partner is never available to babysit, never goes to parents’ evenings, misses every birthday, and is just so glad to be home when finally there, that he (or she) doesn’t want to go out and do anything with the family. Extremely stressful, and so easy to become “ships passing in the night”, especially if you have young children and the only time the stay-at-home person can escape is when the absent parent is finally at home. The only way to cope is to build up a network of people who understand and can help, organize child care and be extremely patient and respectful of each other. If you don’t, every time the absent parent is home, the couple and the family has to readjust.

    • Thanks a lot for this comment. Completely agree with the difficulty to “reconnect” as a couple when having young children needing babysitting. A critical decision to make because you don’t know and trust people (yet) in this new country to let them take care of your most precious “treasures”.

      2013/9/26 Disqus

  4. Well written article! I can relate with most of it. My husband goes away for a year at a time to war torn countries. I am sometimes left with the kids in a strange country without speaking the language. I was in Indonesia while my husband was away last time and experienced my kids and I being booted out of the country because of a mistake in our visas. I got a day notice. I have never felt so alone and helpless in my life! There can be a lot of challenges and I try to delve head first into the deep end and find my way to the top. What´s the alternative?? What doesn´t kill you, makes you stronger, right? 🙂

    • Thank you very much, Valkyrie. Do I understand it correctly: your husband is away for one year in an unsafe environment without any visit back home and you’re thrown out of the country? I believe it’s quite traumatic! You must be a Buddhist monk mastering the art of meditation to be able to survive without a nervous breakdown. My hat off! What’s the alternative? You are VERY strong. Definitely 🙂

      2013/9/26 Disqus

      • He gets a couple of visits a year, thankfully but yes, we got thrown out. I was spinning in circles for good 5 minutes before I could comprehend it, haha! Thank you for kind words. we are all strong, that is why we survive the challenges. There are definitely good things that make this lifestyle worth while as you mentioned. But yes it can cause certain tension and stress when hit with unforseen problems. Laughable afterwards most of the time…. 😉 Blogging or confiding in friends (or strangers willing to listen) is a good way to deal. Thanks again and best wishes on the journey! 🙂

  5. Forever Long Distance says:

    The positive: You don’t have to deal and listen to your wife’s (Or spouse’s) constant nagging one a daily basis!! (Just had a to deal with 2 hours of unwarranted attacks).

    At least after a few weeks out, you get 10 days of honeymoon when you are back home before the routine nagging kicks in.

    The (BIG) negative: It kills being spending so much time away from the kids, especially as they grow so fast.

    I can’t decide, “orphan” expat life while missing the kids (and wife at times), or fighting everyday/every other day until you can’t absolutely stand your home life 😀

  6. Great article. This isn’t a HUGE issue for us, but it happens for a few months from time to time until we can both manage to be in the same country. I’m curious to see how the next article suggest we navigate these ambiguous waters. Thanks.

  7. Ah yes, I can relate to this in a few ways.


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