Orphan Spouse: How to Best Cope With Ambiguous Loss?

You’re an orphan spouse when you’re in a relationship but don’t live permanently with your partner under the same roof. Short term assignments, necessity or willingness to pursue dual careers, fly in fly out rosters popular in the mining industry, are some of the reasons why couples are separated for days, weeks, sometimes months in a row.

Both partners are orphans from each other.

An orphan spouse misses her other half because she’s psychologically present but physically absent when they’re separated from each other. When they reunite, what may happen is that they’re both physically present but psychologically disconnected.

Pauline Boss, THE expert on ambiguous loss

Pauline Boss, THE expert on ambiguous loss

Both situations trigger a sense of loss, but not just any loss. This is the most uncanny, stressful and unsettling kind of loss: ambiguous loss.

Today, I’m thrilled to offer you some words of wisdom from the very expert on ambiguous loss herself, Pauline Boss, leading psychotherapist, Emeritus Professor  at University of Minnesota who received, alongside with Hillary Clinton, a Humanitarian Award for her work with victims of 9/11.

Anne: What is ambiguous loss?

Pauline: Ambiguous loss is a loss which is not clearly definite. Subsequently, people have their hopes raised and dashed countless times. Certainly in expat families you have the very frequent ins and outs, where people leave and come back. Those ins and outs are very stressful. That’s what you have to cope with: you cope with the ambiguity of the loss. That’s the difference with a definite loss like a death in the family.

Anne: How did you find the term ambiguous loss? How helpful has it been? Any anecdote?

Pauline: Ambiguous loss describes something a lot of people feel.

Giving a name – ambiguous loss – to what people feel has been helpful because people can better cope with something once they know what it is. They also become aware that they’re not the only ones.

I came up with that term actually when I was a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin. I was studying family therapy and theory development, both at the same time. I was watching families coming in for therapy. The child was the problem and in the 70’s when I was doing this study, the fathers were angry. They were saying: “Children are mother’s business. Why do you need me here?” So I came up with the term “psychological father absence in intact families”. But the professor I was studying theory development with, said: “Pauline, it has to do with more than fathers. Find a different term that’s more inclusive.” So I went home and thought more about it. It’s not psychological father absence, it is ambiguous loss. That was the most general term. That could mean the mother is gone, the child is gone, it could be anybody. The professor was right to push me to a different term so it became ambiguous loss. The first time I wrote about it was in the 1970’s.

Anne: There is one type of couple particularly affected by ambiguous loss. It’s when 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 the spouses to take care of each other in the reality of the daily life. A friend of mine called them “Orphan spouses”. This separation for several days – weeks – months in a row, year in year out, is not harmless. How do you best deal with that?

Pauline: Orphan spouse is the correct term. It’s a sad term.

Corporations somehow need to pay attention to the morale and the health of their employees more than they are. I’m just thinking of all these men and women who are on assignment somewhere, who must feel very lonely at times and also wish they were home for a birthday with their child and their spouse.

I think separation is very hard on both parents: the one who stays back home and the one who is traveling. It’s an expectation beyond ordinary circumstances.

There should be pressure put on corporations to reconsider how they’re doing this work. For example, I’m understanding from some corporations here that rather than sending a person to let’s say Brussels or Belgium, they will now organize teleconferences so that people from 3 different countries are involved but each stays in their home country. Maybe technology will help there. I’m certainly hoping so.

What I think is needed with this term orphan spouse is, first of all, to NOT have it. Corporations should allow the spouse to stay home more, so that there isn’t such a thing as orphan spouse.

But second of all, if it has to be, then I believe, it’s very essential for the partners to connect psychologically and physically in a predictive way.

There should be regular conversations and visits. This is very important for the husband and wife. For example, they would meet somewhere every 2 weeks. Whether or not, you’d involve the children, may not always be important if they had a friend to stay with. The absent spouse also needs to be connected with the children.

But again, I’m always putting the husband-wife relationship first.

Because in order to be good parents, you need to be a team. Otherwise, you have a single parent spouse. Your kids are being raised by a single parent. If you’re going to stay together, it’s very important to show the children that you ARE together. Mummy going off for week-end with daddy in Paris, the children might even like knowing that!

Anne: When the traveling spouse comes back, he/she might want others around him/her and cancel all activities to celebrate his/her come back.

Pauline: They shouldn’t do that. Don’t cancel the birthday party with the friends. This is true with the military families too. The military person would come home and say “Now I’m back, everything should go back to normal the way I remembered it.” Well it can’t. The children may have some plans, they must continue so the person who’s coming back needs to fit into the family. He/she should not expect to be the king or the honored person for the day. Maybe a dinner or something to say “Glad you’re back!” but the family has to have some continuity.

Healthy families have a good balance between change and continuity.The children will go crazy if they don’t have some kind of continuity. And so will the rest of us actually.

I have empathy for the tired worker who comes home. I’ve been that person. They might need to have a quiet moment to catch their breath after they’re coming off the plane or wherever they come from but if the children have plans or if there’s concert at school, those things should carry on. Absolutely. Continuity is key. The children need predictability and continuity.

I would encourage the at-home spouse to stay in charge. They’re the one who are taking care of the children all this time. They should not turn over the reins the moment the other person comes home because that shows their weakness and they actually are there on the ground with the family. They know what’s going on at school day to day with the friends. So they’re very knowledgeable and their knowledge should stay in charge. Obviously I believe in shared gender equality in families, that’s an underlying assumption of what I’m saying, but you’re like co-pilots in a family, you’re both in charge.

The person who travels is in charge of earning the money and the person who’s at home is in charge of keeping the family going. One is not more important than the other.

And so the person who’s in charge of keeping the family going should not relinquish that power once the traveling partner comes home. That doesn’t make any sense. They’re not experts in running the family because they’re absent most of the time.

Anne: Expat children are also affected by ambiguous loss. How can parents best help them?

Pauline: Parents can best help their children by staying connected with each other.

First of all: the best way to help one’s children is to stay connected with one’s mate.

Parents are surprised by that because they think they should help their children first. No, they should help themselves with each other first. Parents should have a strong team for parenting where they’re in agreement, where the children can see that they love each other, that they’re affectionate with each other, even if it’s just a touch. Children feel secure when they know that their parents are going to stay together. If, for example, there is one parent working in one country and the other living in another country, that would mean staying connected by Skype these days and with visits. And so the children would witness that.

The second most important thing to help one’s children is to enable them to stay connected with their best friends wherever they are.

That’s how you can help children. Moving them into many different schools over their youth is not good. If you can set up a rather consistent school plan for them to avoid being junked out of school after school after school, that would be very helpful. This has to do with their friends. By constantly making friends and losing them, children literally have intimacy problems throughout life because they’re afraid that if they get connected with somebody even later on, they’ll lose them. So they become afraid of intimacy. It sets up a life time pattern. And you don’t want to do that.

Dear reader, if you want to know more about ways to deal with your children and their ambiguous losses, stay tuned. This will be the topic of the next article!

Ambiguous loss and orphan spouses are real phenomena that have now fitting labels. Understanding these concepts may cause missing pieces of your life to suddenly find a home and fit into place.

So tell me, how do you feel, now that you know?


Credit image: Judy Olausen



  1. I could REALLY relate to this! Thanks for some very interesting insights into the dynamics at play; especially regarding the parent at home staying in charge and reason why, along with the returning parenting fitting in 🙂

    • Thank you, Marian for your prompt comment! Very glad to see you found this useful 🙂

      2013/10/1 Disqus

    • Lesley Klem says:

      Living in Australia fly in/fly out is common and the issues all resonate in the article but one ones up all the time. My husband worked fifo for 5 years. The biggest issue for us & most others is this thing of “authority” on his return. I agree with you and the article, the parent at home (most often the mother) should maintain that day to day authority but my husband (and it seems many others) came home wanting/needing(?) to restablish their “head of the household” status. Carefully set up routines, home rhythms and continuity got trashed every single time, not because I handed the reigns back but because he grabbed them back! I distilled this down to respect. My husband did not respect the role & stability I set up at home in his absence. Somehow many men view themselves as being more important, more competent, more intelligent etcetc simply because they are male & born into this “entitlement” not based on actual fact but based on their gender & label of being “head of the home” “main bread winner”. It makes no sense when they have no idea because they aren’t home. If men could be educated to understand it is a partnering thing and they need to respect their partners & wives for the home routines…it’s not weakness, and support them and slip into the comfort of that routine instead of fighting it on their return…less arguments would happen for sure!

  2. Judy Rickatson says:

    I suspect the corporate world (where this is a rising phenomenon) has much to learn from the military world on this subject. Are there any book or other resources on this topic that Pauline can recommend?

  3. I come across this a lot with my clients – can be quite challenging all round.

    I’d be interested to know from your experience, Anne and Pauline, who in the above circumstances handles the finances, including taxes, etc of the “working spouse”? Many thanks

    • Susan, apologies for my late answer! With the school holidays, I’m afraid it fell through the cracks 🙁 Thank you so much for your comment and the light you shed on the financial aspect of this relationship. My experience in that matter is limited so I’m forwarding the question to Pauline for her insight.

      2013/10/8 Disqus

  4. Thank you Anne. Look forward to hearing further in due course. very best regards.

    • Here is Pauline’s reply: “With military couples where one is deployed, the non military spouse takes charge. They may even get power of attorney. So one person is assigned to take care of the finances. I do not know how it is with expat families but the couple needs to decide who will be in charge, so as not to be confused.”

      Susan, my own (limited) experience with expat couples is that it varies from couple to couple but it’s very tempting for the one earning the money to decide all of a sudden that it’s all his (or hers). I heard some examples of previous dual earning couples where one resigned from her job to follow her partner and had to bear the situation that the working partner denied all her rights to the now sole source of income.

      Pauline mentioned that in her therapy practice, to avoid this problem, she always recommends that couples have 3 checking accounts, his, hers, and ours. She advices this so that both members know that the money is NOT all theirs. Some only realize this at the time of divorce and its legalities, and she wants them to know this early on in their relationship: they are a true “partnership”. Even if one person earns all the income, it belongs as well to the stay at home partner. Pauline here refers to US law but I believe it should be common practice in all Western countries at least.

      Does it help, Susan?

  5. “Understanding these concepts may cause missing pieces of your life to suddenly find a home and fit into place” Totally agree. When the traveling spouse/parent is routinely out of touch for weeks at a time, it strains the relationships all round. If they can’t come to an understanding of fhe need for communication, the issue can become problematic.


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