Trailing Spouse – Why It’s Harder To Tell Your Truth

7:30 am – A typical morning in your expat family

‘Mum, where is my lunch box?’
    trailing spouse
‘Mum, I can’t find my soccer gear’

‘Mum, did you sign the form for our theatre excursion today?’ 

‘Mum, when is Dad coming back from his business trip?’


8:15 am – ‘Hurry up, kids. Time to go!’

9:00 am – You’re back home after school drop off.             

The flat is spacious. You’re lucky, you have a view on the lake.
To break the now deafening silence after the stormy morning, you put the TV on.

Breaking news: another terrorist attack – 52 killed.

You wince while images of blood, despair and destruction succeed each other.

‘Oh my God!’

You shake your head. You can’t even start to imagine what it would feel like to go through such a trauma.

In a glance, you look around and embrace the beautiful location, the pictures of your smiling children on the wall, your comfortable lifestyle.

No doubt. You’re privileged.

Your family is in good health, you have no money problems, food on the table and a roof above your head.

So how could you dare? How could you dare to tell your truth?

How could you dare to say that you’re hurting. 

That the pain is deep and excruciating at times.

That you’re anxious, lonely and frustrated.

That you can’t sleep.

The truth is : although you agreed to move here and to follow your partner, you’re highly stressed and ultimately unhappy!

This makes you feel ashamed and guilty.

It’s incredibly difficult to admit. First and foremost to yourself. Let alone to others!

That’s why you brush it off. You reason yourself out. You lie…

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A terrorist attack, an incurable illness, a divorce: those are recognized traumas.

Everybody understands. Everybody gets it. Straight away.

But in your life, there is no such thing: your partner only got a promotion abroad!

How could THIS be a trauma?  Isn’t that going overboard?

Trauma in our collective psyche tends to be something big like an earthquake, the loss of a loved one, even a redundancy.

But what we’re talking about here – moving abroad – is a blessing!

All your friends rave about the wonderful adventure you’ve embarked on and how lucky you are.

And you are indeed, but…Image result for paragraph separator

Let’s take a closer look at what trauma means.  

The Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines trauma as ‘an injury (as a wound) to living tissue caused by an extrinsic agent’ and as ‘a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from mental or emotional stress or physical injury.’

Which means that the trauma is not defined by the event but the consequences it has on the person.

As mentioned in ‘Coping With Trauma’ a book by Dr Jon Allen combining years of research teaching and experience treating trauma survivors, trauma is ‘in the eye of the beholder’.

There are 2 parts to a traumatic experience: the objective part and the subjective part.

The objective part refers to the event itself that may cause death or serious injury to you or others. This is what we usually focus on (natural disasters, war scenes, murder, rape).

But it is the SUBJECTIVE experience of the OBJECTIVE event that constitutes the trauma.

Jon Allen

In other words, a trauma is defined by the effects it triggers in you.

As underlines Allen, ‘objectivity and subjectivity don’t always match. You can be traumatized by someone with a fake gun’.

Psychologically the bottom line of trauma is overwhelming emotion and a feeling of utter helplessness.

Jon Allen

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It’s ‘overwhelming emotion and a feeling of utter helplessness’ that you may experience when you move abroad.

Because you feel so awkward, so incompetent, so dumb not being able to communicate with the local people after three years living here.

Because you’re not contributing financially to your household. You’re officially considered as dependent. It’s written on your visa.

Because you feel so lonely. Even when you smile to random people in the street, you get cold looks making you feel like you really don’t belong.

Because you’re shocked that your partner doesn’t want to listen when you try to open up.  

Because you’ve been brutally stripped of a fundamental right: the ability to live in a place in your own right. If you were not in this relationship, you would be kicked out of the country.

Because nobody can pronounce your name properly.

Because you suffer from the change in climate.

Because it’s not what and how you thought it would be.

Because all of the above (and even more) is adding up, day after day and has a compounding effect.

The biggest danger, that of losing oneself, can pass off in the world as quietly as if it were nothing ; every other loss, an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife … is bound to be noticed.

Soren Kierkegaard

The trauma is invisible. It comes from things you would never have imagined.

More often than not, as a trailing spouse or — more elegantly said — as an accompanying partner, you’re traumatized because you put yourself in that situation.  You think that you should take responsibility for it and you end up blaming yourself for not being happy.

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Ironically enough, the particularity of trauma is dissociation.

You want to avoid thinking about it. You want to forget about it.

But to heal, you need to acknowledge it. You need to face it. You need to be heard and validated.

Giving you permission to grieve, to vent, to complain, cringe and cry, that would bring relief.

I have created a safe space to do just that. Without fear of being judged or fixed. A safe place where you can be just as you are. Where you don’t need to pretend. A place to be yourself.

Will you join us? 

Find more details about this online support group program called ‘Unpack Your Bags‘. 

We look forward to welcoming you.


Credit music Free Music Archive credit pictures Depositphotos



  1. Great post. I find myself ashamed to admit to my friends back in the States that I have a hard time being an expat. Everyone on the other side of the world just sees: that I don’t work, I have a gorgeous house, etc. Reality is that for me, not working, having beautiful things, etc – have come with a price.

  2. Beth Hinds-Brown says:

    The “compounding effect” is accurate. The losses of career, colleagues, friends, family, pets, and an empty nest in a way I never imagined ( me being thousands of miles away) is too much to grieve all at once, but so overwhelming to face each one of those losses. I’ve been back home for a one month visit and that’s not easy either! I will return to my husband (which is a positive thing) and that “gorgeous” house that I don’t miss because it’s not “home.” It does come with a price. The best mindset I’ve been able to make work for me is that I’m no longer waiting for friends and for life to begin, but rather that this IS my life as it is happening now. Some days are much better than others. Everything is constantly changing all of the time and anything is possible. The fact that I am living this expat life for the second time proves it. Never in a million years did I think it would happen again. It was our choice and although no regrets, it doesn’t diminish that it is hard. I sometimes wish I was the type of person who was satisfied staying in one place without that strong desire to experience new places and take opportunities when they arise. That yearning for the new while missing the familiar is nothing new for humans and is a constant challenge to have both going on inside – for me, at least!
    Bottom line is that we trailing spouses have to be kind and patient with ourselves. The “shoulds” somehow need to be quieted. If that’s not possible, then greet those internal messages as a friend and acknowledge that, yes, this is difficult and I am doing my best.

  3. I think the expat experience alienates everyone to some degree when they are living the expat life. The biggest thing I found to make it work, is to learn the language. My wife and i are from different countries, and we have lived and worked in other countries, that were not native to either of us. The language allows you to become part of the new place, to communicate, and to participate. I’m not talking fluency, but rather functionality . You may reach fluency, if you’re there long enough. People live basically the same day to day lives no matter where they are from. When you can talk to them, doors just open. You become part of it. Bottom line, no matter where you are as an expat, someday you will be leaving, and your expat days in that place will be a memory. Or, you may end up staying, and if you do, it will be your choice.
    Either way,just suit up, show up, and shut up. Being an expat is just another duty assignment….but you weren’t told to go. You chose to go.. Most choose it for the money. Remember, that your record for overcoming problems is 100% up until now. Think about that.

  4. Katie Fraser says:

    I so hate that phrase “trailing spouse” – it is depressing enough by itself without all the myriad of emotions that we all go through. Anne you are so true in what you say that, because we have been given the amazing opportunity to experience another culture, we are expected to be constantly happy, grateful rays of sunshine all the time. But we probably weren’t like that in our own countries so why would that change now. Don’t get me wrong, I love my new home. I know we had a relatively easy transition – UK to East Coast USA, but it doesn’t stop the swing of emotions or what silly things trigger the low feelings.
    The upside is, it is possible just like with any low mood, depression or grief to get through the other side. Doesn’t mean there still won’t be ups & downs, but the downs won’t feel so overwhelming.
    You can totally thrive in your new home, it might just take a bit of time, self-care and perhaps a little bit of re-invention.

  5. Although you post refers to the accompanying spouse, you can’t forget the strains on the working mate as well. At the end of the day, although the decision was taken at a family level, you were the one causing the move and you know it. You have to live with the same changes (Culture, language, friends and family left behind) plus carrying your family’s feelings on your back. You “know” you are doing the “right” thing going abroad: stable job, nice house, growth opportunities for all the family, savings, escaping from your own country’s problems, but that doesn’t change the questioning in your mind if it was really the “right” thing.
    After 10 years and 3 different countries, I’ve seen the effects that being away can cause in all the family. What has helped us all the time is the commitment we both put into the marriage, sharing the same goals and having an open channel of communication. Without it, no doubt we would have failed. Having clear goals and time frame has also worked for us. We can’t wait until we can finally settle somewhere we can call home, hopefully soon.
    On a practical sense, trying to merge into the local culture has also been good. Forget the other expats, make local friends. Go to the markets, eat at local restaurants, take the bus, etc. It will make you feel at home. Never try to compare what you have/had back home with your current situation. Home will always seem better, just like the past always seems better.

  6. I’ve been here as an expat trailing spouse for 30 years (since I was 22). It hasn’t got better, it’s got much worse now that I’m an empty nester with aging parents back in the UK. The worst thing was moving within the States eight years ago, to an exurb, recession hit as I raised teens and I haven’t got back into the job market. Right now, at 50, this is the worst time of my life here. I wish I had returned home years and years ago, now we have to wait until hubby retires. I can’t imagine spending another 12 years in limbo until that happens. This is awful! My best advice to anyone in their 30s, for whom it is still feasible, is move back home if you can!

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