Trailing Spouse: What You Wish You Knew Before Moving Abroad

It’s 9 am. You’re alone.  Cézanne_Nature_morte_au_panier
Back home after dropping off the kids to school. Your partner is at work.

After the agitation of the morning, the silence is now deafening.

Only proof from such a frantic activity: the kitchen table.

Used cups, fruit, bread crumbs, milk, jam, cereals are still there.
A book lays open on one chair. Toys are scattered on the ground. One slipper is abandoned near the fridge.

A quick glance through the window and you can see the sun shining over the river.

You’re in a nice place, a comfortable house, a safe neighborhood. You have a healthy family but you’re not happy.

You accepted the move. You were excited by changing country, learning a new language and discovering a new culture.

So why do you feel now so empty, lonely and deep inside yourself even miserable?

This is not what you had expected.

You even struggle to admit it to yourself. You’re ashamed. You’re disappointed in yourself.

You “ought to” be happy.

Would you be so spoilt that you can’t appreciate life even when people think you have everything?

The one thing trailing spouses need to know

 

One of the main reasons why transitioning from country to country is so difficult for trailing spouses is that by cutting off yourself from a supportive network, a promising job and a familiar place, you have to re-create a whole new identity from scratch.

You come to this new place governed by new rules and another language. You’re an alien. At best defined by your children or the position of your partner.

While the process of crafting a new identity can be exhilarating (you can choose to be whoever you want to!), it can also prove to be very destabilizing.

Why? Because identity is not a frivolous thing.

Identity is a human need.

 

In order to get rid of the guilt, it’s important to understand the difference.

We all have needs and desires. When you wish to have a cabrio, to speak fluently 15 languages or to have the children clean up their bedrooms without repeating it ten times, you’re expressing a desire. Philosophers and anthropologists tell us that our desires are infinite.

But the good news is that our human NEEDS are limited.

What are they?

Abraham Maslow  developed the most famous theory encompassing 3 categories of needs (material, social, spiritual).

Manfred Max-Neef, Chilean economist and environmentalist, combined his academic background (Berkeley) and his grass-root experience of work for 10 years in economically poor societies to establish a human development model based on fundamental human needs. I find his work very interesting.

He mentions 9 needs independent of any culture or point in history: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, creation, leisure, identity and freedom.

There is an optional one, which is not universal yet: transcendence, the need to to be involved in something bigger than yourself.

Except for subsistence, a vital condition to our existence, he asserts that there’s no hierarchy in the satisfaction of the other needs. “On the contrary – he says – simultaneities, complementarities and trade-offs are characteristics of the process of needs satisfaction”.

Looking at this list, you realize how identity is deeply intertwined with other needs: participation, creation, understanding for example.

How can you define yourself if you can’t participate in society? If you don’t understand the language or if you’re are not allowed to work?

You’re trapped in a position where you’re in and out. You’re part of the society through your partner and your children without the freedom or the possibility to take part in it.

How are you going to define yourself?

 

In the maze of all theories trying to capture the essence and the evolution of the self, I found Kegan’s work quite inspiring. Basically this American psychologist distinguishes several stages of evolution. He makes in particular the difference between the socialized mind (representing the majority of the adult population) and the self-authoring mind.

Bob Anderson, consultant and founder of the Leadership Circle explains the difference between both stages.

The socialized mind

After adolescence and for a period which can be quite significant, we let us define ourselves by external factors. The majority of adults study or find a job, building up an often very efficient life conform to the expectations of their parents, spouse, friends, colleagues, and society as a whole.

I chose a career in science and became an engineer because it was a well respected position in society. My parents, who hadn’t had the opportunity to study, were highly valuing this choice. This is what you could call the “good girl syndrome”.

“The self is made secure and valuable by belonging to and succeeding within prescribed socially accepted roles”. This is typically the stage where many expat employees are involved in: exterior signs of social success, a deep sense of belonging to the company culture.

We often don’t realize how conditioned we are.

“The limit of this structure is the unnoticed equating of my self with what I do, what I am good at, and/or how I am accepted by others.” This is a very powerful and coercitive force.

People at that stage are not following their inner calling, even if they think they are!

They’re “defined from the outside in”.

Approx 70% of adults are in this stage.

The self-authoring mind

As indicated by its name, the self-authoring mind is pretty self-explanatory: this is the first time you’re defining yourself from the inside out, from what your real passion is, from what your ideals are. You’re not ignoring, suppressing or hiding your inner calling. But to accomplish this, you have to let go of external judgement. You have to learn how to derive your self-worth from your own beliefs and not from the external society. You have to face the fact that you’ll disappoint others: your parents, your partner, your friends maybe. 20% of adults approx are going through this experience.

The socialized mind shatters when you become a trailing spouse.

For most of us, we transition from a well-defined place in society, an acknowledged identity by family, friends and peers to a no man’s land.

As said to me a male trailing spouse: “When I first went to a cocktail party organized by my wife’s company, a man approached me and started a conversation. As soon as he learnt that I was a stay-at-home dad, without any defined job position, he didn’t even bother to make an excuse. He just turned his back on me and went away.”

It’s one thing to know that it’ll happen and another to go through it!

As Bob Anderson mentioned:

“Transitioning from the socialized mind to this stage is the major step of adult life! We face the fact that following our own path often means disappointing others, risking failure, and/or otherwise contradicting the norms that link us to society and make us (as a Socialized self) worthwhile and valuable.”

And this is why this transition is so painful at times.

 

This forced evolution (from the socialized mind to the self-authoring mind) is both a blessing and a curse.

A blessing because it’s a tremendous source of enrichment and liberation – definition from the inside out.

A curse because it’s such a life change coming on top of all other parameters (expat grief, culture shock to say the least) that you might very well sink without support, without understanding what’s going on.

“One of the most difficult things is not to change society, but to change yourself.”      Nelson Mandela                          Click to tweet

Now you’re at the turning point: you know what’s at stake. The choice is yours.

I’d love to know how this quest for identity affects you. Speak your mind in the comments 🙂 

 

Credit music Piano Society Credit picture @Wikimedia Commons 

 

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Comments

  1. Ah…very interesting, indeed. For those of us who recently (within the last 3-5 years) also became “empty nesters”, the task is very difficult. As expats, we no longer have the identity of our jobs, or our positions within our previous communities, but as an empty nester one is no longer consumed with the rearing of children either. Recently we had to return to our home due to the death of a loved one. It was interesting how comfortable I was, how almost happy I was stepping into a role that seemed to have purpose again i.e., taking care of the household tasks of the grieving, etc. These same tasks I can find no motivation to do in my expat life.

    • Dear Laura, thank you so much for sharing your experience. As you’ve seen, identity is a need not a whim. Each time identity is modified, we’re affected. ‘Man’s search for meaning’, Viktor Frankl knew it was the key to be happy!

      2014/1/16 Disqus

  2. Being moved by your husbands work twice within a matter of 18 months, plus having your second child and experiencing an unsettling event in a foreign country puts even more pressure on the family unit. I feel very strongly that these big companies have no idea that if they don’t look after the “trailing spouses” and treat them as part of the team how absolutely under-valued and unappreciated we feel. WHY DO IT AT ALL! A family is also about being a team player, we too should be valued highly for supporting our spouse in their new role. If Companies instead of just throwing expat packages at families really had someone within the companies to talk to the trailing spouses and set-up some form of forum or support group for them to go to every morning if they choose to for a couple of months until we have found our feet then perhaps we wouldn’t feel so absolutely left behind and feeling so terribly isolated and without a purpose. A family unit is what communities are made up of and if these big corporates don’t value that then what is this world coming to.

    • Thanks a lot Erna, for this comment. Your example illustrates once more the feelings of many trailing spouses: undervalued, unappreciated for the work they do (relocating the whole family, settling in uprooted children, managing culture shock and expatriate grief, giving up a career and recreating a new identity…). “Happy wife, happy life” but what if the wife/partner is unhappy? In those circumstances, you can bet that the expat employees won’t be as efficient and dedicated as they should. And that will affect the bottom line of their employer. You’re insisting on human support and I couldn’t agree more! Very often, companies think that supporting expat families results in spending more money but that doesn’t necessarily need to be the case. I proposed in those articles ( https://www.hcr.co.uk/?page=BlogandNews&article=368 and https://www.hcr.co.uk/?page=BlogandNews&article=374) 3 easy ways to support trailing spouses: regular meetings between HR and trailing spouses, spouse stipend and help to develop the trailing spouse’s skills (through involvement in company’s supported charities for example). In the end, as you mentioned, we should build a world where the economy serves the people and not the contrary. Thanks again for stopping by and being part of this community 🙂

      2014/1/18 Disqus

  3. Anne,

    Your article was a bit depressing, if you want to know what we honestly think. You are suggesting that an expat has to go through some major personal life change in order to be happy and satisfied. What if someone takes your advice, isolates family and friends in the process, and then finds themselves still completely dissatisfied?

    One of the hardest things about being an expat is isolation. This can be either because someone doesn’t know the language, or it is just a new place to live that doesn’t have the same socializing norms and opportunities that one’s own country has. Isolating friends and family, as this article suggests, can only make the isolation worse.

    I do not believe redefining one’s identity is at all the solution. If you do so believe this, I’d like to hear some of your own personal experience to that effect. If you say that starting this website is your “personal experience” to support your premise, I would venture to say that the elimination of social isolation is actually what cured you rather than a redefinition of self.

    • Thanks a lot for your contribution. Isolation is one of the most difficult aspects of expatriation and certainly as an accompanying partner: I fully agree. I wrote an article about it (2 simple tricks for dealing with that suffocating sense of expatriate disconnection). However, there seems to be a misunderstanding here: I don’t recommend to isolate yourself from family and friends. My point is that by having to redefine your identity, you’ll have à choice. Either to conform to expectations from others or to explore other paths corresponding to your inner calling. This might (but not necessarily) lead you to disappoint friends and family. Knowing this should help you to better deal with it. Forewarned is forearmed, don’t you think? And for more support, you can always join the community here at Expatriate Connection 😉

  4. Thanks! I have followed my wife twice abroad now, and both times I’ve had to redefine who I am. It’s tougher than you think, but it it’s also an enviable position to be in: to be able to change. I blog about my expat experiences here: onoldage.wordpress.com

Trackbacks

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