This is what so many trailing spouses feel after some time living abroad…
The situation is painful, I agree.
But bear with me.
Let me help you view this condition with new eyes and spark some reasons for hope.
Why you feel trapped…
When you made the decision to follow your partner or leave everything behind to rejoin him/her, you took a leap of faith.
You decided to jump.
Jump into a world that you wouldn’t control any more. At least for a while…
It’s a beautiful act in itself. It says so much about your level of trust, your love, your willingness to live boldly, your curiosity to explore, your vision of the bigger picture. The sense that for you as a couple, for your children and your family as a whole, it’s a fantastic opportunity for growth.
But there are unintended consequences.
In becoming a trailing spouse, you’ve become dependent on your partner for visa, money, health care, housing, car. You may have to rely on him/her for daily communication due to the language barrier. You may only get the chance to network though his/her relationships. Very often, this is the only person you’ve got at hand for emotional support. At least for a while…
This loss of control is very uncomfortable, especially in our Western culture: you ought to master your life, set your goals, achieve results. Otherwise, you’re considered as weak, lazy or incompetent.
This loss of control hurts.
It feels like such a big step backwards.
It feels like being a child again.
Desperate, you want to get out of this situation as quickly as possible.
But how can you look for a job when you don’t speak the local language? In some countries, you’re not even allowed to work!
What’s the point in studying and getting a degree you won’t be able to use when moving again?
Should you find work, why investing yourself in a position you may have to quit in a year’s time?
You can’t decide what to do… because you’re paralyzed.
As one reader wrote to me:
“You feel like you’re in prison.”
This metaphor strongly resonated with me.
What image does it trigger for you? What feelings does it bring up?
I see a dark place. Small cells. Dirty and overpopulated. You’re confined in a tiny spot. But in the middle of this collective promiscuity, you’re more lonely than ever.
Is that the only learning we can derive from the metaphor of the prison?
Let me offer you another interesting view.
A few km from where I live in Tasmania, there is an infamous penitentiary called Port Arthur. Beside the buildings hosting the convicts, a separate prison was erected. But not any kind of prison.
A silent prison.
Individual cell was the rule. Thick walls and doors were designed to grant complete silence and separation between the prisoners. Guards wore felt slippers so that you wouldn’t even hear their footsteps. They spoke to each other in sign language to not break the silence rule. Convicts were not allowed to see each other. They had to wear masks when brought together and they had complete interdiction to talk to one another. Even during the Chapel service, they were maintained in individual cubicles.
As mentioned in Port Arthur’s current documentation, “Solitary confinement was meant to replace physical punishment. In isolation from others, prisoners would be forced to look inwards and repent their crimes.”
Would you be surprised to hear that this regime was even harsher than physical mistreatment?
As time passed by, some staff members got worried by the unusually high number of prisoners becoming “mad”. The amount of such cases significantly outnumbered what could be observed in more classical carceral systems.
Isn’t it striking to see the huge psychological impact of isolation and control?
Interestingly, both are often experienced at various levels by the accompanying partner. In a new country, language barrier and lack of social connections concur to deep loneliness. Add to this the extreme difficulty to take control of your life as we previously talked about.
What can we learn from this?
Isolation coupled with lack of control on one’s life are extremely painful.
It’s essential to acknowledge the intense suffering experienced by accompanying partners.
Of course, this is not a one-size-fits-all statement. Not all accompanying partners would describe their experience as intensely. But those who do, are to be taken seriously. They need to have their feelings validated.
It’s not pure imagination, weakness or whim. It’s real and intense suffering.
Some people will argue: “But you chose to live abroad and to follow your partner! Nobody forced you.”
In fact, you may even recollect family and friends telling you before leaving: “Are you sure you want to give up your job and move there? What are you going to do with your life?”
Now here you are. Alone and desperate.
You’re beating yourself up.
How didn’t you see what was looming?
Why were you so blind?
Are you now doomed to live through others and never be able to recover your independence?
You feel guilty, ashamed and devastated.
You feel like in prison and it’s your choice.
I know of another man who did the same thing. Even better: his goal was to go to jail and he was delighted to be in prison.
“I’m as happy as a bird!” he wrote.
“My stay here is a good school for me” “Jail is jail for thieves and bandits. For me, it’s a palace.”
This man is an example for many. He’s universally admired for his courage, his integrity and his devotion to human rights.
His name? Gandhi.
In his method of nonviolent action called Satyagraha, Gandhi’s purpose was “to practice civil disobedience that entailed breaking the law and courting arrest”, says Mark Shepard in his speech at the 1990 Annual Gandhi Lecture delivered at the University of Virginia.
“We tend to think breaking the law is the core of it. But to Gandhi, the core of it was going to prison. Breaking the law was mostly just a way to get there.”
In a book depicting his life, French philosopher Catherine Clement, student of Claude Levi-Strauss and passionate about India, mentions:
“Gandhi is never as happy as in prison. He’s resourcing himself and he’s full of ideas. Bars of confinement are not a barrier but an inner liberation and a source of energy.
Prison, a haven for reflecting on ourselves and on the world, is part of the pact Gandhi seals with his disciples.
Being Satyagrahi means that you not only know what prison is and that you’ve been there but that you love it.
After Gandhi’s death, the more faithful of his disciples were disappointed in the younger generation who was afraid of prison and who didn’t like it. They asserted: “with less than 10 years of prison, you’re not really Gandhi’s disciple.”
Gandhi proved that prison is what we make of it.
Being afraid of prison means giving power to the tyrant – in the trailing spouse’s case, the tyrant being society, regulations of the hosting country or even your own partner! By loving being in prison, he showed us how to tame our fears so that this prison wouldn’t have any power on us any longer.
But don’t be mistaken. Gandhi never remained passive in jail.
He recommended “Don’t fortify the walls of your prison!”
There’s another man who experienced incarceration of his own choosing: Viktor Frankl.
This Austrian Jewish psychiatrist had the opportunity during WWII to flee to the US but decided to stay in Vienna.
Happened what was expected.
On September 1942, he got arrested and deported along with his wife and his elderly parents. They all died. He survived after spending 3 years in 4 different concentration camps.
In those terrible conditions, he touched the bottom of human nature. And what did he find?
One day, he was disgusted by the constant flow of trivial questions he kept asking himself.
Would he have enough to eat today? Should he keep his cigarette or trade it for a bowl of soup?
Would the capo be in a good mood? Would he find a wire for his shoe lace?
He forced himself to think about something else. Suddenly he pictured himself in a lecture room at university giving a talk about the psychology of concentration camps and felt immediately relieved.
Once again he proved what Nietzsche said “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how”.
In the most terrible circumstances, when you can’t change a situation, you’re challenged to change yourself, concluded Frankl.
Finding meaning is an incredible tool to bear the present situation.
Meaning can be found in activities, through art, nature, human relationships, even attitude.
So what are you meant to learn from your experience as an accompanying spouse?
I’d love to know!