Why Trailing Spouses Can’t Be Happy (and What Can Be Done)

Companies recognize that accompanying spouses are playing an essential role in the success of international assignments.

Credit image @Wikimedia Commons

Trailing spouse: the last wheel of the cart?

Research shows that they’re key to absorb the stress of both the expatriate employee and the children.

Organizations acknowledge that they increase their partner’s work performance when they adapt successfully.*

Indeed, it’s hard work to:

  • manage the practicalities of an international move
  •  support kids and a working partner to settle in a new country
  •  often assume dual roles (father and mother) because of frequent travelling and long business hours of the other half

and when everything is fine… repeat all the above in another country!

Add to that, the loss of one’s professional identity, financial independence and close support network combined with culture shock!

This creates a very heavy burden for the trailing spouses to bear.

However, they have got no salary slip, no business card, no sponsored visa. They don’t appear in the balance sheet, employees count or suppliers’ list.

Accompanying spouses are illegal workers.

 

But they enjoy a great life, you might say. They get to visit amazing places, they learn new languages and discover new cultures, they live in beautiful villas.
If they’re lucky, they even get a chauffeur, a maid, a nanny and a cook!

Well, first, this is not always the case. And second, even if it’s the case, does it make you truly happy?

Money can’t buy happiness…

 

Yes, and this is key because “the happiness of the spouse contributes to the success of an international assignment.”*

“Happy wife, happy life” as the saying goes.            Click to tweet

Let’s have a closer look at this notion of happiness.

According to Robert Edwards Lane who studied “the loss of happiness in market democracies” and Michael Argyle in his “Psychology of Happiness”, there are 3 elements which contribute to your level of happiness once your basic needs (food, clothing, shelter) are covered:

1. Closeness to nature

2. Social interactions

3. Meaningful work

In the case of the accompanying spouse, we can say that at least the last 2 requirements are not easily fulfilled.

Social interactions are governed by… mastering the art of effective communication, which is one of the 3 pillars of culture shock!
Effective communication requires not only feeling comfortable speaking the local language or deciphering the body language and knowing the local etiquette.
It also means finding the right place to meet the right people.
Creating a social network is not straightforward. It requires time, effort and a good dose of self-confidence.

As to performing meaningful work, in some countries you’re not even allowed to work. And if you are (allowed to work), the task to find a job at your level of qualification without any connection in the local market is daunting.
Sure, you can derive meaning from volunteering or studying. That’s what I’m doing right now.

But there is a subtle difference: in the former case you’re paid to work while in the latter you have to pay.

And this is where reality kicks in.

How do you manage to take care of yourself when you don’t earn a penny?

How do you follow a course, get some extra support, start a new company, open a bank account on your name, apply for a credit card, join a professional network?

Oh well, you might have earned the greatest moral recognition from your community, the local school or the nearby NGO. Your partner’s company can praise you for your adaptive skills and your smooth integration.

Sure, moral recognition is better than nothing… But it doesn’t help.

To follow a course, start a new company, open a bank account, join a professional network, you need.. some money!

… but money certainly lets you choose your own form of misery” (Groucho Marx)

 

This is why I propose the creation of a spouse stipend.

This is how it would work.

The spouse stipend is a fraction of the expat assignee salary, directly paid to the accompanying spouse. The percentage is defined by each company. As a guideline, I would suggest between 10 and 25% of the total salary. This money is spent freely by the spouse for whatever she pleases.**

She might choose to use it for enrolling in a painting class, joining some networking activities, or enjoying a massage.

Why a spouse stipend?

 

All international HR departments already have an expat policy, usually paying for language courses and/or studies for the accompanying spouse. Advocating for a spouse stipend won’t increase the revenue of the whole family, why adding more paperwork then?

  • Because each quest for happiness is unique.

Everybody has different needs and different ways of learning.

While you might feel the urge to take a language course, some other fellow accompanying spouses may prefer to join a choir to fulfill their need for social interaction and meaningful work. But the choir membership is $50 for 6 months. Is this taken into account in the expat policy?

A young mom could derive much more pleasure and meaning by following swimming lessons with her baby, allowing her to network with local mothers. A stay-at-home dad might prefer to join the local soccer club and take this opportunity to improve his knowledge of the local customs (and language), rather than follow private lessons with an accredited tutor.

And what if you don’t need language courses? If you already speak the language? If you already have 4 Masters, 2 Ph.D’s, 3 post-docs?

  • Because having to ask for something can be humiliating

Depending on your culture, having to justify and to ask the company for the payment of an extra-professional activity can be perceived as humiliating.

Let’s keep in mind that the demand for financing spousal activities has to be made by the working partner himself. Remember, the trailing spouse has no direct relation with HR. She is the illegal worker.

What if her partner is ashamed to ask or too busy in meetings, what if he doesn’t consider it as a priority or even worse dismiss the request? Can you imagine the strain put on the couple relationship?

Are you familiar with this scenario?

Richard is now earning 10 times what his own father used to make. He regards himself to be extremely well-paid and does not consider it appropriate to ask the company for another $ 4000 to finance his spouse’s studies. His wife is stuck: how can she call HR without having her husband somehow losing face?

  • Because the imbalance in your couple relationship is exacerbated by the financial dependence.

Before the move

You had a job and a support network. You knew the language and the culture. You had a well-established position in society.

After the move

Suddenly, you have lost your official working status, your financial independence and your freedom: no family, no friends around. You have to be there for your children and your partner 24h/24. You have to be the mother, the father (because your husband is working long hours or travelling), the grandma, the auntie, the entertainer, the teacher, the cook, the nurse. You might not know the language and you might have to deal with severe culture shock.

If you don’t have a payslip, you can’t apply for a bank account. If you don’t have a bank account, you can’t even secure a mobile phone plan or an Internet connection on your name.

If you dare to have a hobby, you know (in case of conflicting schedule with your partner) that you’ll have to abandon it because he’s got priority: he’s earning the money.

And if you want to buy something extra for yourself, you’ll have to deal with your scruples. “Do I really deserve it? After all, I’m not earning the money…”

To what extent does this frustration poison your relationship?

But introducing a spouse stipend must be legally very difficult…

Who would today oppose women’s suffrage which was still inconceivable in most countries 100 years ago?

Could I have ever thought when I joined a multinational company in 1991 for a position located at the headquarters in Paris that 5 years later, I (and all my sales and marketing colleagues) would be requested to work from home?

Who could have imagined that flextime (variable work schedule) introduced in the UK in 1971 would bring such benefit that “Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg on 13 November 2012 announced plans to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees”?

He mentioned in the same announcement that parents (including the father!) will be able to share up to a year’s leave after the birth of a child, stating:

“In the future, both mothers and fathers will be able to take control of how they balance those precious first months with their child and their careers. Reform is long overdue and the changes we are making will shatter the perception that women have to be the primary care-givers. This is good news not only for parents and parents-to-be, but employers too who will benefit from a much more flexible and motivated workforce.”

So what are we waiting for?

 

As you understood by now, the spouse stipend not a question of money. It’s a question of principle, a question of balance, a question of recognition. A spouse stipend won’t get you rich. It acknowledges true teamwork: an essential component for successful expatriate life and family relationships.

Have you say! Are you for or against the spouse stipend? I can’t wait to hear from you in the comments below!

* Source: “Breaking through culture shock“, Elizabeth Marx
** I’m using the feminine because most of the trailing spouses are still women but I know some men too and I certainly welcome their feedback as well! No sexism here 🙂
Credit image Wikimedia Commons, Credit music pianosociety
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Comments

  1. I am for anything that makes me feel adult again. I am facing lots of impediments like not being able to open a pension plan, to change a wrong DOB in my child’s insurance card, or to make almost any important decision. It seems that everything I do has to be approved by my husband. It makes me feel like a child asking my parents for permission. And I know that sometimes I blame my husband, but I guess he is as tired of this situation as I am. As an example, when I called the relocation agent to confirm our decision about the house we wanted to rent, she had to call my husband to check!

    • And the worse is that I had been looking for the house by myself for 3 full days while he was working. She only contacted me during that period but when it comes to make the decision, I am not enough…;)

  2. Hello! I’m not against the spouse stipend ( expat or not), but this data don’t change the problem. My husband company paid for me language lessons and I could use my son’s hours too. They paid for me two outplacements ( the first one was not good because the culture shock). They paid for me a “stipend” because I had to quit my job to follow my husband. With the money I can pay my leasing car, go to the hairdresser and pay my fitness lessons. It’s great because I have not to touch my economies and I have not to ask my husband to pay for me. But money can’t buy happiness as you said…what I like is working. When I work I feel appreciate, I use my intellect, I improve my skills. As spouse at home I miss all this gratifications. Volunteer activities don’t work in the same way. You work more and sometimes for nothing: no gratifications and no money! Studying??? why not, but with my level of studies follow studies where I live it’s around 40000 $/year and the company dosen’t pay for it and I don’t know if I can finish it because we are going to move before too finish the cursus…When I worked I could do exactly the same fitness and go to the hairdresser as now and without pay attention about the money. I was happy to buy dresses and wear it every day at work. Now I can spend my days in a old sweater and in a jogging pants and nobody pay attention about it… I stopped shopping and making up because I don’t need it. And I miss it. I’m missing my woman life…Then a stipend didn’t really help my moral situation!

    • Sissi, Yes definitely. I understand your frustration and your longing for a meaningful, stimulating and rewarding job! I’m not pretending that a spouse stipend is THE solution to everything: it’s only one step in the right direction. In my mind, it’s more the official acknowledgment that trailing spouses exist as responsible and worthy adults. The spouse stipend is meant to help you develop (per your own will) your unique solution to find happiness.

    • I feel your pain sissi! Having spent way too many days myself in jogging bottoms, I know there’s only so much a girl can take. I’m wondering whether every opportunity and choice has been examined? I’d love to chat!

    • Sissi, you’re the living example that a spouse stipend is possible. I’d love to exchange a bit more with you to see how we can learn from your experience and somehow “clone” its implementation 🙂 Would you mind contacting me at anne@expatriateconnection.com? That would be great! Thanks a lot in advance.

    • I can totally relate sissi, except I think my situation is worse because my husband is a local here and I had to leave my life to be with him. So for him nothing has changed; he has the same friends, same activities and his diary hasn’t changed. I am now the one expected to fit neatly in the schedule- join in or stay at home or as he says I should find something to do. I worry that I am getting resentful because he has no idea how I feel, my concerns are more of a nuisance than anything else. I am part of a minority at the other side of the world, no friends, have to learn a new language, am not employed (I am a lawyer and was always proud of that) and I have to LEARN to drive on the other side of the road. I feel like I have cheated myself out of the life that I could have had, maybe I would feel better if he was facing at least SOME hardship with me. And to make matters worse, the bank employee just assumed that he would be a signatory in my empty bank account!

      • Hi, Phoenix, thanks a lot for joining the discussion. You’re bringing another aspect of the diverse expat reality: when one person in the couple is the only foreigner. I understand your legitimate concerns. I don’t have a magic answer. You might find some inspiration by reading the article about “Expat women: 3 simple but essential tips to keep your marriage”. it could be helpful for your husband to read “Expat men: 3 simple but essential tips to keep your marriage”. If you agree, let’s have a chat and brainstorm together. What do you think?

  3. It’s a great idea, but I can see it causing tax and compliance issues for corporations if it was paid directly to the spouse.

    • Thanks a lot Judy for your support. Sure, corporations might argue about tax and compliance issues but I feel that our role as educated spouses is to challenge the status quo! Compared to other social advances like paternity leave for example, I don’t have the impression that this reform is so revolutionary 🙂

  4. Love this article ! My view is that corporations have to start thinking they are employing a couple rather than a man/woman with his /her spouse. Just because you agree to move for your spouse’s career ( hopefully in the hope of making things better for your family ) does not mean you naturally lose your own ambition, drive and motivation. A very frustrated spouse is certainly not a happy one! Corporations need to help the family unit more . A stipend is certainly one option ….

    • Thank you Sam! I completely agree with you: “corporations have to start thinking they are employing a couple rather than a man/woman with his /her spouse” because… it’s the truth. The competence and the efficiency of the spouse definitely contribute to an increased work performance of the expat employee 🙂

  5. Interesting idea but in my opinion, it won’t give me the reward I am waiting for. Getting some money because I am “the spouse of” is not the same as earning my own money because of my proper job in which I put much effort in. I would prefer my husband company to give me an opportunity to develop my own network, maybe an assistance to obtain a working visa if needed or to set up a company which will give me back a status I value. Getting money from the company won’t.

    I feel like getting a spouse stipend is like getting unemployement benefit, the guilty feeling is never far…

    • Sounds like you have a very strong value set there Betty.

    • The spouse stipend is a tool, not the ultimate solution. It officializes a work that you’re doing anyway and where you have to put a lot of efforts and energy too (like you’re doing for your own job). Your comparison with unemployement benefit is interesting. If you’re laid off, would you refuse it because it’s not giving you a fulfilling job? Money can’t buy happiness … but it certainly lets you choose your own form of misery 🙂 … and hopefully helps you to land your dream job!

  6. Great article again Anne, and what an interesting idea. Whilst it doesn’t offer a blanket solution, it does create another choice, and I am ALL for choice! In Europe I think this could work well in terms of taxation – we have something here call a daily living allowance (per diem) that some companies use for people that travel a great deal. What I’m hearing from your readers is that the difficulty lies not in the money, but in the perspective of the host nation towards women, the relationship each couple has with money, the need to work to create fulfilment in one’s life and the perspective of the partner’s role within the family unit. Having a powerful perspective can change things dramatically.

    • Amanda, thanks a lot for supporting the idea. Interesting your input about the daily living allowance. I keep that in mind. And about the powerful perspective? Definitely yes, it helps to be stronger mentally. “You are what you think” 🙂

  7. Rosanna Di Guglielmo says:

    I do not think we have to be payed for everything we do. When my husband started his expat career i new very well that i was going to miss my job and my friends and i still do it. Visiting new countries open your mind and makes you more flexible. Maybe the companies should just give a spouse allowance without specifying the use for it.

    • Thanks a lot for your input, Rosanna. It’s true: for each change, you lose things and you gain things. It’s a subtle art to manage both and to have the balance tipping on the positive side.

  8. Jan van der watt says:

    Very interesting article and concept. When we moved here, I was the unemployed spouse (a kept man, my friends joked), and it took nearly 2 years for me to get a (very great) job. My financial dependence was definitely quite hard to take, and such a stipend would definitely have eased that. I was able to land some temp jobs, and just that very tiny amount of money that I earned on my own really did boost my morale no end. I was also quite lucky that I could do some remote work for a company in South Africa and the UK, which earned me some additional funds, again helping my self-esteem along together with job satisfaction.

    We had a very good experience with my partner’s company though. They added the social support I need so much through regular contact, becoming our friends, organising informal dining events and guiding us into seamless integration into society. They also offered us amazing financial support for our move, visas and permanent residence. This was based on their experience of losing expats returning to their home countries for all the reasons you cited, and they wanted to avoid that, as they lose valuable on-the-job training and skill that you take with you when you leave.

    So in short, I can’t agree more that extending support of the employee to the entire family unit is of immense benefit for everyone. It’s not a human right though. Moving countries is tough. You need to be tough and fight it out for yourself too. Starting with a stipend would be good, but there is more to it, and good companies will recognise that, and go the extra mile themselves. It makes them the employer of choice in the end.

    • Thank you so much Jan, for describing your experience so accurately. I think for men it’s even harder to be in a “trailing” position because of the still engrained traditional family vision: father earning money, mother looking after the children. But what you felt, I feel it too: earning a little bit of money because of your own merit makes a huge difference for your self-esteem. The spouse stipend is the acknowledgement of your work to settle and support the whole family. I view it as a starting point, a tool to help you shape your own future 🙂

  9. Very interesting idea, though possibly impossible to implement…

    One related issue that I have noticed here (exotic remote Asian location with very little chance of spouse employment) is this: before giving up work to follow your spouse It is absolutely essential to really discuss what it means– to make sure the working partner (and you yourself) understands that your support is enabling him (her) to do the high-paid ex-pat job. It’s no longer “his money” and “her money”, but “our” money. I sometimes have the feeling people haven’t thought it through, though they may have paid lip-service to it. Too often the working spouses buys whatever he / she wants but the non-working spouse feels s/he can’t ask.

    Maybe the solution is for the non-working spouse to get their partner to agreed to their own “spouse stipend”, a certain amount set aside each month in an account in their own name … though it risks being a bit too much like a kid’s allowance or my great-grandmother’s “pin money”.

    • Kaye, thanks a lot for taking the time to share your view. I’d like to challenge your concern about the spouse stipend “possibly impossible to implement”. If mankind was able to land on the moon and to send a robot to Mars, I’m struggling to see why this same mankind would not be able to fill in a few more forms to set up a spouse stipend. Think also of other social advances: pension benefits in the UK were only introduced in 1905, social security and health insurance in 1911. Who could have imagined even 200 years ago that people would be paid to retire? Today, the whole system is part of our daily lives. I completely agree with your point underlining the importance of a dialogue in the couple before making the decision to move. But I can also understand that this can be easily overlooked; the excitement of the adventure and the challenge, the pressure to make the decision quickly and sometimes even the belief that you’ll be able to find a job abroad (and realize too late that you’re not allowed to work). I sincerely believe that a formal spouse stipend would help the accompanying partner to keep his/her morale up by being officially recognized and acknowledged for his/her work.

  10. My biggest struggle is to try and stop the intellectual decay, because after 2 years of staying at home, you just cannot keep your brain as it used to be. And I know that as spouses we expect to get back in the work saddle exactly where we stepped down, but we (should) know and the companies know that we just cannot intellectually perform as we used to after few years of break. It won’t help me at all this spouse stipend as I cannot buy some new brain cells with it, can I?

    • Andreea, thanks for your comment. However, it seems to me that staying home doesn’t HAVE to weaken your brain. With the spouse stipend, you can take online courses, you can buy books, software and other training materials. Sure, it takes more discipline. You’re on your own. You also may not have the 8 daily hours of working time you used to get in the office. But don’t forget that living in another country does use your brain in multiple other ways: leaning a new language, driving on the other side of the road, cooking with other ingredients, discovering new places and new customs, managing stress… I think that living abroad teaches you a lot of new skills which are extremely valuable for a company because there’s not only the academic side of things, there’s the human side too. And I believe it’s even more important 🙂

      2013/9/11 Disqus

  11. FOR! thank you for speaking for us!

  12. Nadege Bourdin says:

    Well, after the 4th country I did ask my husband to give me 50% of the salary I was loosing again because of our move. Today he “pays” me a monthly salary that is peanuts compare to what I was earning 17 years ago, but at least it gives me the freedom to do things for me and my family without being asked “what was the expense for?” Ideally any good HR should have thought of a compensation.. After all it’s their job to look after people. In my opinion a financial plan should also be available when a couple is getting divorced when being abroad so the man doesn’t just send the wife and kids back home to enjoy the new young girlfriend… It is also the job of the HR to “re-accompagn” the other way around: why should the red carpet be pulled out to go to the new country and not when tough time are here? So many things could be done, and I really like your idea…

    • Thanks so much Nadège for sharing this experience with us. There seems to be several issues with HR departments: many HR managers have never been expats themselves, they may assume too often that supporting expat families means spending more money, they’re burdened by many administrative tasks leaving little time for creativity and initiative. And the list is not exhautive. That said, I’m really glad you like the idea of the spouse stipend. The more we spread the word, the more likely things are bound to change, right?

      2014-06-25 0:01 GMT+10:00 Disqus :

  13. Liam OBrien says:

    Good article. Gender reversed in my case – i am a male trailing spouse and it sucks. you’re right independence, financial standing, self resepect, social contacts, friends, all go out the window when you relocate. Added to that and my wife works long hours and we have a maid. At first the maid was a good idea, but she is now taking over in the home and I feel at a total loose end because back in the UK I was looking after the kids. My wife earns a lot and she says it is all worth it, but the bottom line is that the salary goes into her account and she now has all the decisions and I am left to stare at the ceiling for much of the day. It’s a bit like transporting someone to an alien environment and having to start from scratch. Closeness to nature, social relationships and work, as you mention are the three planks of being happy. I lost the last two and much of the first when we moved. I cannot get work because I am forbidden, social is difficult to kick start, and Singapore is a city state so not a lot of nature going on. Things might run into the buffers i fear as my wife likes it here.

  14. Family-support is a must if you want your employee to have a successful relocation. Following your wife or husband to a new city so that they pursue a new job or position is a very loving, admirable thing to do. The reason that a lot of these spouses are unhappy is because they feel left out. UrbanBound wrote a post about we should change the term “trailing spouse” to “relocating spouse” in an effort to make the spouse feel included in the process. Check out Reinventing Relocation Industry Terms

    • One thing is to change the term, another is to change the situation and take REAL action to include the accompanying partner and value them. In your relocation software, is there an allocated place to factor in the spouse stipend? I’d love to know 🙂

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