Trailing Spouse Syndrome Remains an Issue for Expats

Trailing Spouse Syndrome Remains an Issue for Expats

According to a 2010 survey of expatriates conducted by Brookfield Global Relocation Services there is a 6% failure rate for international assignments, with 65% of these failures being attributed to spouse / partner dissatisfaction with the new location.

A failed expatriate assignment caused by issues with the trailing spouse is not a new phenomenon. The Trailing Spouse, a nickname first used by Mary Bralove of the Wall Street Journal in 198l, is the term applied to the partners of expatriates who relocate due to work or career opportunities. Quite often the daily challenges that these individuals face can be underestimated and they struggle emotional difficulties as a result of the stress they face in trying to deal with the challenges of day-to-day life in a foreign environment, while also facing potential loneliness and/or resentment that their partner’s career develops at the expense of their own.

Talking in the Financial Times, one expat described how a posting overseas was “very tough” for his wife: “I think a lot of employers forget the family piece, and turn a blind eye to the impact that a spouse’s transition can have on an employee’s performance and ability to contribute,” he said.

One of the major issues facing the trailing spouse concerns their own lack of fulfillment. A study by the Permits Foundation in 2008, cited in Economist report: up or out next moves for the modern expatriate, found that 82% of trailing spouses or partners had a university degree and 90% of them were forced to relinquish their own jobs in order to pursue their partner’s move abroad. Of these 90%, only 35% worked during their time living overseas.

Discussing these statistics, Helen Walton an executive at AstraZeneca commented: “The whole family has to be keen to go. They have to be honest with themselves before embarking on the assignment. Expats fail most frequently because of partners—either because they can’t find work that satisfies their needs, or have given up too much. And the expat lifestyle can be isolating for some people. There are certain countries where the culture is very different and it’s difficult to make friends.”

One of the common misconceptions concerning trailing spouse syndrome is that it is a phenomenon that is only applicable to women. While traditionally the trailing spouse was a female more and more couples are switching roles and it is anticipated that the trend will continue. A further assumption made by many couples is that the issues male and female trailing spouses face when they relocate are the same. However, research by the entitled, A 4-Year Study of Accompanying Spouse Issues on International Assignment, found that there are some significant differences in the ways in which male and female trailing spouses adjust to their situation.

One of the assumptions many of us make is that the issues facing male and female trailing spouses are similar. Yet, upon closer examination, we found that whilst there are some similarities, there are also significant differences in how males and females manage and adjust to the trailing spouse life. Many people argue that gender stereotypes add complications to the psychological impact of being the jobless partner and the situation is even more fraught for the male who has forfeited his own career in order to move abroad for the sake of his spouse. Discussing the phenomenon of male trailing spouse syndrome in Psychology Today ( Anne Hendershott comments: “such men may be worse off as trailing spouses…because they are charting new territory, with no cultural means of support.” She goes on to describe how a battle ensues: “first an internal war with culturally prescribed roles, then an external clash with those who strike against people who break the rules.”

Regardless of whether you are male or female, being a trailing spouse can be extremely challenging and stressful. According to McNulty, a consultant who specializes in mobility issues, the most important thing for a trailing spouse to do is to take control of their situation and create their own opportunities. Speaking in the New York Times she discussed her own research: “What I found in my research is that almost all spouses face an identity crisis, but only about 10 to 15 percent did something about it, by becoming authors, getting an MBA or starting businesses,” she said. Most “felt they were victims, with no control.”

If you’re a trailing spouse and are looking for practical advice on avoiding the pitfalls of being the jobless better half then see our free sections on trailing spouse and expat relationships. They contain hints, tips and ideas on keeping your relationships healthy as well as offering ideas for how the trailing spouse can follow McNulty’s advice and take control of their own destination.