Research Paper By Linda Mueller
(Expat Spouse Coach, JAPAN)
Trailing spouses are typically, although this is becoming less gender-specific over time, the wives of corporate employees temporarily assigned to work abroad. From the outside, this group appears to live a privileged life – from a cost-of-living allowance that covers a variety of domestic help, exotic vacations and private schooling for the kids to the opportunity to reinvent oneself as an adult. Nonetheless, the challenges associated with such an existence out-weigh the benefits for some; often resulting in the employee’s failure to succeed in his assignment. As the expense of supporting an expat employee is great, often exceeding US$1 million per assignee per assignment (McNulty, 2005), such a failure often damages the employee’s career and creates a large financial burden on the corporation. Coaching provides the support the wife of an expat needs to successfully transition to her role as a trailing spouse – creating a positive and productive experience for herself and her loved ones – and should be included in the expat benefit package to increase the likelihood of the assignee’s success.
The focus of this paper is on female trailing spouses who are mothers and were employed in their home country, but are not able to continue their previous career once moving abroad. This description covers the majority of trailing spouses currently living abroad.
While some trailing spouses very willingly leave life in their home country behind to move abroad, many are not given a true choice in the matter if their husband wants to maintain his career. There are a full range of situations, emotions and concerns experienced by the wife, which make the specific circumstances of every trailing spouse unique.
Trailing Spouse Challenges:
Below is a listing of key categories of challenges faced by a majority of trailing spouses. Please note that there are a variety of other issues that arise for individuals ranging from health issues of those on assignment, as well as extended family members at home, to infidelity and so on. While these issues are equally as difficult, if not more so, they are not quite as widespread as those in the categories below.
- Family – Issues often develop between spouses as roles shift and redefine. Many husbands feel an increase in pressure to do well at work in their new role and have deep concern about their family’s happiness, especially in their absence. In tandem, for the first time, the wife may suddenly feel completely dependent upon the husband for emotional, social and financial support. While this brings some couples closer, it drives a wedge between others. Related to the stress being felt in the adult relationship, there are concerns about the adjustment and happiness of the children as they must make new friends, change schools and so on often during very pivotal times in their young lives. Furthermore, family members may differ on how to approach their new life; some may want to ‘go local’ by adopting the culture of their new home country while others may want to live in an expat bubble, so to speak, living as they did at home. Also, extended family are often a challenge from afar as they suffer health challenges or lay guilt on the expats for leaving the nest. This is a large and important category as ‘family issues, are the primary reason assignments are both turned down and fail (Chalre Associates, 2012).
- Career – The Permits Foundation conducted a global study of expat assignees in 2008 and found that ~85% of trailing partners are female and ~90% of all partners were working prior to the expat assignment. While some trailing spouses may have willingly given up or taken a break from their career, others do so with great hesitation perhaps because of short or long-term financial loss, lack of outside interests, true love of their vocation and so on. Regardless of the situation, such a change is a large adjustment especially as the result may lead to full days with no agenda and a lack of focus. Many countries visa requirements make very difficult, if not impossible, for trailing spouses to obtain gainful or rewarding employment and finding a substitute may also be a challenge. This is exacerbated when the spouse had some portion of her identity attached to her previous career. Coupling potential financial issues with a loss of identity can lead to insecurity and even depression.
- Social connectivity – While Skype and VoIPs has made connecting with long-distance friends and family much more simple than in days gone by, this does not replace the need to have local friends. As many husbands work long hours and travel a great deal during expat assignments, the need for local friends is vital for most trailing spouses. From having someone who understands the trailing spouse situation to having back-up support with the children, these friends often become surrogate family members. It is not uncommon to instantly make a new best friend or best group of friends upon arrival in the host country. Sometimes, this arrangement is nearly perfect and makes the assignment very positive right off the bat. Other times, it takes a lot longer to find a like-minded friend or two. There is another challenging situation in which one finds instant friends and then learns that these are not really friends. Some of the social aspects associated with expat living can be very similar to a high school drama. In addition to making friends, there is greater social connectivity in terms of various circles one encounters through club membership, international schools, charity work and the like. The trailing spouse not only represents herself and her family, but she is often representing her husband’s employer as well. Finding fulfilling activities becomes another target for trailing wives; from locating groups who share one’s interests from home to seeking those focused on activities are topics that one would like to explore all of this takes effort and can be challenging for the spouse who is already feeling insecure and unsure of who she is in her new world.
- Culture Shock: Culture shock is
the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new country, or to a move between social environments.
(Macionis and Gerber. 2010).
Becoming a trailing spouse is often a transition physically and socio-economically. There is often a honeymoon phase when the trailing spouse feels like she is on vacation. This transitions into a phase when challenges arise and the spouse is frustrated that things are different than they were back home. She will eventually find a way to adjust to the new environment and finally feel as if she has conquered it. While this is likely to most intense during the first year of the assignment, timing is very individual so issues may arise at any point during the assignment including reverse culture shock upon repatriation.