The Trailing Spouse, Gender Roles Abroad

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Quite a few women don’t relocate for their own career, but follow a husband or partner on an assignment. As a “trailing spouse”, you take care of the family while putting your own plans on the backburner – not always an easy or rewarding job. Find out what it entails and how to keep your cool as an expat wife.


Recent surveys regarding relocation trends show that the number of employees without family ties is increasingly preferred for expat assignments. This is also due to the fact that the well-being of a “trailing spouse” has a strong impact on the success of a foreign assignment.

The wish to protect their kids from being uprooted and forced to travel across the globe is often a reason for turning down such an assignment. However, the desire to support their partner’s career and to protect them from becoming a trailing spouse is another important factor.

The “Traditional” Expat Spouse

In most cases, the so-called “trailing spouse”, who accompanies their partner abroad, is a woman. However, only a minority of previously employed women hold a job during their time as a trailing spouse. With changing gender roles and social expectations, it is increasingly hard for an expat spouse to forgo their own professional success for their partner’s career.

On the one hand, most expat wives actively eschew the term “trailing spouse” today. “Traveling spouse” has fewer unfortunate implications, and “family relocation manager” aptly describes the many duties that the non-working partner has to shoulder. On the other hand, more appropriate terms aside, it’s certainly not easy to give up the economic advantages of a second income and the sense of personal satisfaction associated with a previous job.

There may be many external obstacles that keep a spouse from pursuing a career abroad. The lack of a work permit, the language barrier, unaccredited qualifications, and a competitive local job market are just some of them. In the case of Franziska (32), it was mainly the first two reasons that turned her into a typical trailing spouse.

Home-Makers and Mothers

Initially, Franziska hadn’t planned on becoming a stay-at-home parent. “I had been looking forward to starting work again,” Franziska remembers. “I’d been raising our son Ben for the last fifteen months, but I was ready to go back to my job as a shipping agent. Then my husband was sent to Shanghai for three years.”

Franziska became a trailing spouse. It was not for lack of trying, however, that she failed to obtain a work permit for China. “Of course, Shanghai is a big port city and I’d been employed by a ship-owning company before. But it’s rather difficult for dependents of visa holders to get a Chinese work permit of their own. Your future employer has to sponsor you, and either the positions for English speakers were all taken or they only wanted someone near-fluent in Mandarin.”

“And then,” Franziska adds, “I might even have had to leave the country to apply for my own work visa from Germany. That’s when I decided I’d had enough. Now, I’m focusing on being a parent for Ben, and making the transition from Hamburg to Shanghai and back as easy as possible for him.”

Dealing with the Kids

Children’s lives are often disrupted by the more or less sudden changes and the general bewilderment of finding themselves in a completely strange environment. Often, the non-working parent becomes the “culture shock absorber” for the whole family. In another case, a trailing spouse has reported to feel like a “single mom” when her partner buried himself in the responsibilities of his new job.

Luckily for Franziska, Ben was so little that he adapted more quickly than an older child might have. And her husband Daniel (38) made sure to set aside some quality “family time” in his daily routine to take care of Ben as well. Franziska has even found a suitable ayi for her son – a mixture between nanny and domestic help, whose support gives her enough free time to focus on her education.

“I’m studying Mandarin right now,” she says proudly, “and I’m busy improving my business English. It won’t be easy for me to get back on track, career-wise, after being a trailing spouse for so long, but my new language skills should be of great help in the international shipping business.”

Getting a Job

Fortunately, adjusting to her new life was comparatively easy for Rosanne (43), who became an expat wife and followed her husband Marco (50) from Valletta to Copenhagen. Since English is one of Malta’s official languages, it was no problem for Rosanne to prove sufficient foreign language skills for her CV.

Moreover, as both countries are member states of the EU, she didn’t have to fight the local bureaucracy for a work permit, either. It was “just” a matter of finding the right job.

“It did take me a while,” she admits. “When I didn’t have to act like the perfect expat wife and do the chores or manage the family finances, I was on the lookout for a suitable position. I tried nearly everything: newspapers, a local employment agency, and uploading my CV to recruitment databases. In the end, it was attending a job fair that did the trick. “


Rosanne finally found a rewarding middle-management job with an international tour operator. “Tourism is big business in Malta, and I have worked in the field since getting my bachelor’s,” Rosanne says. “It certainly didn’t hurt that I’m fluent in Maltese, English, and Italian, and that I’ve started picking up some Danish, too.”

Coping with an Identity Crisis

Expat women who may not be able to do paid work and are thus “limited” to the status of expat wife may experience a huge loss of identity. Social changes notwithstanding, it is often easier for women than for men to avoid defining themselves by their career and the resulting prestige. However, a lot of their self-esteem is indeed connected to professional skills and financial independence.

It was a shock for Margarita (36) from the United States when her husband was sent to Bangkok as a foreign correspondent for an international news magazine. “I quickly discovered that my visa for Thailand classified me as a dependent, who wasn’t even allowed to work. Unfortunately, Thailand has some tight restrictions on foreign employees. So that’s what I was now – a dependent. I was concerned about my career and even more about what I was supposed to do all day long.”

Margarita’s husband saw her new role as an expat wife without kids in a far more positive light than she did. “He kept going on and on how grateful I should be for having all this free time and the chance to explore another culture,” she recalls. “I mainly felt lonely when he was at the office, in one editorial meeting after the other. Whenever I met his colleagues from work, I noticed that I’d suddenly become ‘Rick’s wife’. Not Margarita, the copywriter, or Margarita, the martial arts fan. Just Margarita, Rick’s expat wife.”

The Meltdown

The realization that as an expat wife, she was disappearing behind her husband, as well as the frustrations of daily life, caught up with this woman.

“One day, I spent five hours wandering through Bangkok, trying to shop for groceries and cleaning stuff. When Rick came home, full of news about the amazing feedback his latest political commentary had received, I completely lost it. I think I screamed my head off for hours – the neighbors must have gotten quite an earful.”

Margarita and Rick were able to overcome their frustration and their resulting marital troubles. Although looking for work in Thailand turned out to be almost impossible, the Internet helped Margarita overcome her personal crisis.

A New Career

Thanks to the work opportunities provided online, Margarita developed a whole new career “portfolio”. First, she started as a part-time “virtual assistant” providing services to US companies. Due to the time difference, she couldn’t “telecommute”, but she took over parts of their administrative tasks and correspondence.

However, as her new job failed to provide her with any creative tasks, Margarita became a tutor for a long-distance course in creative writing. In addition, she composed several articles for travel mags and tourism websites.

“I had to do a lot of networking to become a free-lancer,” Margarita remembers, “but it was worth it. As soon as I had some tasks to intellectually challenge me, I was much happier as an expat wife. Plus, it felt really reassuring to start paying into my private pension plan again.”

Other women report having similar experiences when they became an expat wife. If you cannot find a job in your new country of residence, possible alternatives include freelancing, self-employment, volunteering for an NPO, or obtaining further skills and qualifications. Even if you have a family to look after, a certain routine will hopefully settle in sooner or later, and you might run the risk of getting a bad case of “cabin fever” after a while.

Original Article thanks to: INTERNATIONS.ORG

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