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Adults, Couples Counseling

The Trailing Spouse

What is a “Trailing” or an “Accompanying” Spouse?

Lately, I have been reflecting on the experience of being an accompanying spouse, particularly “trailing” since returning to our status as a dual-career couple. Let’s take a step back. If the term is new to you, an accompanying or trailing partner follows a lead partner’s career abroad. 

cartoon of businessman wheeling his wife in a suitcase covered with the flag of england

Throughout this article, you will notice accompanying and trailing used interchangeably. Within the expatriate community, the latter is contentious. Trailing, after all, implies a lack of agency. So why not use accompanying partner instead?

Even though accompanying is a choice that I, and many others, have made, this description lacks dimension. It misses the complexity of the experience. It fails to give voice to its hardest parts.

For me, the word “trailing” captures the reality of that struggle, with its regular upheavals, emotional work, and uneven compromises.

In my life, research, and clinical practice, I have found “following” to be more like a continuous, frequently exhausting, negotiation of both accompanying and trailing.

What’s it Like to be a Trailing Spouse

Two primary features of trailing are the unavoidable periods of isolation and a parallel sense of aloneness.

Many expatriates reside in countries where security concerns reduce or seriously restrict their daily movements. Newly arrived trailing spouses and families have to adjust to their new lives without the help of a single solitary person outside of their accompanying family. This is especially true for those that do not speak the local language. The responsibility for acclimating yourself and your family to a new culture and foreign environment can be overwhelming. Especially in the absence of substantive support.

Creating relationships from scratch takes a considerable amount of time, space, and energy!!

This is something that still pulls the rug out from under me, even nine international relocations later. In my experience it takes, at minimum, the better part of one or two years. Of course, that doesn’t mean you will be fortunate enough to find those magical people with whom you click. Or, if you do, that you will be able to keep when rotations come up (theirs or yours)! 

This leaves trailers in very shallow relationship waters. Increased stress and isolation start well before the move. So does withdrawing from social networks or daily patterns. This begins as early as exploring the next post and certainly by the time that new post location is known.

These repeated relational losses compound, making each new ending and beginning increasingly painful. For some, this feels more like becoming increasingly numb. 

Resourcing is the process of finding critical resources such as education, housing, and employment. Typically, the sponsoring organization (ie: the foreign service, the military, United Nations, a multinational corporation, or an I-NGO) coordinates this. But some do this much better than others. It is often the employee who must coordinate for their entire family. This places the lead partner, immersed in their new job, as the conduit to access critical resources. The gulf between the world of the lead career spouse and the world of trailing spouse, and their competing and diverging demands is very real.

Couples can find the tension between their alternate realities hard to navigate. 

Career continuity is another major issue. Many accompanying partners are locked out of the local employment market. This can be for visa, qualification (ex: licensing), language, resume gaps (because of trailing!), and economic reasons (ex: wages too low to offset childcare). The lead partner is pursuing career advancement and gaining valuable international experience and desirable skills. In the meantime, the trailing spouse is left to choose between underemployment or unemployment.

In the early days of expatriate life, couples often see this issue as temporary. It’s “just this post”; a trade-off that will be adjusted in the future. Years later, the incremental losses in career opportunities, repeated career compromises, and sacrifice of individual financial security (ex: trailers forgoing a pension) can suddenly hit the trailing spouse and couple relationship in their totality.

There are many configurations of expatriate families and trailing partners.

Some rotate in and out of their home countries. Some settle for extended periods in another location. Others, like me, spend their lives following the lead spouse’s career globally. A family post may feel nothing like it when the lead partner is responsible for a vast geographical region. Sometimes, the lead works in a culture that requires staff to be at the office for both work and social hours. Your trailing experience might include long periods, “living apart together.” You might be posted in the most stable neighboring country. Or you might be required to return home alone when a family post suddenly changes to a non-family one.

And after all of that, sometimes, it is the return to your home country that finds you surprisingly disorientated—confronting you with the realization that, somehow, you no longer quite fit anywhere.

sketch of man traveling for business with sad looking woman left holding luggage behind

The Impact on Trailing Spouses

The privilege an expatriate package can provide, and its seemingly exotic lifestyle, can blur the lived reality. Furthermore, it makes it difficult to have an honest discussion about these hardships. Highly-mobile expatriates have characteristics and face challenges that I have only begun to touch upon here. Nationally based mobile individuals, couples, and families also experience some overlap in the lead-career/trailing spouse and family dynamics.

These dynamics can have a profound impact on identity and attachment relationships.

Even those who start with the best intentions can be blindsided when the trailing partner, the couple relationship, the children, or the whole family system begins to show signs of distress.

As the father of Emotion-Focused Therapy, Leslie Greenberg, reminds us, “We have to arrive at a place before we can leave it. We have to feel a feeling in order to change it.” When I first began this research, the reaction of my fellow trailers was frequently, “So wait, this is real?! I am not imagining it?!”

Now there’s a great place to start! This is real. And no, you are not imagining it.

If you and/or your partner are looking for support with the challenges of being a trailing spouse, we can help!

Individual counseling, couples counseling or family therapy is available to support these very real challenges of trailing life. Just CONTACT US here to get started with a compassionate therapist who understands your situation!

About the Author

sabrina gibb, expert on trailing spouses

Sabrina Gibb is a Maryland and DC licensed graduate professional counselor and psychotherapist at Montgomery County Counseling Center.  She has completed Level 1 and 2 training in Emotion-Focused Therapy and recently completed initial training in Emotion-Focused Family Therapy. She supports individual, couples and family clients by guiding them to recognize and transform painful emotions, behavior and dynamics—freeing them to pursue a more fulfilling life and relationships. Sabrina is currently accepting new clients at MCCC.

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