Trailing spouse relationship issues

01 April 2021


Expat spouses can be subject to a lot of hurdles when moving with their partner to a new country. Culture shock, language barriers, lack of career opportunities or inability to work due to visa regulations can all contribute to a loss of identity, suffering mental health and relationship issues. When an expat partner is experiencing these issues it is referred to as trailing spouse syndrome.

Moving countries, leaving your job, family and friends and adapting to a new culture and local language can be difficult on expat partners. While their partner is busy with their new assignment or job, partners can feel lonely and develop feelings of regret, resentment or even expat depression. All of this can take its toll on the relationship too. 

Moving to a new location together can be exciting and full of adventure but it can also be lonely at times. Expats on assignment may have high responsibility jobs with longer working hours and networking events while their spouse stays at home. Many of the visas given to spouses mean they are unable to find a job and so they spend extended periods alone while their partner is working. 

This may lead to loneliness, manifesting in feelings of abandonment, resentment, jealousy and paranoia. Feelings like these can cause arguments and relationship problems among a couple. 

This issue can occur in a number of ways. If only one person is working while the other is dependent on their partner this can cause a shift in relationship roles that may become uncomfortable.

Feelings of resentment can appear and increase quickly among trailing spouses and their partners. Trailing spouses may have sacrificed a life they enjoyed, their support circles and their jobs to follow their partner on assignment to further their career. Feelings of resentment can creep in when a spouse is unable to work due to visa limitations while their partner is prospering in their professional life. Loneliness, feeling homesick and culture shock can all heighten feelings of resentment too. 

Expats on assignment can also have feelings of resentment towards their spouse. Returning home from a stressful day’s work to someone who has been isolated from interaction all day can be overwhelming. While they are enjoying life on assignment they can resent their spouse for not feeling the same. 

As mentioned, when a spouse is experiencing a combination of the above feelings they may be suffering with Trailing Spouse Syndrome. The main symptoms include: 

  • Feelings of isolation
  • Lack of purpose or direction
  • Loss of identity
These symptoms contribute to trailing spouse relationship problems and, if unresolved, symptoms can intensify and develop into Trailing Spouse Depression which may lead to ending the assignment early.

Though maintaining a happy and healthy relationship on assignment can be challenging at times there are some steps you can take to reduce the risk of trailing spouse relationship problems and really enjoy your time. 

  • Couples counselling before departure and when on assignment can help to iron out any pre-existing relationship concerns and can keep an honest and open dialogue and a mutual understanding between you both.
  • Taking language lessons together pre departure can be a fun way to spend time together and will give both people an added level of independence on location, being able to converse with locals, make friends and complete day to day tasks more easily.
  • Having scheduled together time in the form of date nights, sightseeing tours, exercise classes etc gives both parties something to look forward to and shows a commitment to prioritising time with each other.
  • Keeping in touch with friends and family regularly through video chat and planning regular visits home or organising for family to visit you on assignment can help to ease tensions felt as a result of loneliness and homesickness.
  • Planning ways to pass by the time can help with feelings of isolation when unable to work. Volunteering, or joining a club or society are great ways to meet new people, get out of the house and feel a sense of purpose again.
  • Reading and subscribing to trailing spouse blogs can help with adapting to life on assignment. Seeing other’s experiences and how they overcame any obstacles can be inspiring and comforting. 
It is important to prioritise you and your spouses health and well-being when living and working abroad. Make sure you are both protected with International Health Insurance that provides cover for your physical and mental health.