Trailing Spouse: overcoming the challenges of being an expat partner

May 29, 2018

Life as a trailing spouse can be challenging. In many cases, becoming an expat partner can mean putting your career on hold for that of your other half. The stress of moving your family and possessions abroad is compounded by the emotional toll it can take, leaving family and friends behind.

When you get to your new home, everything is unfamiliar, and you may not have the anchor of a job in your area of expertise to provide you with some stability. It isn’t surprising that being a ‘trailing spouse’ makes the whole expat experience more challenging.

Overcoming these difficulties can be hard work but with time and persistence it can be done. Some of the most common challenges we hear from expat partners are:

For many of us, our career is intrinsically linked to our identity. This is a problem if something happens that puts our career on pause, like moving abroad as an expat partner. Research by the Permits Foundation showed only 35% of spouses work during their partner’s assignment. If you feel you are struggling to find your identity in your new home spend some time thinking about:

  • The other successes in your life, you are a son or daughter, maybe a volunteer, amateur sportsperson. These are things you can put more time into while you are living away.
  • Your values, what is truly important to you? Are there other ways you can achieve them other than through work.
The process of finding a doctor may vary from country to country, below we outline the steps to take in some popular expat destinations.

Often linked to identity, if you feel you are losing your identity then it is easy for your confidence to slip. You may go from managing meetings, a busy workload and competing stakeholders, to a more solitary daily life. It’s not hard to see how your confidence can take a knock. If this is a challenge for you as an expat partner, consider:

  • Listing your accomplishments, inside and outside of work and read them aloud to yourself
  • Listing what you like about yourself
  • Ask your partner, friends and ex-colleagues from your home country what your strengths are
  • Joining a voluntary programme where you live now that will allow you to use some of your strengths
Your partner has a new job with a built in social network, that is taking up most of their time while you have to work hard to establish yourself. It isn’t a surprise that many expat couples find it difficult as they adjust to life abroad. Some of the following may help you overcome these issues:
Think about the problems you are having and maybe some possible solutions for them. Sit down with your partner and discuss them. Are there things you can do to make the transition easier for you both?
It is easy to let quality time together as a couple slip with all the stress of moving country. Try to designate one night a week as ‘date night’ and do something fun together. It could be something traditional like dinner and a movie or something different like a night at a comedy club, board games night or crafting.
If you and your partner are really struggling with life as expats, consider counselling with a professional in your new country or, online counselling, with a professional in your own country. Counselling should help you to identify the areas you are finding difficult and see if there are ways you can work together to solve them.

Finally, a common result if you are struggling to settle as an expat partner is a period of expat depression. If you suspect you may be feeling depressed, you are not alone, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimate 300 million people worldwide suffer from depression.

Research shows expats are more likely to suffer from a bout of depression than those living and working in their home country. This is likely to also impact trailing spouses. If you experience any of the following for a period of 2 weeks or more, it is worth seeing your doctor:

  • have a feeling of lethargy about life
  • don’t want to do activities you used to enjoy
  • are over or under sleeping
  • have poor concentration

The important thing to remember is, you can get better with the right kind of help and support. Use the mental health supports your international health insurance offers and speak to a professional. Other ways to help expat depression are:

  • Connecting with friends and family, even if it is on Skype
  • Getting 7-8 hours’ sleep per night
  • Regular exercise
  • Avoiding alcohol
  • Reducing caffeine intake
Are there other options you would include from your experiences as an expat spouse who cannot work while abroad? We would love to hear them. If you or your partner are working abroad, don’t forget to protect your family with comprehensive international health insurance.