Your spouse/ partner has been given the opportunity to move to a foreign country for their job, and you’re up for an adventure. Living overseas is an incredible opportunity, but not without its downsides. With some mindful preparation, you can avoid common pitfalls and embrace your life abroad.
The traditional name for a woman who accompanies her spouse on a work assignment in another country is the ‘trailing spouse’. Although times have changed (the trailing spouse can be any gender, and not necessarily a married partner), over 80% of trailing spouses are female.
Modern names include the ‘travelling spouse’, the ‘expat spouse’, or even the ‘trailblazing spouse’. Regardless of what you call it (we’ll go with travelling spouse), leaving one’s home country, career and social network in support of a spouse’s job requires sacrifice and presents unique challenges.
The downside of being a travelling spouse
Aside from the obvious culture shock and language barriers, the travelling spouse may experience loneliness, lack of purpose and loss of confidence. Many have defined themselves by their former careers and feel adrift when no longer tethered to that identity.
Being dependent on a partner for money can be a huge change for someone who was once financially independent. Resentment can occur when your career goals take a backseat to those of your partner. Many expat assignments require relocation every two to three years, making it difficult if not impossible to find a portable career. Not to mention visa limitations for expat spouses. Even if you are allowed to work, career opportunities in your new location may be limited.
Work aside, starting over every few years – settling in, finding housing and schooling, making new friends – can be exhausting and much of this responsibility may fall on the travelling spouse.
As the years go by travelling spouses may worry about what a long career break will look like when they wish to re-enter the workplace. They are familiar with the anxiety that shows up when asked “what do you do?”. They may feel guilty about not contributing financially and worried about how they would support their family if something happened to their spouse.
This all sounds like a lot of negatives. Living abroad can (and should!) be an enriching experience that you won’t regret. Exposure to new people and cultures by living in a foreign country is something only a small percentage of the world gets to experience, and it can be life changing. I’m here to let travelling spouses know that it’s not always easy, but you’ll get out what you put in.
Strategies to manage the change
First and foremost: go easy on yourself!
Recognise that financial contribution is not the only thing that matters to a family, and it doesn’t define your value. Realise it takes time to adjust to a new country, and to form meaningful bonds with new people. Allow yourself time to settle in. Remember all that you do to support your partner/ family and try not to judge yourself.
Put yourself out there to find your community
Saying ‘yes’ to new things might be outside your comfort zone but it’s a guaranteed way to meet people. Join expat groups or take advantage of resources offered by your partner’s company (many are now recognising the importance of a happy travelling spouse and are offering support). Volunteer: this is a great way to be part of a community, feel good about yourself and meet new people. If you’re into fitness, join a gym or recreational team, learn a new sport or try a new exercise class.
If you can/ want to work and need to change careers
Do some soul-searching, find what excites you, take inventory of your transferable skills. Working with a career coach can be a great way to brainstorm and set you on the right path. If you’re looking to set up a portable career, join a Facebook group like Tandem Nomads for inspiration.
If you can’t/ choose not to work
Make a plan with your partner about how you will continue to develop yourself. Self-improvement does wonders for self-esteem and confidence and keeps your brain sharp. Maybe it’s a language class, learning a new skill or pursuing a new hobby. Make sure you and your partner are on the same page about the importance of your personal development.
Make sure to reach out for support where you need it. Years down the road, hopefully you’ll look back on this time as some of the best years of your life.
This article was written by Shannon MacDonald, a travelling spouse and coach in Dubai. You can get in touch with her via her partner coach page or her website, macdonaldcoaching.com.
September 24, 2022