The Dependent, Trailing, Accompanying, Expat Spouse by Jaime Simpson
According to dictionary.com the verb (which considers us an “object”) defines the term “trailing” as: “to drag or let drag along the ground or other surface….”(lovely!)
Secondly, the site defines the word “dependent” as an adjective as: “relying on someone or something else for aid and support”.
There you have it, from day ONE, a trailing spouse is already seen as the woman dragging behind their amazing, talented, incredible, purposeful spouse whom they are reliant on for their next breath! Ok, so that may be a little over dramatised but little wonder with a definition of a “trailing spouse” why there are so many amazing women out there who end up questioning who they are, or even worse having to justify their role as an individual, a wife and a mother. (Yes, I know there are also trailing spouses who are men, they are welcome to pick up this blog and change she to he and wife to husband)
Contrary to what the dictionary might define as the word trailing and dependent, from my experience as a fellow trailing spouse, a counsellor and intercultural trainer is that everyone else in the family actually depends on the “trailing spouse” during their transition for support! The trailing spouse is the one lifting her family up from dragging off the ground! She is the one who aids and supports her husband’s career, settles kids and pets (is there a difference?) into the new environment often at a great personal sacrifice.
Additionally, studies and reports on the trends of a successful relocation repeatedly demonstrate that if the trailing spouse becomes well adjusted in their host culture then and only then does a family have a positive expatriation experience. The number one reason international relocations fail is because the trailing spouse did not settle well! The family relies heavily on the trailing spouse and her emotional stability. Therefore, there is a huge internal pressure for the trailing spouse to find a fulfilling purpose in their host country when she knows that the only way her husband and children will settle is if she settles. This really makes me question who is really is “dependent” upon whom in this case?
Over the years, we have been called the expat spouse, the dependent spouse, the trailing and accompanying spouse. But no matter what term is used she has been viewed by many as:
1. The Tai Tai: A Tai Tai is a colloquial term for a wealthy married woman who does not work but lives a life of luxury. She is a pampered, helpless, attractive woman (both because she can afford to be and only expat men marry beautiful women)! It may have started out being a flattering word but now it is said as a subtle insult such as “oh you expat ladies are all just tai tai’s la”
2. We play tennis (I have not picked up a tennis racquet in 10 years of being a Tai Tai!)
3. We drink champagne and wine before lunch (Why not? Nothing else to do right?)
4. We high tea every other day (When we are not playing tennis that is)
5. We shop only at brand name stores (Because we are all only wealthy and refuse to shop else where)
6. We go on holidays every weekend to luxury resorts (nothing to do with the fact that the cost of an Asian holiday is about ¼ of the cost of going home for summer break)
7. We have maids who raise our children whilst we live the tai tai life above
The truth is, in this century there about 2% of the “trailing spouse” population possibly doing the above. Now, let’s face it, many of these women are living this lifestyle because they do find the above fulfilling and satisfying, many of the above women have raised their children already and had careers and are therefore having a wonderful “it’s my time”! And I say, that’s ok! If the trailing spouse finds purpose in all of the above, then great, let it be, let her enjoy it!
However, in my experience there is a new group of “trailing spouses” who are highly intelligent, competent, efficient women who need to be given an opportunity to work out what they are passionate about and then given the support required to formulate action plans in order to live a life of purpose in their host country.
This blog entry is meant to encourage all trailing spouses to shift their thinking about their role and purpose during a international assignment.
Let’s take a look at some common thoughts and feelings of the trailing spouse:
A Feeling Of Being Non-Existent
Becoming a dependent spouse can feel like you have given up your own identity as an individual. Your passport and visa is stamped “dependent spouse” and your visa often says “not able to take up employment” or something of the like. Organisations and the community view you as “the trailing spouse” and this is communicated in many ways. There are many day-to-day activities that you cannot do because you do not have authority to do so without the working spouse’s signature, confirmation or presence. This is incredibly frustrating for a trailing spouse especially if she has a husband who travels every other week.
Because of the above, the skills and talents a spouse has had in their home country can seem obsolete in your host country. It is difficult to find similar roles especially if you are living in a culture where language barriers exist, locals are offered employment first simply due to employment costs and or the fact they are looking for a person who can communicate both verbally and in written form in Mandarin, Cantonese and English! Most “trailing” spouses do not have those skills!
Who Am I?
The question “Who am I”? resurfaces like it did in the teenage years! Because of the two above factors combined (see the flow on effect?) this results in a real deep questioning of who am I and what is it I am going to do whilst I am on this assignment.
Desire To Contribute More
Trailing spouses have a desire to contribute more than what you feel your current circumstances allow. Being held back is a common feeling of many expat spouses and questioning where they can contribute that will bring feelings of purpose is important. Trailing spouses are often encouraged to contribute in a variety of volunteer activities, but the key for a trailing spouse is the contribution must bring purpose, otherwise she just is keeping busy and leads to greater feelings of inadequacy.
Oscillating Feeling Of Guilt
There is an oscillating feeling of guilt that arises in the trailing spouse. She can feel guilty that her children are not being raised in their home country but then has a a feeling of privilege that her children are not being raised in their home country! Often this type of thinking is confusing and she starts to wonder if she is losing her mind and questions once again who she is!
The Need To Justify
There is a feeling of judgment that leads to trailing spouses constantly needing to justify to others how you fill your day, where you shop, what you brought, where you went on holidays, why you do not work, why you have help, why you do not have help, why are you sending your child to that school. The list goes on.
Resentment Towards Spouse
There is a surprising resentment that arises in some trailing spouses towards their husbands. Why, because their husbands seem to have a elevated sense of purpose and identity in their new role and the trailing spouse feels like she has a decreased sense of purpose. This brings along resentment and jealousy putting a barrier up in the marriage. However, in turn, this often leads to the feeling of guilt in the trailing spouse because after all their husband is providing them!
The Concept Of Face
Face is an important concept in Asia, it is a abstract concept which simply means you do what ever you can to prevent one from losing respect, prestige or dignity in front of others. The concept is applicable to the expat spouse because there is a feeling that you must always tell everyone back “home” how great things are, how settled you are and how amazing everything is. The trailing spouse does not want family and friends worrying about them.
All of the above are genuine feelings, I do not discount them. Many of these feelings arise because of transition stress. Transition stress is profound. It can promote a greater self awareness which allows you to work through your feelings in order allow you to a create a new purpose or it can immobilise you with fear and therefore encourage you to buy into the mentality that “I am just a trailing spouse”. A warning, if you do not allow transition stress to promote greater self awareness in order to build a new purpose, you will surely end up creating an environment for emotional, physical and marital break down.
How I See The Trailing Spouse
In my experience of working with the “trailing spouse” this is how I view her:
She Knows What It Means To “Give Up” To “Go Up”.
Contrary to what most people believe, to “go up” does not always means financial gain. It is all about purposeful gain! This includes the opportunity for new careers, exploring new and old passions, new cultural experiences, lifestyle change and sometimes includes financial gain and sometimes financial loss! The trailing spouse gives up a lot, however, we need to understand this also means we have an opportunity to “go up” in what ever area you make a choice to do so in.
She is selfless
We are the women who make a hard choice to be selfless enough to encourage their partners’ success and dreams. Knowing that it will be returned when the right opportunity presents. As we shift our perspective off what we have given up we can look at the opportunities that will open up on this assignment.
She is generous
We are those who close down companies, quit jobs, move schools, say goodbye, rent out our houses and give away most of our possessions, often in a very short period of time knowing we may do it again anytime in the next 2 – 3 year contract period! We therefore make a choice to become generous!
She recognises opportunities for her children
We are those who recognise the opportunity for our children to learn about new cultures knowing this means our children will not grow up with the same sense of “home” or same values that we may have had.
She is resilient
The Chumbawumba song “We get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never gonna’ keep me down” is our theme song! We just keep getting up! However... Warning…. those who succumb to the “I’m just a trailing spouse” mentality will take on the next line of that song “pissing” (ie drinking) the night away”! The rest of us are living a life of purpose in their host country.
She recreates herself
We are those who have to make a choice to recreate ourselves in whatever country we arrive in. This choice involves a lot of soul searching but we are willing to do it.
She is relational
We are those who can make a new best friend in one conversation without any history attached and will support and champion that person knowing that they may leave in a month or they may be the one hosting your farewell!
She gives it a go
We are those who question more then most “what is my purpose”. But most importantly we choose and are willing to try many different things in order to find this out. Even if we fail, we give it a go!
She is resourceful
We are those who learn very fast where the best shops are for comfort food and the cheapest places to shop are so we don’t get ripped off being an expat. Yes, we have large wallets! Why? because we are those who carry around 10 different bank cards because we don’t know what shop is going to take which credit card or if they will only accept EPS, NETTS, EFTPOS, or Cheques!
She is practical
We are those who can pack a family of five clothes’ into two small suitcases because we don’t want to have to carry too much luggage on a holiday so we can bring back all the things we are missing from our home countries on our return journey. We are practical and prioritise!
She is positive
We are those who choose to see the positive in a “no oven” in the kitchen, “gekos in your bathrooms” and possible monkeys, squirrels and strange creatures in your backyard.
She is accepting
We are those who learn and choose to be less judgmental, less opinionated because Australians and British swear colour is spelt with a U and North Amercians swear it is spelt with out it! Who is right? So be it with our cultural differences, we recognise our own cultural bias impact the way we view life and we can actually laugh about it rather than get offensive about it.
She recognises her limits
We are those who accept that we are not super-heroes and can not be in more than one place at one time and therefore hire help to support us (this does not always mean full time help, some have part time or casual cleaners / baby sitting services / day care services). There are some who hire full time helpers and recognise that by having help our children get an opportunity to develop a respectful loving relationship with another adult because they don’t have the opportunity to connect with grandparents and uncles and aunties like they did back home.
She is adventurous
We are those who understand that the adventure we go on will enrich and broaden us in ways that we can never explain to someone back “home”.
These are just a few of the amazing qualities I know that “trailing spouses” have, why? Because I have met so many of them and I have seen their pain, their insecurities and their fears. BUT... I have also seen the dreams in their hearts! I have seen their talents, their skills, their desires and WOW, these women are creative, these women are talented and these women are amazing.
So how can a "trailing spouse" also see herself as I see her? There is a little diamond hidden above. Did you notice the word that kept coming appearing? If not, go back over what I have just written about how I view the “trailing spouse” and you will surely see it.
The word that appears time and time again is CHOICE. As a “trailing spouse”, how do you become someone who lives a purposeful life, a passionate life in your host country? By simply choosing to shift your perspective, by choosing to actively change what you focus on and by choosing to act on the dreams and passions of your heart.
© Jaime Simpson | www.jaimesimpson.net
This article was published in Take time to BE YOU on August 9th 2014 with the permission of Jaime Simpson.
Jaime Simpson is a family counsellor, intercultural trainer and life coach working with families in transition. Jaime works individually with parents and children focusing on transition stress and the huge impact it has on the family unit.
You can get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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