Moving abroad to further your partner’s career can be exciting and challenging in equal measure. It offers an opportunity to travel, embrace a new culture and, according to two thirds of expats, gives you a better quality of life. Yet adapting to a new country and customs isn’t easy. 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. So, how can you make the most of this opportunity and learn to thrive in an unfamiliar environment? Let’s take a closer look at expat spouses and ‘trailing partners’.
Being an expat spouse: how to make the best of your new life
In many cases, becoming an expat spouse means putting your own career on hold for the sake of your partner’s job. That, added to the upset of leaving your family and friends behind, can take an emotional toll.
We examine how you can start building a new identity for yourself, and what to do if cracks start to appear in your relationship because you’re struggling to settle.
A trailing partner is a term used to describe someone who follows their spouse or partner to another country because of a work assignment, often for a large international company.
The phrase was coined by Wall Street Journal writer Mary Bralove in 1981 to convey how some wives sacrifice their own lives and careers for the benefit of their husband’s work. Of course, times have moved on, and these days a trailing spouse can refer to any gender and any kind of long-term partnership.
Partners of Google employees even have their own term for an expat spouse – a ‘spoogler’, formed from the words spouse and googler.
Although there has been a steady rise in male trailing partners in recent years, around 80% of trailing spouses are still women, which can throw up difficult questions about the balance of power in relationships.
While relocating to another country and adapting to a new culture and language can be daunting for anyone, it’s often tougher for the trailing spouse. They may be left alone to run the family household and carry out errands in a strange city while their partner is at work and supported by a ready-made social network.
The reality is that the trailing spouse often gives up more, has less support available to them and can struggle with no longer being an equal partner in the relationship.
It’s perhaps, therefore, no surprise that many expat spouses have a hard time adjusting to the culture shock of living abroad. And if the change in lifestyle includes swapping a career for full-time parenting, an even bigger adjustment is needed. Whether you’re a female or male trailing partner, you need to be comfortable with your partner being the main breadwinner.
Trailing spouse syndrome refers to symptoms suffered by the partners of expats, which usually develop during their first year of living abroad. It’s when feelings of anxiety and regret about the decision to move start to take over. The main symptoms are:
Homesickness and loneliness
When you move to a new location, it’s normal to miss your old life until you settle in. But, for some people, that feeling of loneliness and isolation doesn’t always pass. Expats on assignment often have high-powered jobs, with long working hours and regular networking events to attend, leaving their spouse home alone for long periods.
Loss of identity
For many people, their career is part of who they are. If that is put on hold, it can cause resentment. Some 85% of expat spouses were working before their departure, and many struggle to find their identity in a new, unfamiliar place. Playing second fiddle to your partner’s career means you can begin to question your self-worth and value to society.
Loneliness and lack of self-worth can lead to feelings of jealousy, resentment, abandonment and neediness, all of which can cause arguments and a decline in your relationship. The partner on assignment can also have feelings of regret if they’re returning home from a stressful day at work to someone who is miserable and clearly not enjoying their new life.
Disappointment that expectations don’t live up to reality
Initially, you might be thrilled about moving to a new country, with the chance to start afresh. But once the novelty starts to wear off and reality kicks in, some expat partners can begin to feel bored and withdrawn. Negative feelings such as these not only cause relationship problems but can even lead to expat depression.
Tips to overcome the challenges of being an expat spouse
While being an expat spouse can be challenging at times, there are some steps you can take to help you cope and seize the opportunity to enjoy your time away.
To make the most of your new experience, seasoned expat spouses suggest you:
- Get counselling ahead of relocation. When you’re uprooting your entire life to live abroad, it’s essential to prepare well. Taking couples or family counselling before you leave can help to address any concerns you have and keep lines of communication open with your partner. Many companies also offer pre-assignment training covering things such as healthcare, education and social etiquette in the new location. This can help you get a better understanding of what to expect.
- Learn the language. Getting to grips with the basics of the local language will make you feel less isolated as you’ll be able to communicate with people, make friends and carry out daily tasks like paying bills more easily. Practise with a language app like Duolingo before you go, then sign up for classroom lessons when you get there. This will also give you a chance to meet other expats with similar experiences.
- Schedule date nights. Your partner may be busy with work most of the time, but it’s important to schedule some fun so you can unwind together. Whether it’s date nights, sightseeing trips or fitness classes, it gives you something to look forward to each week and shows that you value spending time with each other.
- Try new things. Occupying your time can help with feelings of isolation. If you’re not working, think about volunteering instead. Could you use your skills to help a not-for-profit organisation? You might also consider taking up a new hobby, joining a sports club or even starting a family. These are all great ways to meet new people, get out of the house and feel a sense of purpose again.
- Further your studies. Many spouses choose to return to college or university to study or upgrade their skillset. The opportunities are endless, whether you want to study for a master’s degree or take a teacher training course. You may be able to access free, part-funded or cheaper education in your new location. You could also supplement your learning by doing some paid freelancing or virtual PA work.
- Join an expat spouse support scheme. Some countries offer training and networking sessions to help the partners of expats find a new career path. For example, Estonia has a programme targeted at international spouses already living in the country to help them reinvent themselves professionally. Subscribing to trailing spouse blogs, joining local expat spouse communities and sharing your experiences can also provide comfort and support if you’re struggling to adapt to your new way of life.
There is also a so called Permits Foundation you can check out. Permits Foundation campaigns globally to improve work permit regulations to make it easier for partners of
expatriate staff to gain employment during an international assignment. The best international practice allows legally resident spouses, partners and other recognised family members to work freely, without a test of the labour market and not restricted to a particular employer.
Why do you need international family health insurance?
Different countries have different healthcare systems, and many countries do not offer state-funded healthcare to expatriates. Therefore, depending on where you and your family move to, you may find yourselves having to pay for healthcare out of your own pocket. Knowing your healthcare needs are taken care of can help you and your family enjoy time overseas to the full. Here are the main benefits that our plans give you:
1/ No need to navigate a public healthcare system
Every country has a different healthcare system, and some can be especially tricky to figure out. You and your family may find yourselves entitled to some costs through public healthcare, while others need to be paid out-of-pocket. Worse still, you may receive healthcare thinking it’s funded, only to be slapped with a huge bill at the end.
2/ Benefit from private healthcare
As an international family health insurance customer, you will be entitled to healthcare at private facilities. These often promise shorter waiting lists, higher-quality treatment and more comfortable hospital stays.
3/ Find treatment in your native language
The thought of falling sick in a foreign country where you haven’t mastered the language can be daunting. What if you needed to communicate symptoms, or receive a diagnosis in a language you couldn’t understand?
4/ Take your healthcare with you wherever you go
As an expat, you’ll probably find yourself doing a lot of travelling – that’s part the expat lifestyle. So, you’ll be glad to know that when you take out international family health insurance, you’ll be covered not only in the country you become a resident, but in all countries included within your ‘area of cover’.
5/ Can’t receive local treatment? Medical evacuation (Medevac) will help
Depending on where you are in the world, if you have a life or limb-threatening condition, you may not be able to get the right treatment locally. This is where a medical evacuation (Medevac) can help. A Medevac transports you to another country within your area of cover for treatment that you could not receive in your country of residence.
With various levels of cover, international family health insurance offers flexible, tailor-made plans designed for expat families relocating overseas. We provide international family health insurance to expat families in 140 countries. No need to worry if you’re a frequent traveller or have children in school overseas – your policy works in multiple countries.
Wherever you move, we can help safeguard your health
Your wellbeing is just as important as your partner’s health when living abroad. At William Russell, we have been providing worldwide health cover for 30 years, helping expats and their families to settle into their new lives overseas. Speak to us today to find out more about how international health insurance could support you.