If ever there was a description less befitting the hard work of a partner accompanying their loved one on a foreign adventure it has to be the ‘trailing spouse’. City Savvy’s mental health expert Lysanne Sizoo explores the stereotypes and the reality.
Trailing spouse or Relocation Expert?
I’m not sure I’ve ever met an accompanying partner who enjoyed being called a ‘Trailing Spouse’. A better title would be the Relocation Expert or CEO of International Ops. And it’s a tough job. Most psychologists agree that while all families experience a honeymoon phase before culture shock hits, most accompanying partners skip the honeymoon phase altogether. Yet it is possible to become a trailblazing spouse once you show yourself a little compassion around the harder aspects of a relocation.
“We had always hoped that we could move to another country one day and this was the opportunity we were waiting for,” sighs one of my workshop participants. “So why am I feeling alone and at times even jealous that my husband seems to be having a better adventure than I am?”
Things never turn out the way we expect them to, that’s part of life, but the accompanying partner often ends up having a very different experience from the one whose career took the family to a new country. For example, you may realise that you were more focused on being supportive to your partner than addressing your own concerns. It may also be that the timing of the ‘foreign adventure’ or the relocation were not really of your own choosing. And you certainly didn’t count on the enormous task that was being put on your shoulders in terms of setting up a new home. You end up feeling alone and unappreciated in carrying this huge responsibility in a foreign country. And by the time you might be ready to embrace your own version of the foreign adventure you’re too tired to enjoy it. In fact, experts agree that the true contribution that the accompanying partner makes is often left unacknowledged by both their working partner and the new employer.
Give yourself permission
So it’s important for accompanying spouses to give themselves permission to set aside some private ‘quality time’ in amongst the phone calls to utility companies and local councils. Even if you can’t yet put them into action, you need to keep your own relocation dreams alive. After all, you can’t jump while you’re falling, but you can keep nurturing your dreams of starting a new career or study, or of writing that book. And if, a year down the line, things haven’t turned out as expected, you may need to ‘re-invest’ in the decision, based on the experience of your new reality.
Stereotypes and Projections
Top of the list of concerns expressed at the Trailblazing spouses seminar on my Dutch houseboat are what other people seem to think about you as accompanying partners; ladies (or gentlemen) that lunch and shop all day with a sound financial buffer to boot. Even in modern times you may suddenly become identified with your partner’s professional standing. At worst, having no so-called professional identity of your own, outsiders may think of you as uninteresting and just plain dull. And sometimes it is hard not to take those values on, especially when you’re worn out and gasping for air.
You may have a PhD in Economics, but without a job title to back it up, you feel like people see you as a Nobody. And so it is important to remember that these assumptions by other people, also called ‘projections’, only ‘stick’ when there is a small part of you that believes them to be true. For example, if you’ve been socially conditioned to have a lower opinion of stay-at-home mums and dads, yet you’ve chosen to use the foreign assignment to focus on your children, there will always be a little part of you whispering about your lack of value to society. As if raising children is not the most important job in the world. But that aside.
To fight projections, stereotypes and prejudices, you need to begin by compassionately looking at your own unconscious attitudes. The projections that hurt most are often a clue to your own unconscious prejudices. Begin to love who you are and what you’re doing. You don’t need anyone’s permission. Gradually the projections of others’ don’t take hold as easily.
Grief and loneliness for one, stress for the other
On top of the unexpected amount of work and the reassessment of your identity, a deeply misunderstood aspect of relocating is unacknowledged grief. This can get worse for every new relocation. In the rush to prepare for the foreign adventure we forget that our psyches need to grieve for the people, places, and yes, the identities left behind. And because you may be reluctant to share your concerns with the home front, you carry this sadness inside you wondering why everything seems so hard. Unresolved grief may even stop you from reconnecting with your new environment.
“Why bother,” your saddened psyche says, “we’re probably leaving soon anyway.”
Once the dust has settled, unacknowledged grief can lead to loneliness and isolation, especially if you think that everyone else is doing a better job of settling in than you are. The working partner will have colleagues and social ‘work’ contacts to distract them and may not fully appreciate how alone you are feeling. I have seen many expat couples fall into the trap where the working spouse is seen as ‘having’ a life, while at the same time ‘becoming’ the whole life of the accompanying spouse. My colleague Louise Wästlund, a Relate counsellor, has found that sometimes the assignee partner starts to display a (largely unconscious) longing for his or her professional ‘equal’ from before. And then feels shame for even thinking like that.
So when our partner temporarily becomes our new ‘best friend’, they seldom live up to these expectations. The working partner is feeling all the stress of having relocated the whole family for the sake of his/her career. And may feel equally stressed at work, just wanting to come home to a safe place. On the one hand they owe it to their employers to make good on the big financial investment to bring them into the country, and on the other hand, they feel a huge responsibility to their family. They don’t make very good ‘best friends’ and often belittle the concerns of the accompanying spouse. When that happens you may end up in a negative downward spiral that is fuelled by arguments about who has it the hardest.
An open dialogue, that respects that both partners are facing new challenges, each in their own way, will shift the relational dialogue out of the ‘needs deficit’ spiral into a ‘mutual support’ spiral. And this can really turn the experience around. And yes, sometimes a good local counsellor or relationship workshop will help to establish that connection. But a good glass of wine and a romantic dinner may serve just as well.
Be a trailblazing spouse – step out of your comfort zone
So once the boxes are unpacked, the phone connected, the relationship nourished, the resting up done, your inspiration may begin to flow back. And this can easily be a full year after unpacking the first boxes. But now you are ready to explore new frontiers for yourself and become a trailblazing spouse. I am always amazed at the inventive and creative projects that internationals come up with when living abroad. Things you would never have thought of doing back home become possible because there you are no longer bound by socially conditioned expectations.
Once you have learned to recognise and deal with unwanted projections and stereotypes from home and abroad you are free to explore the wide ranges of your imagination. I see trailblazing spouses starting companies, writing books, running marathons, being the best mums they could ever be, or dads, as male trailblazing spouses are on the increase. Things you might never have dared embark on in your own country.
But most importantly, be gentle to yourself, look at what you HAVE achieved, instead of what you can’t do (yet). And enjoy the adventure. Become a trailblazing spouse.
- Click below to listen to Lysanne speaking about this topic.
Copyright 2015: Lysanne Sizoo
These articles are a composite of my personal, my colleagues’ and clients’ experiences. All therapeutic meetings are confidential, and specific content will never be shared in a public forum unless specific permission has been asked and granted from the client.
Featured photo: Julia Caesar/unsplash