World Mental Health Day 2020: Trailing Spouse Syndrome

You’re faced with an exciting opportunity. Your wife, husband, partner, other half, has the chance to get a new role in another country. Odds are that there is a pay rise involved and new challenges, possibly extra responsibility…for them. Even though some of those things will improve your life too it might lead to depression, anxiety, and loneliness. The disconnection can be so bad that relationships fall apart, leading to breaks-up or divorce. This is trailing spouse syndrome.

A difficult move

Moving to a new area can offer the opening of a new chapter in a person’s life, but if the move is a large one then it could lead to a loss of friends and family, having to give up your own career, and having to integrate with a new culture which might not be very welcoming or have a language barrier to overcome. New places to explore and all the excitement of somewhere different can be as much of a hardship to be overcome as an opportunity to try new things.

Your partner won’t necessarily understand what all the fuss is about, but then they have a new job which provides purpose and often an instant social circle for them to join. If you have children then they also have some level of continuity and support when they go to school. But you are left out. This can lead to depression and isolation, eventually causing relationship issues. Things are made more difficult when it isn’t taken seriously, when you have to endure comments like “but you’ve got more money and gone to an exotic foreign country, you should be happy”.

This feeling is echoed by one wife that has had to move country several times to follow her husband’s career. Ambili tells of something she once read which said, “you’ll see her [the expat wife], leading the way with her trailing spouse behind her, she’ll be showing him how the city works and what she’s learnt during the week, because in reality we all know who the real trailing spouse is!!” A stereotype which might apply to some women but not all.

Expat US, which provides destination services to those coming to work in the USA, says that between 30-50% of expatriations can fail and almost 60% of the premature returns are due to a bad adaptation of the expatriates themselves or their family. Clearly even with the world getting smaller, it’s still a large challenge to relocate to a new country.

Relocation to a new country can leave a partner feeling overwhelmed and isolated

A collective choice

Ritika talks about it as being a sacrifice because it stops someone from realising the full potential of one’s career. “I would want my daughter to achieve her full potential, and have high hopes and dreams for her. But it’s my personal opinion that women have to sacrifice a lot more and I wish this wasn’t the case,” she says. Overall she feels it’s a huge sacrifice and that companies should be creating dual career paths as much as possible. However, she says that she sees now that the so-called ‘family friendly’ companies have become ruthless in their approach.

There is hope, however, through communication. Sharmila thinks that it needs to be a conscious decision that both partners need to discuss and commit to before the move. “So much depends on being mentally prepared for the multiple moves. It gives one a chance to brace before the impact,” she recommends. “It might a good idea to have counselling before the move happens; companies sending their employees as expats might take note.” Mukta agrees that the career sacrifice is a tough one and it’s a choice that many wives have made. She thinks that it requires a lot of maturity, love, and understanding by both partners to make it work.

Another wife, Anita, found that a positive state of mind is vital. “I see it as being that I made a choice to be with my husband and family and also what works for me in terms of the living I make. Earlier I was cribbing about my choice and now I am powerful around it, but it was when I stopped blaming people and circumstances out there which was not in my control and do things which works to make my own income in the situation I choose to be in,” she says.

As ever, a partnership relies on give and take. A trailing spouse cannot be the only one making all the sacrifices without becoming resentful. Nisha is a good example of how things can work out. “My husband has moved countries not once but twice to support my career aspirations but I have also passed up opportunities to support his career. We can’t have it all, all at the same time. The important thing is what’s best for the family as a whole!”

If you are affected by any of these issues or feel that maybe you or your partner might be suffering from trailing spouse syndrome, then you can seek help. Here are a few suggested articles to find out more:

Jonathan has a varied history, having written for publications such as Asian Woman but also technical magazines such as Networking+. He also has a background in IT so he's been instrumental in the technical side of getting Global Indian Stories launched. As co-founder, he also keeps writing, sub-editing, and handling the social media.