Understanding trailing spouses and the emotional struggles that relocation has on relationships.
When embarking on a journey to a foreign land alongside their partners, expat spouses encounter myriad obstacles. The profound experience of culture shock, linguistic barriers, restricted professional opportunities, and the burden of visa regulations all contribute to a disorienting sense of identity loss, mental health challenges, and strained relationships. Termed trailing spouse syndrome, this phenomenon encapsulates the unique struggles faced by expat partners on their transformative journey.
Amid the whirlwind of their partner’s engrossment in a new assignment or job, these individuals often find themselves engulfed in a profound sense of solitude, accompanied by complex emotions such as regret, resentment, and even expat depression. The cumulative effect of these experiences reverberates through their relationships, exacting a toll that should not be overlooked.
So, how can the transferee and global mobility departments support families during relocations?
What Is a Trailing Spouse?
In 1981, Mary Bralove introduced the term “trailing spouse“ in the Wall Street Journal. It refers to the partner, typically a wife, who accompanies their significant other on international journeys or job transfers. Some prefer the term “relocating partner” over trailing spouse. Despite criticism for its perceived connotations of passivity, the term was crafted to capture the distinctive experience of these spouses left behind in the wake of their partners’ overseas ventures. With established careers, close friendships, and beloved family members often left behind, a profound sense of loss and disorientation becomes their shared reality.
Trailing spouse syndrome shares similarities with depression, as it encompasses feelings of loneliness, isolation, and a loss of direction. The challenges faced by spouses of expats are compounded by the need to abandon their own careers, leading to a significant loss of identity. While trailing spouse syndrome is not officially recognized as a diagnosis, it serves as a term to describe the specific set of issues commonly experienced by expat spouses. Often, this syndrome arises from not being the primary decision-maker in the choice to relocate abroad.
Spouses of expats face the challenges of leaving behind their careers, sacrificing professional goals, and adapting to new work limitations and language barriers when traveling abroad. Additionally, their children may experience the loss of familiar surroundings and increased dependency on a parent who may also feel isolated due to the inability to work in the new country.
Trailing spouse syndrome can have a significant impact on the success of a relocation.
Examining the Impact of Relocating Partners on Relocation Success
Trailing spouse syndrome often arises from relocations, where the accompanying spouse experiences a period of lingering depression. The profound mental anguish that accompanies moving to an unfamiliar location cannot be underestimated. However, it is noteworthy that, traditionally, women have been more likely to follow their spouses during such transitions, with men often prioritizing their own careers.
“A huge percentage of the time in a couple where there is a woman and a man, and it’s the woman who takes the step back in her career,” says Dr. Joanne Kamens, a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant at the Impact Seat, on the Working Scientist podcast series.
Nonetheless, this gender dynamic is gradually evolving, as an increasing number of women recognize the significance of their own professional pursuits and the balance it brings to their lives.
The far-reaching effects of trailing spouse syndrome extend beyond the expat partner themselves, greatly impacting the relocating employee and overall household stability. As the home environment becomes strained, the employee’s own well-being is inevitably compromised, leading to potential detriments to their professional performance. This is precisely where the invaluable support of the global mobility department can make a transformative difference.
To support and empower relocated employees and their spouses, consider the following strategies to address and prevent these emotional challenges.
Empowering Mobility Teams to Aid the Relocating Partner
Prioritizing pre-assignment family counseling and open communication can help expats and their families navigate the challenges of relocation more effectively. Engaging in language lessons and dedicating quality time to shared activities fosters independence, communication, and relationship nurturing. These forms of assistance offer vital support to the spouse/partner, facilitating a smoother settling-in process and enhancing the relocating employee’s well-being and performance.
Global mobility departments play a vital role in offering mental health support, facilitating community connections, and providing guidance for families during relocation. However, in certain situations, mobility managers must think innovatively to address unique challenges and ensure a smooth transition for relocating individuals and their families.
When asked how can global mobility programs best support relocating partners during international relocations, Corina Soriano, vice president of global advisory services for the Americas at NetExpat said, “As revealed by the 2023 EY/ NetExpat Relocating Partner Support survey, 69% of corporations are offering bespoke support instead of cash including in-person coaching sessions, access to targeted job opportunities, and communities for peer-to-peer exchange in order to support their talent mobility agenda.”
In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Jane Edison Stevenson, vice chair of board and CEO services at Korn/Ferry International, wrote about how employers can help relocated employees and their families plan for the future:
“A few years ago, a colleague and I were recruiting a female candidate who was based in Europe for a job in Asia. She had a long-term partner who had a great job and was unwilling to move to Asia. So, we looked at the likely career path of the candidate (if she took the new role) and concluded that if she did a great job in Asia, she’d most likely be promoted to a position at headquarters in the United States, where her partner was willing to move. So, the two commuted for a couple of years, and then the woman I’d recruited did get a top job at headquarters; her partner moved to the United States, bringing them back together.”
An alternative to explore is spousal accommodation, wherein the employer recruits a qualified spouse. This arrangement is typically reserved for select individuals in high-ranking positions who possess the potential to generate significant revenue or publicity for the organization.
Global mobility departments often undervalue the significance of the relocating partner in the success of relocation assignments. Recognizing the pivotal role they play as the primary support for the assignee and the overall well-being of the family, companies must prioritize the relocating partner’s needs. Neglecting their happiness and adjustment in the new destination can have adverse effects on both the assignee and the overall success of the relocation mission.
“It takes a great deal of emotional strength to start from scratch and create a fulfilling life in a different culture, in a different language away from one’s support network whilst often caring for one’s immediate family,” psychotherapist Henriette Johnsen wrote in her website. Johnsen added, “Having learned from my own experience, I deeply respect the people who have succeeded in doing so.”
Global mobility departments are crucial in offering mental health support, fostering community connections, and addressing relocation challenges. Innovative approaches, like spousal accommodation for high-ranking individuals, enhance the success of relocations. Acknowledging the emotional strength needed to navigate new cultures and languages while caring for family, companies, and professionals like Johnsen admire the resilience of those who forge fulfilling lives in unfamiliar territories.