Change your expat life
Trailing Spouse Syndrome
This week, on Episode 22 of the Girafe Coaching Podcast, I’m talking about “trailing spouses” — the husband or wife of an employee who is sent to work in another country on an expatriate assignment.
It’s a controversial topic, not least because some people can’t stand the term. I first heard it in the American community when I lived in Kenya (more than 15 years ago… but let’s not count, okay?). To this day, I can’t find a corollary in my native French. But here are the basics of what it means to be a trailing spouse:
- Your visa depends on your partner’s visa
- Legally speaking, you become the dependent
- Your work permit depends on the work permit you “might” get through your partner’s organization, depending on the legislation of the host country.
In other other words, being the trailing partner has career, financial, identity and logistical implications. And it leads, in many cases, to what I call “trailing spouse syndrome.”
When choice feels limited by circumstance…
Both times I followed my husband to Africa, I discovered that I would not get a work permit — after arriving in the country. We had the same education, the same degree from the same university, and the same amount of experience. In our latest posting in Zimbabwe, I did not have access to an ATM and could not even open a bank account.
And it’s not smooth sailing now that I’m back in the US, either: I am renewing my work permit, but HR services deal directly with my husband instead of me.
While it can feel a little bit like being one of the wives in the TV show Mad Men, it’s not just women who are trailing spouses. Many men are trailing too. And it doesn’t matter what your profession is. I’ve known many medical professionals, for example, who have had to put their careers “on hold.”
And for many of us, our identities are so tied to what we do — to the profession we have, the expertise we’ve developed, the money we earn — that it can feel deeply destabilizing to face these new circumstances.
So, while the term “trailing spouse” is not everyone’s cup of tea, it’s important to face the reality of the experience head on so that we can begin to reclaim our sense of self and find choice and empowerment in our circumstances.
Feeling unanchored in a foreign country
It’s one thing to be a trailing spouse. It’s another to develop trailing spouse syndrome. This is when you start feeling like you’ve lost control of your professional life — when all you see are the gaps, the inconsistencies, and the multitude of roles and assignments you may have taken wherever you have lived.
Do these thoughts sound familiar? If so, you may be struggling with trailing spouse syndrome.
- I’ve put my career on hold
- I am stuck, and I don’t know what I want anymore
- My peers are so much more advanced in their careers
- It’s too late to achieve anything that truly matters
- I’ll never be financially successful
- I’m totally invisible and not making an impact
- I am not contributing enough
- I don’t know what my purpose is anymore
Thoughts like these become a problem when they create discomfort, or when they turn into feelings of jealousy, envy, discouragement, hopelessness, embarrassment, rejection, insignificance, or depression.
If left unaddressed, you might even judge yourself for feeling this unhappy! You might look at your life — what you have, the amazing trips you’ve taken, your relative comfort — and start adding guilt to the pile, feeling like you should be more grateful and feel more satisfied.
Not everyone feels this way. But a great many partners do. And it’s important to listen to.
It’s time to reject limiting beliefs
Clients struggling with trailing spouse syndrome often tell me that what they’re doing is “not enough” and that they feel “unfulfilled” no matter what they try.
But the truth is, it’s not your circumstances that are creating these feelings. It’s your beliefs about your life.
Your circumstances will never limit your choices and will never define your worthiness.
I know this can be difficult to believe — I’ve struggled with it myself! — but it’s true.
Everyone can live their purpose. No matter your circumstance, no matter what happened to you in the past, no matter where you live. People are managing to do it all over the world. Everywhere you look, you will see people who have refused to see their circumstances as limitations to what they can create and achieve.
You can do the same. You can create, rebuild, and reinvent the identity that suits you best today. You don’t have to follow the old script. You don’t have to limit your aspirations to what others do.
You can decide. You can rediscover your purpose.
This is about taking full responsibility for your life and your dreams and letting go of limiting beliefs.
Are you ready?
Take the first step
Think about somebody you admire in your entourage or in the world.
- Why do you admire them?
- What did she or he accomplish that you wish you had?
- What would it feel like if you had accomplished the same thing?
Identifying what you admire and what you long for is a great first clue when it comes to reconnecting with your purpose. It’s not about envy, it’s about envisioning.
So this is what I invite you to uncover. Take a pen and paper and spend a few minutes exploring.
Want to share? Get in touch through Instagram to celebrate what you discover!
Of course, you don’t have to take this journey alone. With Girafe Coaching, I help expat partners define and live their purpose — and rebuild their identity. If you would like guidance and support to help you create and sustain the momentum to go after your big dreams, you can check out my Unlock Your Full Potential program. It’s for all the so-called “trailing spouses” looking to create a full and satisfying life while continuing to support the people they love most. Don’t hesitate to explore the program if you think it might be for you!
This is where a new journey begins.
Have a great week!
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