Trailing Spouses: In Need of Organizational Support

HBIBThe topic of international assignments is rarely discussed without mentioning issues of the accompanying partners, or so-called trailing spouses. According to different industry surveys (e.g. Brookfield, 2012; Cartus, 2012) the adjustment problems and dissatisfaction of spouses/partners, as well as dual-career issues, top the lists of expatriation challenges, and quite often become reasons for refusing an assignment, or failing.

Academic research on trailing spouses has been fairly extensive as well, concluding that the trailing spouse plays a key role during expatriation, influencing assignment success, expatriate adjustment and performance (e.g. Lazarova, Westman, and Shaffer, 2010). However, in spite of the clear evidence for family-related issues, several data also indicate that companies are not providing enough support for accompanying spouses/partners. In this regard, academic research continues to highlight the important role that effective organizational support can play for the adjustment of trailing spouses. More specifically, a recent study by McNulty (2012) examined three types of organizational support and their effects on spouse adjustment.


Trailing spouse organizational support – in theory

The issues facing trailing spouses can stem from multiple sources. Firstly, there is the loss of a career, social network, and habitual lifestyle. Second, there is a need to adjust to new family roles and responsibilities, as usually in expatriation the trailing spouse fulfills the biggest role in upholding family life. Thirdly, as opposed to the expatriate him-/herself, a trailing spouse is often not getting involved with a new working environment, so s/he must adjust to the initial status of unemployment, find new ways of self-fulfillment, and start creating new social and professional relationships. Based on the range of possible challenges, the study by  McNulty (2012) looked into three different types of organizational support, namely practical, professional and social support.

  • Practical support may be viewed as a functional help in relation to all the issues of relocation (e.g. home-sale assistance, language courses, tax and immigration paperwork). This type of support is the most available, as the majority of companies give considerable attention to the logistics of relocation, and usually have these things covered by expatriation policies.
  • Professional support is rarer than practical support. Theoretically, it should involve all career-related assistance for the trailing spouse (e.g. job search, career counseling, work permit assistance, résumé preparation).
  • Social support should work towards social integration of expatriate families, which unfortunately is quite rarely provided by companies. Even though companies try to provide cross-cultural trainings before relocation, their tasks upon relocation could involve organizing introductory activities with other expatriates, providing memberships to social clubs, and spreading information on expatriate forums and spouse networking groups.


Trailing spouse organizational support – in practice

The evidence from the study of 264 trailing spouses in 54 host-locations showed that a mix of practical, professional and social support was perceived as important to trailing spouse adjustment. For example, the most important things within social support were access to email and Internet, sufficient time for family adjustment, and company-funded home-country visits. On the practical side, the highest importance was assigned to finding housing, and ongoing support after the first 3 months. In terms of professional issues, trailing spouses expected to receive subsidies that would substitute decreases in family income, as well as educational assistance.

In reality, practical support was the most common type of resources provided, but it was quite frequently criticized. In addition, confirming prior research, McNulty (2012) found that dual-career issues, socialization with other expatriates, and family stress – hence the professional and social support areas – were addressed quite poorly. Speaking generally, only 29% of the study sample rated organizational support as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, which indicates continuous disappointment for trailing spouses. On a different note, despite some negative feelings, expatriate spouses also recognized that relocation is a stressful process, and that organizational support has its limits. As stated by one of the study participants, ‘it comes down to the individual’ (p. 431). Hence, while it is clear that organizations need to provide support for all spouses, some might need more than others.


Practical implications 

The main practical notion that arises from this study relates to how participants regarded their communication with HR staff. Feeling quite often forgotten, unimportant to the company and out of reach, expatriate spouses indicated a need for a more direct communication link between the company and the trailing spouse, irrespective of their non-employee status.

Another aspect that came up was about giving more time to expatriates for settling in with their families upon arrival. Overloading expatriates with work commitments straight upon arrival leaves all the burden of the initial relocation challenges to the spouse. Overcoming such difficulties as a joint family effort is naturally easier.

Assistance with finding a job and socializing appears to be of great importance too. Organizations thus can offer the use of career coaches, facilitate membership in different associations and social clubs, provide training in networking and language skills, and organize introductory social events in the new location.

Finally, organizations should do a better job in preparing the trailing spouses for the relocation. Coaching, counseling, reading materials and presentations can give a realistic overview of the upcoming process, thus helping to identify the main challenges and resources for coping with them.


Further reading:

Lazarova, M., Westman, M., & Shaffer, M. A. (2010). Elucidating the Positive Side of the Work-Family Interface on International Assignments: A Model of Expatriate Work and Family Performance. Academy of Management Review, 35, 1, 93-117

McNulty, Y. (2012). ‘Being dumped in to sink or swim’: An empirical study of organizational support for the trailing spouse. Human Resource Development International, 15, 4, 417-434.

6 thoughts on “Trailing Spouses: In Need of Organizational Support

  1. Precious article extremely well documented, Sebastian. Thank you! It seems to me that we could solve some of the above mentioned problems by the creation of a spouse stipend. The spouse stipend would be a percentage of the expat assignee’s salary directly paid to the accompanying spouse for her/his essential role played in the relocation process. This would entitle her/him to have direct legitimate contact with HR, to feel acknowledged for her/his work, and to keep some of her/his decision power as regards to what support she/he wants to choose (hiring a career coach or joining a youga class for example) without having to justify herself/himself or ask permission. It would enable a more “balanced” relationship in the couple. More details of this proposal in this article
    What do you think?

  2. Hi Anne,
    This is an interesting suggestion. I know that a few companies have started using a similar approach within the scope of a cafeteria-style expat compensation system where the expat can choose to spend a specific amount of relocation support on different services (home visits, schooling, etc.). Explicitly introducing a spouse stipend would expand this and further formalize spouse/family support.

  3. Hi Sebastian,

    Thanks for the article. Question for you. — How would you translate ‘trailing spouse’ into Spanish. Nadie le gusta ‘esposa rastreada’… – mis amigas espanolas estan aterrorizado con este expresión . Entonces, “la mujer que sigue su marido..”? – muy largo… Que opina?


    1. Hi Quenby,

      To be honest, I actually prefer the term “travelling spouse” as it has less unfortunate connotations – so that would equate to “esposa viajando o trasladando”



  4. Hi,
    Interesting article, I am actually doing some research on self efficacy issues inexpert trailing spouses for school and was wonder what you felt the social implications of this phenomena are. I can see the financial aspect with the failure of expat assignment but how does the maladjustment which affects their self worth and issues of identity have an impact socially?


  5. Apologies typo in my previous post I meant :
    Interesting article, I am actually doing some research on self efficacy issues in expat trailing spouses for school, and was wonder what you felt the social implications of this phenomena are. I can see the financial aspect with the failure of expat assignment but how does the maladjustment which affects their self worth and issues of identity have an impact socially?


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