Trailing Spouse: An Outdated Label with Important Implications?

trailing spouseA couple of years ago I wrote a post highlighting the important topic of trailing spouses and their need for more organizational support. According to the numbers of some industry surveys at that time, the adjustment problems and dissatisfaction of spouses/partners, as well as dual-career issues topped the list of expatriation challenges. Today, looking at the data of the latest Brookfield Global Mobility Trend survey (2015), the picture does not seem to have changed much. A spouse’s career remains the second most important reason for assignment refusal, and 69% of respondents expect spouse career issues to become even more important in light of attracting employees for international assignments in the future. Moreover, spouse resistance to international assignments and their career issues remain in the list of critical family-related assignee challenges. Nevertheless, in line with the historical average, today 80% of assignees are accompanied by their spouses during an international assignment. Naturally, family adjustment (including spouse adjustment) tops the expat challenges already during the assignment.

Given this data, as well as extensive academic research evidence showing that the trailing spouse plays a key role for assignment success, adjustment and performance, the topic seems to be far from forgotten. My two-year old statement that ‘trailing spouses are in need of organizational support’ remains valid, as they too (similarly to expats themselves) undergo a major life changing experience and have difficulties to adjust. Moreover, differently from their expat spouses, they usually lose their job and part of their identity, which is why they feel more isolated. All of these topics are also evident in the stories of expat spouses on the Internet. Yet, what caught my attention, when browsing through these stories, was something different.

I noticed that many speak about the discomfort of being called ‘trailing spouses’ and treated alike. It occurred to me that many of the adjustment, isolation and identity problems do actually spur from societal labeling, stereotyping and perceptions. For example, Quenby Wilcox, a trailing spouse herself and the Founder of Global Expats, argues that, as much as we would like it not to be the case, the term ‘trailing spouse’ still has its accurate societal implications. Quenby says that ‘the term implies that the expat wife is nothing more than an appendage of her husband; given no more consideration or appreciation than any other “article” included in the transfer of her husband’s household goods’. Note that the term ‘spouse’ is hence perceived as synonymous to ‘wife,’ despite its more encompassing meaning. As such, no new definition, such as ‘accompanying partner’ would solve the situation, unless the all-too-prevalent attitude towards the expat wife-the homemaker-the one “who doesn’t do anything” would change.

Similar notions come from another expat wife, who plies not to call her a trailing spouse. Although accompanying her husband on his assignment abroad, Claire refuses to be anything that fits the ‘trailing spouse’ label. She is not the classical homemaker, she certainly does not sit at home waiting for her husband to return from work, she has friends and interest outside the expat wives’ community, she does not introduce herself or allow being called as ‘Mrs. Jeremy’ (using her husband’s name), nor does she bake pies for expat events.

So it seems that there is a clear label attached to being a ‘trailing spouse’, a label quite conservative in its gender differences and gender role preferences. The same label and gender stereotypes are what makes it extremely difficult also for male trailing spouses, or so-called ‘Mr Moms’.

As mentioned well in an older Telegraph article, the concept of a male-focused expat welfare structure, including welfare of trailing males, is comparatively non-existent. Male trailing spouses go against one of the most common gender stereotypes – the one that the male is a breadwinner and woman a homemaker and caregiver to children. As such, trailing males are quite likely to suffer from social disapproval and isolation.

All in all, I would suggest that rather than further debating the term ‘trailing spouse,’ its definition and practical implications should be continuously challenged. The way we still tend to think of trailing spouses becomes dysfunctional and outdated for both, women and men. Yet, as can be seen from an interview with a the trailing male published by the Expatriate Connection blog, the inconvenient truth is that we, as society, are still far from thinking and acting outside of our labels and stereotypes.

5 thoughts on “Trailing Spouse: An Outdated Label with Important Implications?

  1. We wrote an article about the label and it’s implications more than 5 years ago and it’s somewhat depressing that the dialogue has remained stubbornly in more or less the same place. I would agree with you that challenging the definition and the implications of the label are more important than debating the label. The most important issue though is to explore what support is helpful and effective for the individuals and families concerned and also helps to achieve the organisational objectives. Having said that, it is now very well known that a large number of expat partners find the label “trailing spouse” offensive. When professionals in the arena knowingly continue to use a label that has a high probability of offending the person concerned, it sends a signal! How hard to change? History has shown that in other aspects of life, labels that were once acceptable are now verboten. Let’s all show leadership and stop using it.

  2. I agree with the article and the comment above. I have also written and spoken about the negative connotations of the term and am surprised to not that there are many women in the blog sphere who still use the term about themselves. Is it because there are no viable alternatives? Or is it because for some women, the label truly encapsulates their experience of the expat life?

  3. I have been reading your blog posts for a while now, as I now have a daughter who is an Expat in Germany. But, I see real similarities in this discussion of the trailing spouse to how I felt as the wife of a medical student/resident physician/physician. We attended a series of seminars for physicians and spouses and the real emphasis was on the spouse having interests of their own as well as their life at home.

  4. Lamentable though the situation in relation to accompanying spouses is, the problem is not really what we are called. The entire international labour market seems to be predicated on there being one of the partners willing to “support” the other, to “support” in this sense seems to mean something like, “stop pursuing your own interests and career, and don’t complain about it”. How this usually cashes out is that the woman in a relationship has to take on the “supportive” role, in a way that would be inconceivable and unacceptable to many of us if we were in our home countries, but I am not sure the situation would be more OK if the man takes on this “supporting” role. This usually has nothing to do with the cultural norms of the country of relocation, but the demands and expectations of the employer.

    In this context the phrase “trailing” spouse seems quite apposite, in that they are there simply in virtue of the fact that their employed spouse is there. Of course, this doesn’t imply that we have to remain as burdensome appendages, as the word “trailing” seems to invoke.

  5. I think it would be a positive start to reframe the issue by not using the term trailing spouse. Although I do appreciate that often the organizational stance is one of “appendage” to the principal. We need to find another less demeaning term as well as look at the assumptions and implications. There are important psychological implications to how we see ourselves and the names we give.

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