A 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.