The Trailing Spouse
A title hated by many to whom it applies. It implies a lessor importance. An afterthought. Yet this is exactly how many trailing spouses feel, maybe not at the outset of an international relocation, or a few months in. But as time passes, and the realities of the situation they find themselves in become ever more apparent, trailing spouses can start to feel despondent.
This poses one of the, if not the greatest risks, to the success of relocations, both domestic and international. Yet still not enough employers, to their own detriment, focus on the needs of the spouse in relocations.
First lets establish what a trailing spouse is. A trailing spouse is the accompanying wife, or increasingly the husband, of an employee relocating for a short term, long term or permanent assignment. The trailing spouse will typically sacrifice their own career, leave their social circles, activities and established life behind, to support their partner and family in the hope that it will benefit their partner’s career, their family’s prospects, and/or provide new life experiences living in a new locale or country.
Whilst the employee usually receives some form of support from their employer, has a job that will occupy much of their time, and has at least the opportunity to establish a social circle from the outset with new found colleagues, the trailing spouse can often feel very different.
They are living in a new, unfamiliar place. In an international relocation, they may not speak the local language or understand the culture. Having likely resigned from their job back home, they may not be able to resume their career in the host country; not speaking the language may disqualify them; any seniority gained back home may now be irrelevant; they lack a local professional network; their may not be any suitable employers for their profession in the vicinity; they may not even be legally permitted to work due to visa restrictions.
Having to establish a new social network only adds to the potential frustrations of the relocation. It may be difficult to connect with locals if language or cultural barriers exist. The spouse can offer an opportunity for new social connections with work colleagues and their spouses, and children with the parents of school friends, but the indirect nature of establishing those relationships can make them harder and slower to establish. How often do work colleagues get together? Does the school routine limit the occasions to connect with other parents? And lets face it, we are not all extroverts. Some people find it harder than others to establish new social connections. Trailing husbands can feel particularly excluded in these situations.
These are just some of the issues that can lead to trailing spouses struggling to adapt to their new situation. Repeated, frequent relocations often only add to a sense of loneliness and despondency, as can be attested to by many a military spouse.
Many trailing spouses do thrive on international assignments. They enjoy the experience, may have a successful career of their own, find themselves with a vibrant local or expat social circle, and endless activities to keep them entertained and satisfied. But what are the consequences for those that don’t? They can have general feelings of unhappiness, anger, regret, and animosity towards their partners that they have ended up in this situation. This may develop into more serious feelings of depression and can lead to marital issues.
Trailing spouses should be considered a critical component of any relocation by employers. With a direct cost to relocate an employee for an international assignment that can exceed a million dollars, the company’s operations, as well as significant revenue or business expenses potentially at risk, ignoring the impact the trailing spouse has on the state of mind, and therefore the quality of the work that the employee will produce, can have serious consequences for the employer.
Employers therefore need to ensure that they have established programs to truly support the trailing spouse before, during and after an assignment, and must ensure that the family unit in its entirety is suited to a relocation and fully aware of its realities, rather than just considering the employee’s skillset.
Doing so will help employers limit the potential for the inevitable disruption and lost revenue that comes from employees who are distracted from their work by family problems, and the failed assignments that are sometimes the consequence.
Employers should seek expertise from professionals with real world experience to ensure their policies and provided services adequately prepare and support trailing spouses. Employees negotiating terms and conditions with their employers for upcoming assignments need to understand the difficulties their spouses may face, and ensure their employers are willing and able to provide the necessary support.