Trailing Spouses: Divorce, Depression, and the Challenges They Face

Facing divorce after following your husband from state to state or country to country? If so, you’re what is commonly referred to as a “trailing spouse.”

trailing spouse

What Does the Term "Trailing Spouses" Mean?

Most often, the term “trailing spouses” is used when referring to women. Traditional gender roles imply that men take on the role of the main income earner in a family, while women remain homemakers. As a result, women often accompany their husbands abroad, even if they also have a job and certain career goals. Unfortunately, the vast majority of them are not able to hold their job after moving to another country. Gender roles have evolved and changed in modern times, and today more women are realizing that sacrificing their own plans in the name of their husband’s career is not what they want for their future. Sometimes, it’s hard to leave the advantages of the double income behind. Moreover, a job may be a source of strong personal satisfaction. The internet and various innovative technologies have made it possible for businesses to expand faster using all the opportunities of the global market. For many years, being an expatriate has been a beautiful dream for many people who have associated it with a certain lifestyle. Many experts from various industries grasp the opportunity to visit new destinations and get paid for it. However, such a life also has its flip side. According to statistics, up to 50% of expat assignments are unsuccessful, and most of them fail because of family-related issues. While husbands may be excited about the new environment, high salary, and career growth, their wives may not necessarily be satisfied with the role of a trailing spouse. Many of them sacrifice their own careers to stay with their husbands, while others miss their social life back home and face a certain level of social isolation when they move. They appear among unfamiliar people and may not be able to find a job in their area of specialization. All these issues can lead to depression and often make trailing spouses think of divorce.

What are the Most Common Challenges for Trailing Spouses?

First, trailing spouses need to reconsider their career expectations. For many people, a career is an integral part of their identity. According to statistics, only 35% of wives work after moving to another country because of their partner’s assignment. Although their household income may increase significantly, many women are not excited about the idea of being just a homemaker. The feeling of losing their identity may lead to problems in their relationship, including cheating or reduced sex drive. Another common challenge is culture shock. In countries like Saudi Arabia, it is almost impossible for a woman to work at all, while some countries have completely different cultures. Expat wives may face discriminatory social or religious standards. Even European countries present certain difficulties. These difficulties include language barriers, a different climate, a different time zone, and more. The difference in languages quickly results in social isolation. If a couple has kids, the situation can get even more complicated, as kids also have to fit into a new environment and get used to their new school. Last but not least, many expat wives experience relationship problems. Trailing spouses often feel lonely without their family and friends, especially if their partners work a majority of the time, travel for business, and meet new colleagues. When a partner gets a new job in a new social environment, it may take up a lot of his or her time. As a result, partners often distance themselves from one another as they try to establish themselves as individuals in their new conditions.

Risk of Depression and Divorce

All the difficulties listed above often lead to depression. Many trailing spouses start to drink secretly and worry about their partner having an affair. Depression may take many forms depending on a particular couple’s story and lifestyle. Psychologists say that depression is a very common condition, with more than 300 million people around the world suffering from it. People who work and live in their home country are less likely to develop depression while trailing spouses often face this problem after about two months in another country. It may take more or less time as the excitement from adjusting to a new environment declines and partners begin to realize that the change is permanent. Cheryl Walters, a licensed therapist who also works at Masterra, notes: “Some people don’t understand when the first symptoms of depression come. For example, they may not be able to enjoy their favorite activities. They sleep too much or suffer from insomnia, it gets hard to concentrate. If these symptoms don’t disappear in two weeks, it’s a sign that it’s better to see a therapist.” Mental health, along with alcoholism and domestic abuse, is the most common reason why expatriates divorce. Differences in culture and travel demands also make many spouses think about divorce. Often they want to get back to their previous life, which was more fulfilling. Divorces, though, can often lead to more serious consequences. It could possibly worsen depression, result in financial problems and even alienation from children.
Know What Signs to Look For
Moving to another country is a challenge for relationships. Trailing spouses often lose their jobs, which makes them lose self-confidence. They also often feel lonely in a completely new cultural environment. They can suffer from depression, which in turn leads to problems in relationships and can even lead to divorce. It’s important for expat couples to give each other enough attention. In addition to this, trailing spouses can join volunteer programs or try other activities to re-establish their self-confidence and make their lives more fulfilling. It’s also important to know what signs to look for that someone may be depressed. Expat couples should also stick to a healthy lifestyle, get enough sleep, and avoid alcohol. Of course, sometimes a divorce may be the only solution, but if a partner wants to fight for their marriage, it’s worth talking to professionals and try new activities. New career opportunities, courses, or volunteer work are also certainly worth a try.
Berta Melder was a trailing spouse who used to have an independent career. Now she is an experienced brand manager, content strategist and co-founder of the Masterra Writers. Berta also cooperates with different education courses covering a broad range of digital topics as a guest lecturer. Follow her on Twitter.

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