Trailing Spouse vs Accompanying Partner: Semantics or Identity Crisis

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The term “trailing spouse” has evoked much debate since it was first coined in the 1980’s. Many expats prefer terms such as ‘’accompanying partner,’’ “accompanying spouse,” “Spouses Trailing Under Duress Successfully (STUDS), or “Spouses Traveling and Relocating Successfully,” (STARS). Even companies that deal with global mobility have stopped using the word “trailing spouse,” under the principle that it’s derogatory for women in this day and age. But do labels matter?

Clearly, it does. After all, there are so many terms to define the expat spouse. Regardless of what term you use, let’s take a look at the role of the ‘’trailing spouse.”

The Role of the Trailing Spouse

Research shows that the ‘’trailing spouse” is key to absorb the stress of the expatriate employee and the children. In fact, they are key in their partner’s work performance when they adapt successfully. After all, it’s hard work to:

  • Manage the practicalities of an international move
  • Support children and the working partner settle in a new country
  • Assume roles of father and mother because of partner’s frequent travelling and long work hours
  • And do the above all over again in another country after a few years!

Add to that the difficulties of transitioning from country to country. Loosing supportive network, professional identity, financial independence, and a familiar place. It can be daunting to say the least! And, of course, all this is done with no salary!

Coming to a new place governed by new rules and a foreign language can make anyone feel like an alien. In these situations, the ‘’trailing spouse’’ is at best defined by their children or the position of their employed partner. And while creating a new identity can be exciting (you can choose to be whoever you want to be) it can also be very destabilizing.

So what is a “trailing spouse” to do?

From one “trailing spouse” to another, define yourself from the inside out, from what your real passion is, from what your ideals are. This expat life may very well be the best opportunity to live a fulfilling and enriched life doing what you’re meant to do. Of course, this is easier said than done. We live in a world where people are defined by what they do and where they work. It can be nerve wracking having to answer the most prevalent question of all, “What do you do?” or better yet, “what do you do all day?”

Many willingly choose the expatriate life (no one forced you on a plane to come here) and make a life for themselves that is based on their expertise, experiences, and an opportunity to find something new, exciting, and fulfilling. While for some this means being partners, parents, and volunteers, for others it could mean freelancing, blogging, consulting, starting a business, getting involved locally, etc. The list is endless! “Trailing spouses” can still find meaningful work, be good parents, and be the backbone of their family life.

So, next time you think of calling someone a ‘’trailing spouse,” think again. They are at the opposite end of trailing.


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Linh Groen

Thought of you Heidi Collins.

Heidi Collins

Thanks. I agree that ‘trailing spouse’ has negative connotations, but I disagree with the author that ‘no one forced you to get on the plane’. The notion of ‘choice’ vs ‘coercion’ is something that came out strongly in my research. Many choose the expat life, but some are very much pushed into it.

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