In my last topic, I give you expert tips to help you understand the intricacies of Expatriation. Today, I’m going to talk about the “Trailing Spouse” or “Accompanying Partner” a common term in the diplomatic parlance for their spouses and the important role they play in expatriation.
Undeniably spouses are the backbone of the family but the trailing spouses assumes the traditional role of a stay-at-home-spouse and much more. The many faces of expatriation is oftentimes unknown to the general public, like most aspects of life, expatriation is double faced -attractive living conditions (good salary, favourable tax treatment, special compensation packages, housing, relocation and education grants, etc.) which tend to overshadow the flip “anaemic” side – failed expatriation and traumas suffered by family members that lead to early termination of contract, nervous breakdown, depression, family break up and even divorce, perpetual identity crisis by kids (TCKs) due to family’s inability to adapt into their new local environment and assume their new status.
Even renowned expatriates shy away from talking about it despite its nefarious effects on the family hence little or nothing is known of them. However, we believe that the earlier family know of its existence, the more prepared they’ll come to expatriation thereby saving them the heart-breaking surprises that are bound to take place sooner or later.
Who’s an “Accompanying Partner” or “Trailing Spouse”?
But today, this term is used among Expatriates: diplomatic, government, military or international entrepreneurs to designate their spouses. Trailing spouses are those partners who make the informed decision and choice to suspend their careers in order to advance that of their spouses.
In order to avoid expatriation failures and give them the much deserved help in their difficult tasks of ensuring a happy home, trailing spouses need pre-departure and post arrival coaching sessions to help them transit easily and effortlessly from their culture to their host cultures’. The status of an Accompanying Partner and the resultant identity loss as they become best defined by the children or position of their partner, is difficult to assume especially for executive spouses who’ve had lots of professional responsibilities, busy schedules, important social network and suddenly become stay at home partners.
Thanks to recent studies having crediting their roles in the successful completion of expatriate assignment as well as ensuring their families’ balance, Accompanying Partners are gradually getting recognition. In addition to the studies, companies and HR departments have equally come to realise that families’ inability to integrate into the local community have been the major causes of prematurely terminated contracts. They too seem to acknowledge the role spouses’ play by supporting and facilitating transition to the local culture, for their children and partners thereby increasing their productivity.
A large majority of accompanying partners is women but male accompanying partners abound too. Although their interests and expectations might differ, there is no proven record to show a particular gender integrates faster and better than the other. Whatever the gender, it is crucial to comprehend the cross-cultural adjustment of spouses.
- In her dissertation Adaptation of trailing spouse: does gender matter? Anne M. Braseby, Doctor of Philosophy at Florida International University, Miami, Florida, wrote that Stewart Black (a leading expatriate business scholar) extensively researched the adaptation of expatriate wives with the main purpose of preventing early returns.He and his colleague Hal Gregerson (1991:463) indicate “Firms want to reduce the substantial direct and indirect costs of expatriate failures in overseas assignments and employees want to reduce the probability of failure overseas and the negative impact it would have on their careers.Because spouse adjustment can be a substantial factor in the completion of successful overseas assignments and given that most American expatriates have spouses who accompany them overseas (Black 1988, Black and Stephens 1989, Harvey 1985), it seems crucial to comprehend more about the cross-cultural adjustment of spouses. “
To better appreciate the implications of a trailing spouse, let look at what a typical day looks like. The day starts at about 6.30 am with the usual frantic agitation of most mornings: kids getting ready for school while your house-help is making breakfast for them. You all hop into the car for school and your partner takes off as well. You get back and are welcomed home by a deafening silence except for the used crockeries and dirty table from breakfast.
Your other activities include: changing the gas bottle, looking for house-help, buying a car, house-hunting, settling administrative stuffs like overseeing the clearing of the consignment, seeking medical team for the family like GP, dentists, honouring school commitments, keeping playdate appointments, and taking kids to extra curricula activities and eventually carpenters, plumbers.
In addition to these routine every day parental responsibilities, trailing partners have other tasks that befall them namely:
- help their partners and kids to settle in a new country
- often assume the role of father and mother to their kids because of partners’ frequent travelling and long working hours.
As an Accompanying Partner you’re so busy, you don’t have a minute to yourself; and doubts start rearing its ugly head, you start questioning your decision to expatriate. What happened? After all you wholeheartedly accepted the move; the conditions of service are enticing, you were even excited at the idea of the adventure and couldn’t contain your joy when it was confirmed. Why the sudden empty feeling? Was this what you expected? Not at all. You’re disappointed and even ashamed of yourself and can’t believe this is happening to you.
To make matters worse, your inner critic (that little inside voice reminds you not to be ungrateful) and rebukes you for DARING to complain. You succumb and start counting your blessings- comparing your present situation to the previous one: you’re in a friendly country, a comfortable house with a maid and driver, healthy family and a safe neighbourhood so why are you unhappy? Yeah you’re right, money doesn’t buy happiness.
To tell the truth, it’s not a rare feeling. I went through exactly the same emotions, and so did many before and after me. Once you are done with the excitement and “honeymoon” stage of the adventure, reality sets in. Some people acclimatize without a fuss, others aren’t that lucky, the latter go through various stages: from excitement to grief (when the thrills die down and pave the way to stark realities). When you move with your entire family as is the case with most expatriates, you not only strive to adapt for yourself, but you have to ensure the integration of the whole family.
At some point, you’re overwhelmed by the expectations and amount of energy, this is only normal after all you’re human and there’s only so much you can take. But don’t let the weight get you down, pull yourself together because everyone is looking up to you super mamma. Considering this fact, every piece of help to facilitate immersion into the new community is priceless. I remember my first assignment no consideration was given to me. How I wish someone prepared me on what to expect and how to tackle it.
Now things have changed, you have life coaches like me to tell you there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Your feeling is normal and a lot of trailing spouses go through this phase. The truth is that trailing spouses live in isolation, away from friends and family – our usual support-network. It might sound strange especially when you’ve made new friends; just remember that during expatriation, you’re in the company of people with whom you don’t necessarily share the same culture or values. As a result of the influential role culture and values play in our appreciation and interpretation of situations, you see and interpret things differently.
Instead of the everyone for himself attitude adopted so far by companies, more balance could be achieved if companies informed staff and their families before-hand of culture-shock, the possible effects as well as remedies as this will encourage them speak up freely of their frustrations without fear of being judged. This is great help because it gives them confidence to face the uphill challenges ahead; the non-availability of this help makes the families vulnerable and they feel abandoned.
Why is trailing spouse integration important?
It seems rational that trailing spouse needs to integrate and assimilate the values of the host country in order to inculcate their families with an appreciation of the host culture
An integrated Accompanying Partner understands that as the foreigner, it is up to you to accept the host country with its differences in culture, foods and values and learn to adapt to it instead of expecting the country to adapt to you. They make efforts to learn the language and eat the foods rather than importing your country, values and foods.
Their own integration help them explain the advantages of integration to their families from an insider point of view- they walk the talk and “contaminate” their family with their own wellness and enthusiasm.
They need the stability to be able to manage the practicalities of an international move.
Please send your comments, contributions and feedbacks and once again, thanks for your time and see you soon.
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