Trailing spouse? Accompanying partner? The identity crisis of the expat “other half”

Trailing spouse? Accompanying partner?

Expat wife or trailing spouse? Photo © clairity

I wrote a piece for Suite 101 yesterday about male trailing spouses, and the reaction I’ve been getting proves yet again that there’s little consensus out there in Expatland on the preferred term for those of us who move to another country in support of our partners’ careers.

I can see the difficulties with slapping a label – any label – on these brave and hardy souls. The ideal (yet elusive) term would leave no doubt that both parts of the expat equation were on equal footing.

When I was doing research for my master’s thesis on cross-cultural training and people-who-move-overseas-for-a-life-partner, it used to bug me that peer-reviewed journals referred to the working partner as the expatriate and the other partner as the spouse – as though only one of them had uprooted an entire life and shipped it halfway around the world.

The expat community (or at least half of it) is obviously in the throes of an identity crisis. What should we call the non-contracted half of the expatriate couple? The original term, expat wife, was replaced in later years by trailing spouse, but neither one is quite right: trailing offends some people, wife offends others, and lately I’ve been hearing rumblings of discontent over spouse. (Kind of ironic, since it was supposed to be the more gender-neutral and less Mad Men alternative to wife.)

Trailing spouse always makes me think of Prince Phillip, walking the requisite two paces behind Queen Elizabeth. It implies that we spouses are just tagging along for the ride, almost like an afterthought. (Which we certainly are in the eyes of many an HR department.)

Accompanying is a much more democratic term, with its faint whiff of “we’re all in this together!” But it also sounds a bit sterile, like a chaperone on a school trip. Plus, at five syllables, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

Expat wife is totally old school. It conjures up visions of ladies in pearls sipping G&Ts at the club while a Noel Coward wannabe tickles the ivories. It’s a term that’s been slightly tarnished by its colonial associations, and even more so by the present-day perception of expat wives as gadabouts who leave their children with domestic helpers so they can play tennis, get manicures, lunch with friends, and go clubbing every night. (I’ve met women like this, and I find them exhausting.)

The expat wife has evolved, though. More expat women are working in their host countries (some are even – in the terminology of those peer-reviewed journals I mentioned earlier – expatriates), and shrinking expat packages mean that perks such as club memberships are fast becoming relics of the past.

As for me, I’m clearly comfortable with the term; it’s how I chose to identify myself in the name of my blog, after all. Considering the futility of trying to condense the complexities of a human creature into a descriptive and one-dimensional sound bite, I’d say that for a few years there, expat wife described me as accurately as any single label possibly could.

How about it, my fellow trailing/accompanying/expat spouses/wives/partners? What’s your preferred moniker? And is it time for a new one? Please share your thoughts by clicking Leave a Comment below.

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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16 Responses to Trailing spouse? Accompanying partner? The identity crisis of the expat “other half”

  1. Evelyn says:

    Here’s a post I wrote on my own blog a few months ago. http://thesmartexpat.com/2010/03/14/trailer-trash/ As you can see, I’m not a fan of the term! I’ve also started LinkedIN and Facebook Groups (both called Definitely Not Trailing) as I know so many women and men who have thrived and found new aspects of themselves when they have accompanied their partner on expat assignments. I think there’s too much focus on family reasons as a reason for failure of expat assignments and not enough focus on helping partners/spouses be part of its success.
    Evelyn Simpson
    The Smart Expat

    • Maria says:

      Evelyn, thank you so much for including the link to your magnificent post. I don’t know how I managed to miss it the first time around, but I was certainly nodding my head like a maniac when I read it a few minutes ago. Very powerful stuff. I will be checking out your Definitely Not Trailing groups asap!

  2. naomi says:

    It IS time for a new one, but I don’t have any suggestions.

    I’ve always detested the term “SAHM” and “housewife”, but even worse than those has been the “trailing spouse” or “expat wife” — especially when people assign the connotation that it means I spend my days drinking cosmos, going to art galleries and shopping.

    Love this new awareness that so many are bringing to the table … about what it means (and doesn’t mean) to be an expat wife/trailing spouse!

    • Maria says:

      I also love that we’re talking about it, Naomi. Everyone’s expat experience is unique, and all these different perspectives are bringing a lot of much-needed depth to the discussion. I find it fascinating, because my own view of what it means to be an expat spouse is coloured by my circumstances at the time: I had left the workplace when my children were born and self-identified quite willingly as a SAHM (but never as a housewife.) Women (and men) who gave up established careers to move abroad with their partners have an entirely different take on things, and I’m so glad I have the opportunity to listen and learn from them.

  3. Judy says:

    I was definitely a trailing spouse. I (willingly) gave up a career to follow my husband overseas and then seemed to spend a lot of time trailing around various government offices, banks and shopping areas trying to get all our paperwork in place and set up a home in a succession of new locations.

    When we first started this life fifteen years ago the expat world was a different place. Now we have a lot of younger couples, less generous packages and an increasing number of men who are the trailing spouse. I do think it is time to come up with a better description but I agree “accompanying partner” is clumsy and still implies they’re “along for the ride” rather than an independent individual.

    In situations where there is a corporate transfer, I would call them a co-transferee, as in our situation I was certainly transferred just as much as my husband was. But outside of the relocation industry, do we really need a term at all? I think a lot of this is more about spouses struggling with their identity and coming up with a good answer to that dreadful question when meeting people “And what is it that YOU do?”

    • Maria says:

      I think we do need a term, if only for convenience. Within the expat community (assuming for the sake of argument that such a generic beast exists), expat spouses form a specific subculture that’s crying out for a label to accurately describe – in a couple of words – who they are. Of course, no single term is going to fit every member of the club – we’re far too diverse a group for that. But labels are a useful form of verbal shorthand that do a pretty good job of conveying large amounts of information in a short and pithy phrase. Unfortunately, the ones we have now are clunky and outdated.

  4. Jeff says:

    I think Judy has it right, most of us in this situation have chosen to follow (trail if you will) our spouses on their work assignments and as a result put our traditional careers aside. That choice doesn’t mean we are subordinate, getting dragged along behind or otherwise inferior, it’s simply a description of how we, as a group of people arrived at a given situation.

    Remember too that this problem is not limited to expats. The trailing spouse phenomena also applies to many people, male and female, domestically in academia, industry and government. Regularly relocating to other parts of your own country is also disruptive to the Trailing Spouse.

    Why do we keep getting hung up on talking about what we call ourselves rather than applying energy to resolving the problems we collectively face?

    This issue has been debated debated several time on the Trailing Spouse Network on LinkedIn with some useful comments –

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trailing_spouse

    — Jeff

    • Maria says:

      Thanks for adding your voice to the debate! Of course you and Judy are both correct when you say that the majority of spouses who move with their partners these days do so willingly. That wasn’t always so, but times have changed and the expat spouse has changed along with them. This, in fact, was the point of my original post: why do we continue to use terms that no longer serve us? We’re definitely not subordinate or inferior, yet for many people, the term “trailing spouse” carries this meaning. I think Shakespeare was right: words matter because they affect our perceptions. So many descriptors have fallen by the wayside as attitudes have evolved – look at what the civil rights movement or feminism have done to change the language we use.

      Having said all that, this is obviously an issue that affects people differently, and everyone has to draw their own line in the sand. How do you refer to yourself when the question arises, Jeff?

  5. FutureExpat says:

    Great post, and interesting comments. Makes me glad that I’ll be moving overseas to live and write and not have to worry about the label!

  6. a.b. says:

    I’m involved in this debate right now, and I’m pretty happy with “traveling spouse”. I’d also tried to push “sidecar” and “stoker” (the person who maneuvers the back half of a tandem bike) into the limelight, but no takers. I’m interested in the idea of a word divorced from HR language.

    • Maria says:

      I read your fabulous post on this last week — sorry I didn’t vote in your poll, but even after considering all the choices, I still haven’t found an option that does it for me! (Sidecar comes close, but I think it would make me feel even more like Robin and less like Batman than I do already.) I’m really starting to lean toward plain, unadorned “expatriate.” Maybe we could turn it into “expatriette”?

      • a.b. says:

        Unfortunately, not all of us are going out of the country!

        That’s a problem I’ve found in the blog world– it’s not just couples moving internationally that leave one spouse hanging. I’m most likely to make a domestic move, but that doesn’t mean I’m not still giving up my familiar space, friends and job. Yeah, I’ll speak the language and have no trouble working (hopefully) but it’s still not going to be easy.

      • Maria says:

        (lightbulb goes on) You’re absolutely right — I’m so hung up on my own relocation experiences, I didn’t even think about a term to encompass domestic movers as well as international ones. That makes the debate even thornier LOL! But hell yeah, the issues faced by both are almost identical: the themes of loneliness, isolation, resentment, discovery, etc. And even moving within the US (that behemoth!), you’re bound to experience loads of culture shock and even some language misunderstandings.

        Thanks for knocking some sense into me!

  7. Snowlines says:

    For fourteen years I packed my identity in my shipment but when I got to our new posting, it always seemed to be missing. The upside was, I could go and get a new one! Reinvention was the name of the game. I think that accompanying spouse is the best term for what we do. However, I did hear one male trailing spouse refer to himself as a ‘corporate handbag’ (always useful, always at your elbow). Oh, and as for the next man who says “when I’m reincarnated, I’d like to come back as an ex-pat wife” …! Do they even think that’s remotely funny?

  8. Tash says:

    Hi, I was in the midst of an identity crisis and thought why not hit the internet and see if I’m not alone. I’ve been in this lifestyle for 4 years now. 2 countries. Essentially gave up my career 2x; once before leaving my home and again when we had to leave the last country we lived in. I hate it when all of my personal accomplishments simply get erased everytime we move, simply because I am now the ‘spouse’/expat wife. I do not fit into the mould of the glitzy manicure-lunching wife. Tried it, bored the hell out of me. So, where do I belong? I’m sorry to say that generalisations are indeed ugly, but nevertheless, if we want more respect to being the ‘expat wife’ and change the perception we have to distance ourselves from the stereotype. Difficult -yes but necessary. I try to pour my energy into things that matter. And we all know how people react to ‘how difficult it is to be an expat’. No one is going to sympathise.

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