A hundred years ago, expatriate roles were clearly defined: the husband moved to a foreign country to advance his career, and the wife “trailed” behind the husband. Despite a substantial shift in the status of women over the years, this scenario is not uncommon today. However, the rise of dual-career couples and a slow but steady blurring of traditional gender roles have led to the establishment of a new player in the expat game: the male trailing spouse.
The results of a 2009 survey by Brookfield Global Relocation Services indicated that 20% of expatriate managers were women. Although that number fell slightly in the 2010 report, the trend of sending senior female employees on international assignments is expected to increase. The male trailing spouse, it would seem, is here to stay.
What are the challenges facing the male trailing spouse? In many ways, they’re the same ones his female counterparts have always grappled with: culture shock, isolation, language barriers, loneliness. (Plus, of course, the mammoth task of getting a household up and running while facilitating the kids’ adjustment in addition to her own.)
The male trailing spouse, however, has the added complication of challenging gender stereotypes that are still firmly entrenched in many parts of the world. This requires an adjustment on the part of the spouse and family, as well as society in the home and host countries. As Anne Hendershott writes in Psychology Today, “men may be worse off as trailing spouses…because they are charting new territory, with no cultural means of support.”
Echoing the plight of the female trailing spouse, the situation is even more fraught for men who have forfeited their own careers to move abroad for the sake of their partners. They must contend with a double dose of culture shock, adapting to both a new country and an unfamiliar societal role. Hendershott describes this process as a battle in two parts: “first an internal war with culturally prescribed roles, then an external clash with those who strike against people who break the rules.”
A threat to masculinity?
Depending on existing norms in the home and host cultures, such a clash is almost inevitable. Rare is the male trailing spouse whose masculinity isn’t called into question at some point in his expat life. Whether or not he himself feels threatened by relinquishing the conventional male role depends on how he defines masculinity in the first place, according to psychologist Aaron Rochlen. The University of Texas associate professor, who studies stay-at-home dads, writes on his website that “these men are helping shift the idea of men from ‘financial provider/breadwinner’ to doing what’s needed for the family.”
One of those men is JB, who became a good friend when we met at our kids’ school in Singapore. JB recently returned to his native Australia with his wife Deb and their kids, after eight years as a trailing spouse. During a recent Skype chat, he laughed at the idea that assuming a non-traditional role made him less of a man. “That’s only a problem when the male ego gets in the way,” he said. “I find it rather disturbing that people can’t see through their egos.”
JB bridged the gender divide with ease in Singapore. At coffee mornings he was the only man in a sea of expat women, but rather than being ostracized, he was warmly welcomed into the fold. He even managed to integrate smoothly into the “inner circle” (his term) of expat moms at the school. “I always felt very much a part of the group,” he said.
He learned to take negative reactions from other men in stride. “They think it’s an easy job. Like most things in life, the reality is totally different. Anyway,” he adds, “a lot of men just want to tell you how much money they earn, and I’m not really interested. The women were a lot more fun.”
Good for the kids
Rochlen sees trailblazers like JB as role models. Not only does an involved father contribute significantly to his children’s lives, he writes, but “these men are demonstrating that considerable shifts in one’s identity, roles and responsibilities can be a good thing for their own well-being and commitment to their families.”
JB couldn’t agree more, and he wouldn’t have changed his trailing spouse status for anything. “We did what was best for us and for our family,” he stresses. “Making sure the kids were all right was our number one priority. Deb’s work was also important; her career advancement, the opportunities for travel. It worked out very well. If we both had a job, it would have been a whole different story.”