supporting trailing spouses
I Am An Expat, My Expat Life, Thoughts on Language And Culture

How Can Husbands Support Trailing Spouses?

supporting trailing spouses

I sometimes get emails or Facebook messages from my readers and I can’t tell you how happy I am when that happens. I am especially honoured and touched when you turn to me for advice. This particular post was inspired by a reader question and the post “7 Secrets of Trailing Spouses”, which in fact aren’t really secrets.

There is a lot of information for trailing spouses out there. But one, very important part of their support group is completely left out: their partners. The very reason they left their careers and their home countries. Maybe this is why my reader contacted me and asked for advice: not only was he a new expat, but also all the advice out there was meant either for men (at their workplace), or for women (through expat support groups, playgroups, etc.), but not for couples.

While the majority of trailing spouses are male, this isn’t about being a wife, a husband, a woman or a man. This is about trailing spouses getting the support they need. This is about couples supporting each other. What I wrote here, you can apply to your situation, wherever you are a female or a male trailing spouse, his or her partner. Some of this advice also applies to non-expat couples.

So how can husbands support trailing spouses? Here are some tips:

1) Learn about culture shock and its stages: honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and mastery. You can’t prevent them, but you can make them easier- for you and your wife. Being informed about these stages will help you understand why your wife is upset- and remember that you don’t have to go through these stages all at once. They don’t have to follow one after the other, and sometimes you can be at a different stage than your wife, so keep that in mind. Try also not to overestimate culture shock- for example, when I arrived in the Netherlands, I just had a baby 6 weeks ago, haven’t slept for ages, had to figure out how this baby works. I considered moving finally finding my freedom, and instead of getting worse- as it should be after the honeymoon stage, they got better because my daughter slept better.I don’t think I followed these stages, but rather my well-being coincided with my feeling whether what I was doing worked for my child or not.

2) Introduce her to your friends and colleagues: they may be the first friends she’ll make in her new country, and may answer her questions and provide different perspectives. Another good idea is to check out expat organizations, parent groups, and meetings your wife may attend to- that way you will get to know her friends- and she may make friends for herself. Additionally, if you’re staying in your country, let her be a part of your support system, but let her have the say in who can help her and how.

3) Listen and support her decisions to her. I know that having a career in another country can be hard but please make the room to listen to your wife. You don’t need to know everything or provide all the answers. Just be there and listen. Support her decisions whether to work- full or part-time, or stay at home- if your finances allow that. Help out with parenting and household chores.

4) Go back to see family in your wife’s country- and let her family stay with you if possible. I can’t tell you how happy I am when my parents and my brother come to visit, or when we go back to Poland. It helps me get even a little taste of my home country; my children get a chance to speak more Polish. It is perfect. My husband is very supportive of this and I can’t tell you how much that helps me when I am feeling homesick.

5) Create your own family culture. It will probably a mixture of all the elements from your respective cultures and maybe some element from your new home, but it will be uniquely and specifically, your own. That means it will be something that will bring you together as a family, and will make you feel special.

6) Find a good work-family balance. While it is usually the male partner who works and the female partner who stays at home, I believe that a healthy work-life-family balance is important for men, too. This balance, however has various meanings for various families. In my case, my husband works long hours sometimes, and I stay at home. But I know expat men who work from home, or double-income families. Each one needs to find their own balance.

7) Do things together, but have your own lives, too. Go out on dates (with or without the children), watch movies or TV series, talk. It doesn’t have to be super fancy. Just make time for yourselves as a couple. Celebrate birthdays, anniversaries or whatever you feel like celebrating. It doesn’t matter. Just remember that spending time apart from each other is important as well.

8) If anything else fails, try counselling as a couple. Being an expat can put a strain on a marriage, especially if one of the partners gives up (mostly) her job to be with the other. Also, the lack of a support system is also hard to deal with for most couples. Additionally, if there are expatriation services, they are mostly tailored towards the working husband or the trailing spouse, but not for the couple. Luckily, expats now have a wide variety of counsellors to choose from, especially in countries with a vibrant expat community such as the Netherlands.

9)  Be aware of cultural relationships but try not to overestimate them. Of course, if you’re from two different countries and cultures, there may be more risk for miscommunication, cultural misunderstandings or issues. Be aware of them. However, sometimes things we consider cultural are actually a matter of character, differing opinions, different parenting philosophies, or other reasons. So don’t explain everything away by cultural differences, as you may be more inclined to mention stereotypes instead of looking for the real reason why something happened.

I hope these tips were helpful. What are the ways you support your spouse? How would you like to be supported?

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  • Reply Ace CB @ Life in Dutch February 10, 2014 at 10:07 am

    I think that #3 can’t be emphasized enough. Sometimes when our partners are struggling, it’s tempting to try to “fix” the problem right away (offering solutions, pointing out the positives, etc.) but sometimes what your partner really needs is just an outlet for a few minutes. Even if the situation can be “fixed,” feeling like you’re frustrations have been given a fair chance to air is sometimes the first step to the solution.
    I’m still navigating the role of the trailing spouse – and some days it’s easier than others. But having that chance to let my concerns get into the open after being bottled up can make the world of difference after a bad day.
    Thanks for a wonderful post, Olga!
    Ace CB @ Life in Dutch recently posted…De Overblijfmoeder: The AftermathMy Profile

    • Reply European Mama February 10, 2014 at 10:14 am

      Thank you, Ace CB! I agree- sometimes all we need is someone to listen.

  • Reply Ute (expatsincebirth) February 10, 2014 at 10:27 am

    I agree with all the points you’re mentioning here, Olga. As you know, this is a topic that is very important for me. In fact, I’m offering support for expats and trailing spouses (male and female) in one-on-one sessions and am organising talks and workshops about this (I’m setting up a webpage with my business right now ;-)).
    I think the main reason why the support from the partner doesn’t show in these studies you mention is, because they often are in the “adaptation” phase too: the new working place, new collegues, often new language, trainings, meetings and many of them have to travel a lot; maybe they have a probation period and are under a lot of stress… The “trailing spouses” often tend to protect their partners by not telling them exactly and overtly what is bothering them, what they’re going through. This is a delicate situation for a couple and a family.
    It’s interesting what you’re saying at §4, but this wouldn’t have helped me at all. I did already live in another country than my whole family for more than 20 years, so I didn’t need the support from my family. What would have helped me more? A the carreer-support from former workgivers or from support groups here. After 20 years of working in different countries and positions, I suddenly ended up as a stay at home mum. Having to reinvent myself from scratch at age “almost 40” was the hardest thing to do. – I warmly recommend the book from Jo Parfitt and Colleen Reichrath-Smith “Career in your suitcase” for those who are in a similar situation.
    Ute (expatsincebirth) recently posted…Giving the classroom a good VAK (a brief introduction to the VAK model of Learning Styles)My Profile

    • Reply European Mama February 10, 2014 at 8:54 pm

      Hi Ute, thank you for sharing your perspective. I was trying to write my post from a point of view of someone who is new to a country- not an experineced expat like yourself. I too have lived in another country but still love going back to Poland once in a while. And thank you for your important point, I will in fact re-write my post to add your perspective- I seriously underestimate the importance of communication!

  • Reply Mrs. Chasing the Donkey February 10, 2014 at 9:43 pm

    Ohhh how I wish it that easy for me. In my case there is no husband to help with making friends as he is hardly home and works abroad. BUT I know many people who could benefit from this advice. MANY thanks Olga for sharing such great tips.
    Mrs. Chasing the Donkey recently posted…Croatian cures you need to know!My Profile

    • Reply European Mama February 11, 2014 at 8:55 am

      Hi SJ, thank you for your comment. It must be hard in your situation! I only was in a similar situation for a while (and most of the time the baby was in my belly- but it was oh so hard. I can’t even imagine how it must be for you.

  • Reply Gran Canaria Local February 13, 2014 at 12:12 am

    Mr Gran Canaria Local’s a trailing husband. Yet this advice would have been useful for him on arrival. All except number 2. That didn’t work well at all.
    Gran Canaria Local recently posted…Casita NubloMy Profile

  • Reply Ariadne - Positive Parenting Connection February 20, 2014 at 3:11 pm

    You made some very good points in here Olga. It can be tough for couples to adjust to a new expat situation, the best advice I got from someone before I moved to a new country was “make a list of all the things you love about your relationship and look at that list when things get tough” it’s hard to remember the good times when you deal daily with cultural and language issues until adjustment kicks in!
    Ariadne – Positive Parenting Connection recently posted…Comment on The Words to Say When Children are Disappointed by Sherry WoodruffMy Profile

    • Reply European Mama February 21, 2014 at 7:59 am

      Thank you, Ariadne! I love the advice you got-and looking forward to your guest post!

  • Reply Cecilia Neher April 11, 2014 at 3:24 pm

    It s such a difficult balance for couples, specially if you have small kids “trailing” with you… This is very good advice, although sometimes our partners are so focused on finding their way in their new post that we feel guilty of burdening him or her with “our problems”… which by the way, are usually the family’s problem…
    Sometimes, it is us, the “trailing” part of the couple (by the way, I prefer to call it “expat partner”) who need to feel more empowered to be assertive…
    Cecilia Neher recently posted…Trailing Spouse vs Expat… Spouse?…. Partner?My Profile

    • Reply Olga Mecking April 12, 2014 at 10:16 am

      Hi Cecilia, thank you for commenting! I watched your video about trailing spouse vs accompanying partner or even better expat partner- and I agree partners often want to protect us rather than work together to solve the problems.

  • Reply 8 Ways To Help Children Adjust To A New Country June 2, 2014 at 8:58 am

    […] my post on helping trailing spouses, I am very happy to shar ethis post by Ariadne Brill of the Positive Parenting Connection. I love […]

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