Updated: Aug 4
Years have passed since the introduction of the term trailing spouse in a 1987 New York Times article. Since then, many other labels have followed, including expat partner or expat spouse.
These denominations attempt to find a better way to define the conditions and struggles from an individual’s international move to assist their husband or wife in a "once-in-a-lifetime" career opportunity.
Though, after 33 years of using a tag to refer to the struggles of living abroad, we still don't clearly understand if the circumstances are easing up. It is time to question whether these labels help in explaining our current condition or, on the contrary, hurts us?
Is it difficult to live abroad?
Moving to a new country for the long-term is challenging. All of us who have experienced it can give excellent examples related to the struggles adapting to a new environment. However, we can only speak from one perspective which is our experience; so when we say it is challenging, we need to ask ourselves: in comparison to what? And if so, why do people do it? Does life brighten up or become more interesting? Well, that depends.
Cesare Pavese (1908-1950) the novelist, state through his work:
"Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things: air, sleep, dreams, sea, the sky - all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it."
Photo by QIQI WU on Unsplash
Living abroad tests your ability to adapt to a new environment and accept diversity within your community. The confusion and emotional discomfort from culture shock can generate a negative impact; among its most significant symptoms are depression, anxiety, and feelings of helplessness (Xia, J. 2009).
Although foreigners will still have to endure the adaptation process described by Pavese in the mid-1900s, information, technology, and communication are easing the hurdles being faced. Therefore, people who are considering an expat move can take advantage of what wasn’t available years ago. Within reach of one click, we can browse data, have access to experts or professionals, a supporting community, or at least find the nearest embassy. It is easier to live abroad depending on your ability to adapt and ask for information when needed.
Is life abroad more exhausting for trailing spouses?
For trailing spouses, the weariness might intensify. Whether we believe it is a sacrifice or not, the accompanying spouse has, in some cases, to build a new life exclusively to accommodate their partner's professional success. The complications increase even more when referring to dual-career couples. Which means one of them might quit their job, change career, or go over a distressing work visa process, among other trials.
There is a significant imbalance between the foreigner who received a job offer and his/her accompanying partner, which relates to having stable personal and social support (job-safety needs and family-love and belonging). They are what gives a person meaning and contentment throughout the acclimatization. When the meaning of settling overseas is to support one's partner, it is easy to lose your sense of purpose and identity.
Even though, as an expat spouse we recognize the importance and desire to stay as a family. It does not mean we are okay with sacrificing our career, individuality, or personal satisfaction. Can't we have it all?
Then, how can the label mortify oneself?
After years of in-depth research, brain scans, behavioral studies, and neuroscience, experts can now easily explain the links between our thoughts, mental health, and even long term behavioral development. In its research, the neuroscientist, Dr. Joe Dispenza, explains:
“In fact, the thoughts you are embracing will become just like a real life experience in your mind. The moment this occurs, your brain up-scales its hardware to reflect what you’re imaging and intentionally thinking about. Consequently when you change your mind, you change your brain, and when you change your brain, you change your mind”.
But what does this mean, when we are trapped in a negative thinking pattern? When we focus our full attention on all the things we do not have because of the trailing spouse limitations? The reality is that our brains and bodies are wired to adopt the type of thinking you feed them. Our brains do not have the moral capacity to tell us, “do not do that, because it is not good for your mental health”. Instead, your mind will process the thoughts regardless of the consequences.
The reality is that your body responds to every single thought you have, and in the long term your brain adapts to those thoughts. Are they helping you or are they hurting you? As an example, let’s review the standard definition for trailing: "draw or be drawn along the ground or other surface behind someone or something." Is hard to even imagine when using such a label will benefit someone’s situation.
We can set a similar example when defining yourself even as an expat spouse. As it leaves out all of the other fascinating and unique traits that characterize you. There is nothing wrong with explaining a situation with a definition that already exists. You are indeed an expat spouse. However, when we are figuring out our identity in a new environment, we are particularly vulnerable to the negative traits and limitations exposed by the expat spouse condition.
The sacrifices we made for our families after accepting to move abroad are noble, although lingering as a victim for the rest of the journey will not serve us. On most occasions, we cling to these events even unconsciously—and due to this reason, after focusing on a negative thought, we can no longer differentiate what was circumstantial and what is a representation of our identity.
In another research that analyzes negative thoughts, Gillham J. and Seligman M. (1999), describes the cost associated with victimology as reducing our sense of power or control. "By ignoring our own contributions to problems, we fail to change our own behavior and increase the likelihood that similar problems will occur again in the future. Ultimately, we decrease our own wellbeing"
Though Thriving Aliens is now using the term expat spouse or expat wife among others, we encourage our community to use the tag only to find information that can support you through the experience. Information that can enable individuals to overcome the struggles, but not fall in the trap of using it as one's selfhood.
Regardless of the reason that brought you to a distinct period, leaving your comfort zone will defy you. Life is filled with different facets, and in it, you have the freedom to decide what to accept, nourish, or clear off.
"Travel doesn't become adventure until you leave yourself behind." - Marty Rubin
A proposal to all the expat wives. From an expat wife.
When we were designing what type of community Thriving Aliens should look like, we knew that we were wives and that we moved abroad because our husbands had to. Yet, most importantly, we knew we were women capable of achieving astounding goals.
Therefore we choose the craziest, freest tag we could. The term alien, using it wisely, rather than make us feel extraterrestrial in the new country—it helps us to embrace the beauty of a unique identity and recognize all the skills and qualities that we can add to our new community. On some occasions imagining that we do come from afar away galaxy serves as well. We can try the same practice with the term "expat", but not with "spouse." As the later expression tends to limit your identity only to your role in marriage.
We did not lose our identity but have the opportunity to make it evolve.
Living abroad has proven to enhance a sharp sense of oneself and clear career decisions. "When people live in their home country, they are often surrounded by others who mostly behave in similar ways, so they are not compelled to question whether their own behaviors reflect their core values or the values of the culture in which they are embedded" Adam H. Et Al (2018). Understanding this perspective is crucial since most of the foreigners feel they are struggling, where in fact they are perfectioning their identity through a better sense of oneself.
Therefore, we encourage you to stop living in the past or waiting for a better future. What life puts us through and what we have achieved was worth it. What the future holds is uncertain, and ruminating about it distracts us from seeing what we already have. We will always want more; therefore, let's enjoy and embrace this process called life.
Through the Thriving Alien community, we hope that you can apply a kind practice to yourself. Here, we invite you to embrace your individuality but at the same time challenge yourself to become what you are yearning—a version who harmonizes your definition of women and the power of the human essence.
We are not alone, and together we can empower others.