Bored and Withdrawn? It’s Trailing Spouse Syndrome!


The term Trailing Spouse is commonly applied to someone who joins their partner in a move abroad without having secured suitable employment in the new location. Expats frequently refer to “Trailing Spouse Syndrome”, which is a state of stress and discontent that can occur when the trailing spouse feels unfulfilled and lacking in direction. Whilst some individuals may feel excited at the prospect of swapping busy, successful careers for a relaxing life in the sun, many of them find that the reality is somewhat different, and they can begin to feel bored and withdrawn.

I read this paragraph today while on one of my interminable trawls though the internet in search of helpful articles for those circumnavigating the world slowly. Boy, did I laugh. It was the way they used the line “swapping a busy, successful career for a life in the sun” in close proximity to “bored and withdrawn”. What a miserable, ungrateful bunch we sound.

Now to be fair, everywhere I lived has had sun, so I can’t argue with that bit. Kenya had sun, so much so that we had a number of catastrophic droughts while we were there. However, it became apparent that the relaxing bit was probably not going to happen when on pre-assignment briefing, the words “be aware” were repeated often, usually in the context of avoiding everything from carjackings to robberies to animal attacks.

This was reiterated when I was ushered in for my ceremonial visit to the Other Half’s new workplace. The HR manager, on discovering my aversion to being car-jacked, was quick to reassure me. Apparently, the man in the cubby next to us had been car-jacked only the previous week; he was locked into the boot of his car and driven around for two hours, but was released unharmed at the end. So I needn’t worry: “All’s well that ends well”, and what more could I want? As for the children, the school bus had an armed escort, and they regularly did “Duck and Cover” drills in case of invasion, so no problems there. And the nest of cobras found behind the bookshelf in the kindergarten classroom was dealt with after a school wide evacuation. I may have wanted to withdraw at times, but I was most definitely not bored..

So here is my own definition of a Trailing Spouse, with a respectful nod to those I have met along the way.

The term Trailing Spouse is commonly applied to those misguided individuals who believed it when they were told that they would have a new adventure with their partner and family, in exotic locations. The term partner is then promptly abandoned, as once the landing gear hits the tarmac, the Other Half is immediately consumed by their new role, and so unavailable for consultation, unpacking, medical emergencies or transportation. At this point, the TS is left with the task of establishing a home, contracting utility supplies, finding schooling, establishing medical care, purchasing necessary supplies, comforting hysterical children and removing ticks from the pets, all without a single word of Urdu / Swahili / Mandarin / Finnish, and no support network. They endeavor to remain sane, cheerful, appropriately dressed and smiling in the face of constant social gaffes, in an unfamiliar culture and against a backdrop envious comments from ill-informed individuals who assume all you do all day is go out for lunch. They have the ability to conjure birthday cakes, a social network and security forces out of thin air, and are excellent in a crisis, many of which are as a result of misguided attempts to ‘get a life’. They may have moved around the world, or around the corner, but they are they hit the ground running when they would often rather hit the road home. They are both women and men, from all races and religions, and appear in all corners of the world offering help, humor and interim household supplies. THEY are the Trailing Spouses.





12 thoughts on “Bored and Withdrawn? It’s Trailing Spouse Syndrome!”

  1. Just read the first page and I love it, will be signing up! I am one of the above-mentioned TS’s and get very tired of the general assumption that we just do nothing all day. Relocating and re-establishing a life with three kids takes, guts (to agree to it in the first place), stamina (to keep it together through the culture-shock stage) and determination (to stay positive and unshakable in the face of constant setback and adjustment).
    At one point, what got me through the day was hoping my husband would come home with “good news” in the evening, something positive that would alleviate the struggle a little. It would only happen once in a blue moon but the hope was what got me through the day sometimes.

  2. “Relaxing life in the sun”?? More like “daily existential crisis”! I live in Australia where it is also very sunny but it hasn’t seemed to create the life I left behind in the US. Sunshine is no substitute for those caring souls left behind when leaving on an expat assignment. I am also a TS but I am lucky in that I can work (albeit in a role that is junior to the role I left behind in my previous life). I don’t really care about “relaxing in the sun” – I didn’t spend all those years in uni for my health!!!!
    Enjoyed your definition MUCH better as it pretty much summed up my experience so far!
    Thanks for the information and the website!

    1. Thanks Laurie! So glad you liked the website – I sometimes feel it turns into a bit of a personal rant / therapy to keep me sane!

  3. Love this! Our move was Australia to US with two preschoolers – three years ago, but still fresh in my mind.
    We did lots of things in the worst possible way, but it’s been such a positive step for our family.

    I agree that you have to set expectations of WHY you’re moving in the beginning – because you need a mantra on the days of everything going wrong.

  4. Haha! Hilarious because it is so true!! I am having a very ungrateful day too here in my sixth year in China. I have stories just like your “all’s well that ends well” except instead of carjacking and school children kidnapping it was usually about car crashes, near fatal food poisoning and husband-stealing prostitutes. Ah, expat life! It is great to have a laugh about it on days when I am feeling so annoyed but know that I am incredibly blessed. The one thing that is hardest for me is the BOREDOM. It just can’t stay exotic and exciting for 6 years. It becomes lonely, tedious and isolating.

    1. Why am I irresistibly drawn to any story which bears the title “husband stealing prostitutes’.. I am conjuring up the mental image of groups of women in brightly colored miniskirts toting hapless men rolled up in carpets.
      Sorry about the boredom – might I offer you the parenting challenges of a teenage son to spice up your day? Probably not the solution you were hoping for, but anything to prevent you taking up scrapbooking or watching endless YouTube videos of piano playing kittens. I speak from experience.

  5. I can relate to your article. I’m a trailing spouse of a Belgian citizen and I already live 7 years abroad. Until now I still have days when I feel sad, uncontented, withdrawn, homesick. I left my family, friends and a good job for a better future specially for our kids. I did everything to be able to adjust easily I learned the language, learned to drive since public transport in the Flemmish side of Belgium is not good. I was able to find a job as designer but after 3 and a half year it was bankrupt. And because we don’t live in the city it’s not easy to find a new work as a designer. So i decided to try working a sales person for a big clothing company but after working for almost 2 years of proof period. With a pain in the ass and discriminating boss and her assistant I’m afraid I’m going to loose the job that I have been working hard for. She’s by the way my 4th boss in 2 years. The first 3 bosses were contented about me. So now I’m really sad and mad. I feel like a big looser and a victim. But after all complaints to the head office they seem to choose my boss’ side. Because I still don’t have a regular contract I’m just a number for them they can easily replace. That’s my experience so far as a trailing spouse who is trying to find her success abroad. Its sad. But I have a loving supportive husband. And i believe in Karma. I believe that i will also find my success when it comes to career. Or maybe have my small business where i can use my creativity. So to all trailing spouses out there: Always look on the bright side of life 🙂

  6. I will become a trailing spouse in about 3 weeks, for the first time in my life. I have never been overseas before. it is so overwhelming and everyone keeps saying what a great opportunity it is. I am not allowed to work so they all think it will be the holiday of a lifetime. as it gets closer to the big day, the more apprehensive I get. I am leaving a good job, family and friends. My husband has his role mapped out, so he is absolutely no use. I’ve been searching up and down for tips on being an expat and finally I found your blog and it’s just the bit of laughter I needed right now!

  7. I read the article and all of the responses and I just want to say thank you for putting into words what I have been feeling for the past 2 years. I didn’t know there was actually a syndrome called “The Trailing Spouse”. I can’t wait for my husband to read this because he hasn’t been able to understand what I have been feeling.

  8. I am 4 months into China. I have been an expat wife in UK (He is English.. if that still counts?. I hate it here in China! I like the ” in an unfamiliar culture and against a backdrop envious comments from ill-informed individuals”. So true, they have no idea the sacrifices that are made. I’ve lost my independence and identity here. I love living overseas, but I will never come back to China.

  9. Hello,
    I found your blog by searching trailing spouse’s depression, boredom and loss of identity in google search bar:-) I see I am not alone. Thought I was going crazy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *