Identity loss – struggles of a trailing spouse

There is something wonderful and exotic about international expatriate life. However, research indicates that reality is far from ideal. Expats are 2.5 times more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety compared to those remaining in their home countries.

When expatriates arrive in a host country they are shaken by new surroundings, culture, language, the amount of set-up and administrative issues. On top of it, new work assignments, meeting new colleagues, long and unusual working hours fill up their days.

Trailing spouses wrestle with completely opposite challenge – boredom, loneliness, lack of direction, frustration, and feeling like a single parent. According to statistics, only 12% of trailing spouses are able to find a job in the host country. More than 80% of them have a university degree.
Lack of social contacts and meaningful participation in the society challenges basic psychological needs of trailing partners. They lack opportunities to fulfill their social needs, like companionship, group cohesion and a sense of belonging. They struggle with overdoses of free time, and limited possibilities to fill it in. Their personal identity and status is limited to being a partner of a company employee.
All this, strips you of important source of sense of meaning, purpose, and self-worth. As a consequence, you have to fit or craft a new life, prove to yourself who you are and who you want to be. If you do not find a way this can lead to depression and anxiety which in turn can lead to other problems, such as marital tension and substance abuse.

Finding something meaningful to do is crucial in this situation. Try to engage in activities that provide you with pleasure and help you grow intellectually, spiritually, or physically. Think about hobbies you have always wanted to try, personal goals such as fitness or further study. Volunteering, which is widespread in the Netherlands, offers many of the emotional benefits of having a job.
Try to define yourself in terms of your experiences than in terms of a job or a partner of an expatriate. I’m not only a wife of a Chief Executive Officer, but yoga practitioner, mom of two, cooking expert, etc. Or, I am not a Marketing manager, but all the other experiences that I have, make me so much better than that.
Work with your negative thoughts. Develop a positive response to counter negative thoughts that stop you from moving forward. Instead of thinking that it is very difficult to be a trailing spouse, focus on embracing new opportunities to grow, possibilities to learn the language, and to explore new culture.

Seek help from others if you feel unwell. Talk with your partner, friends at home; get connected to other trailing spouses living in a region and struggling with similar challenges. If all this does not help, do not hesitate to seek professional support.

Lina Butkute, expat psychologist.

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