The Importance of Social Support for the Trailing Spouse

solitary woman in the midst of a busy crowdDriving home one morning, I realized I was talking to the car navigation system. As a psychologist, I was shocked by this experience. I had come to Tokyo as a trailing spouse two months before. Very excited about the opportunity to live abroad and highly interested in multicultural practices, I was ready to have the time of my life. Nonetheless, looking at my daily life, I realized that despite the many activities available, I often felt alone.

I needed to belong. I was missing my friends. I was ready to work, ready to volunteer, ready for a social structure of some sort. Fortunately, I was not alone. I began asking around. I asked friends; I asked acquaintances; I asked long-term expat spouses and veteran trailing spouses. Other people had talked to their GPS. Other people had gone to the store just to have some personal interaction. Other women were hanging out with their kids at the playground looking for adult interactions.

Everyone gave me leads to counteract my loneliness: join organizations, participate in volunteer groups, join interest groups, or sign up for art classes or Japanese lessons. Anything that would provide a structure to my day, that would give me an opportunity to connect to other human beings in the same time zone, to give some meaning to what would become my temporary life in Japan.

How do you find meaning in a life you might not have planned to have? What happens to our identity when we move abroad to a place where we have no history? What happens if we cannot make use of the skills we valued before?

In a new location, communicating might be a barrier because of language differences, working might not be possible because of lack of opportunities, parenting might be compromised because of insecurities … all these changes will lead us to question our identity. What would it take to develop an identity that is not dependent on the place we live, an identity that we can take with us to wherever we go next? The identity is often associated to the roles we play, the job we have, what we do each day. Therefore, for the expatriate employee the continuation of work in a different country provides a continuation of their identity and their sense of belonging.

For some, transitioning into a new or modified identity happens faster or more naturally, depending on their personal circumstances. For example, people who have a job they can take anywhere, are more open to uncertainty and to the new culture.

For the spouses, part of that identity is lost with the job they left behind and with the social structure in which they functioned. With the loss of identity often come thoughts or doubts about efficacy, self-worth, and life meaning. The negative thoughts are invariably accompanied by negative emotional reactions such as sadness, worry, anxiety, frustration, dissatisfaction, and hopelessness. For some, transitioning into a new or modified identity happens faster or more naturally, depending on their personal circumstances. For example, people who have a job they can take anywhere, are more open to uncertainty and to the new culture, have had more time to prepare before the move, and/or received plenty of support afterwards are all likely to transition more easily.

Nonetheless, for others the process of reinventing themselves and defining a new identity might be uncertain and longer. Much research has been done to highlight the importance of social support in the area of psychological adjustment to life events. Social support has been commonly found to be a protective factor in the prevention of psychopathology, as well as for the emotional recovery in times of crisis. In some societies, the social networks are readily available. Some typical sources of social support are: close physical and emotional relationships with family, reliable networks of friends in the area, or access to community support from schools, work, religious organizations, or clinics.

One of the most relevant sources of stress for expatriate families is the loss of support from family and friends and the loss of a community. Until a new network is formed, the expatriate family can only rely on each other for support—that is, husband, wife, and children. At times, the expatriate employee does much of the support for the spouse and children—in some cases, to the detriment of their productivity or focus at work. At different times, a wife provides support, for a husband overwhelmed with work demands and for the children adjusting to school, without an outlet for her own emotional struggle.

Trailing spouses are often perceived as being in a privilege conditions because they may not have to work for the financial stability of the family. However, the loss of meaning and identity in their life is often overlooked and misinterpreted by their apparently adaptive functioning. For example, a spouse can be involved and productive in a variety of volunteer activities, but feel alone and dissatisfied when not busy. Also, a spouse may feel inadequate if his or her child, who is the focus of attention for most of the day, is having trouble at school or becomes more independent in the new environment.

Based on the existing research and stories of expatriates’ experiences, the creation of a social support network for a newly arrived trailing spouse should be a priority for successful adjustment. As part of the tasks involved in relocation, spouses should consider searching for groups and friends as soon as possible. In Japan, many institutions and programs exist to address this need. People have the opportunity to belong to interest groups, parent-teacher associations, charity organizations, groups associated with religious institutions, and others. Also, schools and companies have encouraged the creation of programs to integrate the newly arrived family, such as peer helpers or “neighbor-to-neighbor.”

In some cases, the services of relocation agencies have expanded to address the needs and questions of families even months after relocation. The advice for the newly arrived and even for the not-so-new who are feeling lonely is simple: Find social support for yourself, and offer your support to others around you.

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Patricia Jaegerman, PsyD

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Elena

    November 26th, 2013 at 4:18 PM

    You always think that as an expat, especially one who moves for work purposes, that the employers will have plenty of ways for the families to get to know others and become a little better integrated into their new communities but I guess it doesn’t always work out that way. It must be intimidating to try to get involved in new things if you don’t even know where to begin!

  • Janna

    November 27th, 2013 at 4:49 AM

    I think that intuitively these are all things that we know, find a support group or something to get involved with so that you create this support system for yourself. But I also think that most of us know that it isn’t always that easy, that it can often be intimidated to get involved in something new especially in cases like this when there could always be a serious cultural or even language barrier to overcome.

    However with all of that being said, it is best to get out and experience the newness of the life that you are now living. Trying to not be depressed about the things that you could be missing at home is not the way to go. Immerse yourself in the possibilities of your new life and think about all of the new and wonderful things that you now have the chance to experience.

  • mike and larissa devente

    November 27th, 2013 at 6:58 AM

    Well said Patricia! Larissa and I read this together and related to your observations. Only one problem: I still talk to my GPS!! (-:

    Happy thanksgiving to you and family.

  • PT

    November 27th, 2013 at 11:00 AM

    Wow I never thought about these aspects of being an expat or an expat family.Always imagined expats’ lives as one that is constantly ‘on the move’ with money rolling in and things being absolutely perfect.the grass is always greener on the other side I guess,especially if it is far enough to need a GPS!

  • Grayson

    November 29th, 2013 at 10:51 AM

    I agree with PT. Alsways thought this would be so exotic and luxurious and spontaneously exciting that I hadn’t really thought about the difficulties of carving out a new life possibly so different from the one that you knew at home.

  • lila

    November 30th, 2013 at 7:27 AM

    I have enough times here at home when I feel like I talk to myself or the GPS… I don’t need to move overseas to feel even more isolated than I do.

  • Stet

    December 2nd, 2013 at 4:56 AM

    I am in kind of a different situation than what you would normally expect, because we moved for my wife’s job so now I am the stay at home parent but in a whole new country. It has taken a little getting used to but I am so happy for the opportunity for her and really for the whole family that I have never looked at this in a negative light. We have other families helping us out with some of the language issues and the kids are all making new friends so seeing that everyone is adjusting makes me feel good and confident that we have made the right decision.

  • helena d

    December 3rd, 2013 at 4:53 AM

    lots of care packages from home always make your loved ones feel better!

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