Driving 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.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.
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