A Trailing Spouse By Any Other Name

vintage travel 10Trailing spouse. It’s a term most expats are familiar with and many, including myself, use it for lack of a better alternative. A recent post by a fellow expat caused me to re-explore my feelings about the term and truth be told, the more I think about it, the less I like it.

If I was on the fence before, her vivid description of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of a shoe made me come down firmly on the side of dislike. Because in a nutshell, trailing spouse has the  implication of someone following behind and picking up all the debris and crud the person in front of dropped along the way.

The last person in a race trails. Burning exhaust fumes trail. A caboose trails. Spouses shouldn’t trail. Who wants to be compared to a caboose toot tootling along behind the shiny diesel engine?

More than insinuation or semantics, what bothers me most about the term is that it doesn’t take into consideration what the non-working partner of an expat actually does do.

As a trailing spouse, it means that from 9-5, my husband is able to focus solely on his job and his career. As a trailing spouse, it means school is never going to call him in the middle of a meeting and ask him to come and pick up the one kid who has nits or the other who just puked all over the teacher. As a trailing spouse I am there to soften the blow of an international move. As a trailing spouse, I learn the lay of the land, get things set up and keep all the day-to-day stuff oiled and running.

For the working spouse, think about what this means in terms of productivity, in terms of career placement and advancement, in terms of availability. As a trailing spouse it means when my husband needs to work late, he can do so without worrying there’s no one home when the kids need help with their homework. As a trailing spouse when my husband is told he needs to go away on business, he doesn’t have to clear it with the school schedule or vaccination appointments and birthday party obligations. He packs his carry-on and off he goes.

I’m not insinuating that working expats have it easy, not at all; but working expats who have a non-working spouse, the one typically referred to as trailing, have a cushion which allows them the freedom to focus.


Being a trailing spouse sounds an awful lot like being a stay-at-home-parent and it’s true, the family with a stay at home parent reaps many of the same benefits. But there is one huge difference when you’re doing it as an expat.

As a trailing spouse, when my husband’s job says jump, I call the shipping company, pack the boxes, and we jump. Having a non-working spouse as an expat means you are free to advance to Go, collect your $200 and set up shop in the next location. It means if they want you on Mayfair, you move to Mayfair. If they want you on Boardwalk, you take a chance and roll the dice and off you go. Not having to factor in a second career so you can move around the world in eighty days is a big thing.

Before we left the US seven years ago, I was working. I was earning, but I wasn’t working toward a career. If I had been, chances are we would never have accepted the offer to move. By doing so, I sealed my fate for a few years, BUT….I also shored up the foundation on which my spouse was building his career.

Being a trailing spouse does not mean I am a nothing but a cheerleader for my husband’s job. It doesn’t mean I’m selling myself short or prostrating myself to further his career aspirations. It doesn’t mean I’ve shackled myself to his job to keep myself in some sort of lady of the manor way. I’m not picking up after him, following him around and making sure he has clean underwear on in case he has an accident. For now my being home as a trailing spouse allows him the freedom to advance his career, a move which benefits not only him, but our family as a whole.

We are a partnership. I’m not a tag-a-long. I’m not an afterthought.

Far from trailing, I’d argue I’m more of a foundation spouse. A vertebrae spouse. I firm up the family with a solid baseline. I make sure the whole structure isn’t going to come crashing down on us all at any given moment. I do all the systems checks and the maintenance to make sure it’s not just a house of cards, but a home.

I’m not a caboose.

I’m a spouse. I’m a partner.

suitcasesEven the term accompanying spouse still denotes tagging along for the ride, not pulling your own weight.

We are so much more that. We are the ballast on the other side of the scale.

So, until we can think of a better term which accurately encompasses all that a non-working expat spouse allows and does, how about we just say spouse?





22 thoughts on “A Trailing Spouse By Any Other Name

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  1. Ugh.

    Paul, my boss in Geneva (who had a vertebrae spouse) told me of a noted TB researcher when I announced that we were returning to the States. “He was being chased out of Egypt,” Paul told me. “He left a note for his wife: ‘Pay, Pack and Follow.” My husband was nicer, but the message was still the same.



    1. I think that is really the only difference between a non-working expat spouse (and probably some who DO work as well) and a stay at home parent. But it’s a doozy of a difference. Pay, pack and follow. Can you imagine???

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Just spouse. Working, non-working or otherwise. Honestly, moving into an “international” environment made me think that parts of this “trailblazing” community was stuck somewhere in the last century based on some attitudes and behaviours. Fortunately not our immediate chums though.


    1. Now that is a topic for another post! Thanks–you’re right. The gender stereotypes are definitely in full play more so in the expat bubble than out of it–at least in my experience (in terms of more one working partner, one staying at home and the ‘roles’ expected). That said, I’ve noticed more and more gender role reversal, so the lines are there, but they are more blurred than they were before. Interesting!


  3. It’s a thicket of weirdness when you leave your comfort zone, your country like this. Hopefully makes you stronger. My wife and I talked about this today. I have strong feelings about work, and how it can distort our views on what’s most important, especially when it comes to interfering with family-life. Tonight, I keep my strong feelings to myself and out of the comment box. I’m going to bed. Will salute you from the ferry to Newcastle in a couple weeks, luv…hope I wave my glass in the right direction. – Bill


    1. It definitely makes you stronger. As long as it doesn’t kill you ;-). I’d love to hear your views about work and how it distorts your views about what’s important–but only after you’ve enjoyed a holiday, guv. Enjoy!


  4. Again…so right. you nailed it and described exactly how I guess we all feel. Sometimes, I m even presenting myself as the wife of…..like I dont even have my own entity anymore. But the positive part of it…we are all expert in moving, packing, and meeting new people!


    1. Yes, there are many, many upsides and meeting new people from all over the world–and people you wouldn’t normally have anything in common with–is a HUGE benefit. My husband always moans now that he is known as “Dina’s husband”, which is kind of funny. Increasingly he’s also hear “The blogger’s husband”, which makes me smile–and keeps me in check to make sure I only write good things about him ;-).


  5. AAAGH I went round in circles with this when I was trying to come up with a name for my book (The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide). Trailing Spouse was (and probably still is) the most recognisable term and the one that is most likely to be searched for. But I also knew that not only wasn’t it right for the book I was writing, but it was also almost uniformly detested by my target audience. Hence why eventually I landed on the far less descriptive but more acceptable term “expat partner”. I actually wrote a blog post about how I chose the name – I hope it is ok to share it here: http://expatpartnersurvival.com/2015/01/02/when-theres-20-types-of-mangoes-but-no-bananas-how-i-chose-a-name-for-my-book/


    1. Of course! I can’t wait to check it out. Expat partner is definitely preferable for what it conjures up, but it doesn’t trill off the tongue, does it? That said, I never though I would get used to saying flight attendant as opposed to stewardess, but eventually, it just became the norm and now I wouldn’t even think about saying stewardess. Maybe we all just need to keep using it until it becomes more familiar.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You are so right. It’s not just the name that is offensive, its the expectations that go along with it. We’ve spent the last 26 years moving around the world. Every decision has been a joint one but the culture in organisations of treating partners as trailing spouses means that my personal development needs have seldom been taken seriously by anyone but my husband and I. We’ve known that to move internationally, we needed to build the flexibility into our lives to be able to handle all that goes with it. Assignees are rarely given any leeway, and it is assumed that the partner will do it all. But even companies are waking up to this – 65% report having assignments turned down because of dual career issues. Times are changing but we don’t help ourselves by buying into a name and cultural construct that imply that we’ll just go with the flow.


    1. Good points (and perhaps a future post??). When I was writing this I was really thinking about the connotations of the word trailing and how unfavorable they were. I really didn’t even touch upon the nourishing of the partner’s whose needs are probably as sidelined as their career. And as someone else brought up on my FB page, what happens when the ‘trailing spouse’ is going through a divorce and suddenly all those joint decisions for one partner to support the other don’t count for much anymore. Lots of room for discussion with this one, I think. I’m glad it’s provoked thought.


  7. Very good post 🙂 I enjoyed it and if somebody asked me what trailing spouse means then I will link them to you. So far it is the term that we know at the moment but at least telling people how we do it makes it better for them to understand it is not an easy job. 🙂


  8. Reblogged this on there and back again and commented:
    I was going through my inbox earlier today and came across this blog. I read it at the time and it spoke so loudly to me that I kept it. On re-reading it, I decided to share it. June is a month when many families are moving countries and/or repatriating so it seems the right time to share this. I hope you find strength and value in this and in yourself.


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