Becoming a Trailing Spouse


Can You Really Do It? Giving Up Your Career to Move Overseas?

I'm having a hard time processing the reality of having given up my career in the UK to move overseas to Vienna for my husband and his career.

When one partner has to give up his or her career in order to move overseas, this can become a huge source of resentment and conflict in the marriage. The problem is especially hard for dual career couples. Below is some of the advice she gives couples:

  • Couples need to prepare for a move together and move as a unified unit. Do not wait until you get to your new posting and then try to wing it. That can be a recipe for disaster.

  • It is important to keep in mind that for many people it is almost impossible to be a “trailing spouse”. Especially, individuals who have worked in a professional capacity:  doctors, lawyers, business executives, etc. Professionals, particularly, find it very hard to all of a sudden become a “house husband” or “stay at home mom”.

  • A working spouse seriously needs to consider whether she or he can be happy being not employed while overseas. Many can not, they feel restless, frustrated and bored. They resent that they are getting behind in their career goals and are afraid they will have trouble getting back into the job market or back on a good career path. This is one of the biggest issues expat couples face while overseas and can cause a lot of marital stress and conflict if it isn’t resolved before the move.

An Overseas Move is Both Partners’ Responsibility

It is very important that both partners take full responsibility for their move and be on the same page. Dual career couples especially need to consider an overseas move very carefully. If one partner does not want to give up their career, that should be discussed before the move, not afterwards. Most likely for many dual career couples, moving overseas is not the right choice.

Very few expats have the skills, credentials, licenses, and fluent language ability to compete against local nationals for good jobs in the host country. For many, it is unrealistic to expect to be able to find a challenging and rewarding position overseas.

Couples need to talk through various scenarios beforehand. Questions to ask yourself : Will the non-employed spouse be content volunteering as a kid's soccer coach, tutoring English, or holding yoga classes at church? For spouses who are entrepreneurial, can he or she start a local business or create an internet based company?

I knew a trailing spouse in the 1980s who became the Mrs. Fields of Vienna. She found a local baker to bake chocolate chip cookies and brownies for her. She had such a thriving business selling to the International Schools, Embassies, and UN, that she had trouble keeping up with the tremendous demand.

Another trailing spouse I knew became the Dr. Laura Schlessinger of Moscow. Every morning she had a 15 minute radio talk show counseling Western Expats in Moscow. She did not even have a counseling degree or license and would have never been able to do that in most developed countries.

As Desiderius Erasmus once stated, it is often true that the “One Eyed Man is King in the Land of the Blind.” Many markets will have opportunities for expats that are not available in their home countries. Trailing spouses should look for those opportunities. Think out of the box.

Most couples discuss these issues before their overseas move and have some plans in place before they arrive. But even so, often when they get to their new posting, things are not what they expected.  

If that is the case, there are still options. Some trailing spouses have decided to take online courses to further their career. Others have decided to go back to their home countries for short periods to pursue various options. Since the 1990s, split-household families are becoming more common in expat communities, especially with dual career couples.

Whatever you decide, the expat experience can be a wonderful time for a family. Make the most of it!


About the Author

Helen is an American Marriage and Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor.  She has a Masters Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy, and a Masters Degree in Intercultural Studies. 

Helen is an expat herself having lived in several countries: Holland, Finland, Switzerland, former Czechoslovakia, and Russia.  In addition, she has lived in Austria off and on since 1980.  She has been serving couples, individuals and children in the expat community worldwide for 40 years. She works with individuals with relationship problems, career decisions, anxiety, depression and other issues.

Helen has also helped many expat couples in Vienna turn their marriage around. She shows them how to improve their communication, set boundaries, and resolve conflicts by using videos, personality tests, role plays and other tools to bring about rapid change. Many of her clients have learned to better communicate, and have created  loving, healthy marriages.

Additionally, Helen works with children who are having a hard time at school.  Expat kids especially, may have trouble adjusting to school routines, on top of handling a new culture and possibly language. That's why talking to someone can help. Helen is happy to be there and assist through the difficult times.