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TRAILING SPOUSE* - THE COST OF BEING A TRAILING SPOUSE
*the person who trails the primary income earner to a new career destination

So you've taken the plunge and made the move. Upped stumps and rationalised the process of moving half way across the world with your partner as a trailing spouse. Visions of leisure time, travel and new opportunities may be dancing in your head. The question though that you should think about before you move is what the cost will be for you as an individual and as part of a couple.

Will it cost you professionally?
Will you be able to work? Different countries have different rules about whether you are allowed to work and whether or not you obtain a visa will depend on where you have come from and where you are going. In some cases, different people travelling to the same country may experience different sets of rules. As an example, as a resident of Hong Kong I was able to work but subsequent changes to the legislation meant that newer arrivals were unable to find employment. If this is the case will you be happy foregoing a career? Many female friends who were unable to work took the opportunity of having their families whilst living in Asia, others took up different challenges and opened their own businesses, travelled with their partners or became active in other areas. If you will not be able to work, make sure that you factor this into your financial equation. And don't forget to include the fact that if you can't work in this posting, there may be any impact on your career long term. How will you explain this absence out of the workforce in a way that legitimises the decision and keeps your Curriculum Vitae current?

Personally, I thought about my career skills and then tried to extend them in a different direction. I could not work in my established career because of language difficulties but could use this same set of skills in a different forum. Take the opportunity to talk to an employment consultant - preferably one with international offices. By doing so they may be able to point you in the right direction as to what you should be doing as well as providing you with more hands on information before you actually get there. My friend, who was a lawyer, worked in legal recruiting; a friend in advertising, worked as a freelance writer and an events manager, became a public relations representative. A journalist became a correspondent and stringer for overseas publications. Just because you can't transfer to the same role in the new country doesn't mean that there are not loads of other related work opportunities.

Will there be social costs for you as a trailing spouse?
I found Asia to be very corporate identity focussed. People valued themselves according to their position within a company - not a way that I tend to value people personally but one that was quite prevalent at many social gatherings we attended. I can remember meeting someone at a Chamber of Commerce function (an excellent place to network by the way) and when I told them I was studying the person smiled blankly and walked away. One of those moments that you are so astounded that you don't quite know what to do. Being perceived of as the less important person within a couple can be daunting, irritating and, frankly, hard to handle particularly if you have had a well-recognised career before moving.

Personal costs
Will there be a personal cost to you as the trailing spouse? Some costs weren't too difficult to bear. My husband travelled a lot but as a couple we managed to work the situation quite well. Occasionally I travelled with him, sometimes I met him at a location and sometime we met him as a family if he was staying put for an extended period of time. His job and the travel involved a level of independence that perhaps differs from those who have their spouse with them all the time. Childbirth, injuries, children in hospital and moving house all had to be picked up and managed by me alone when he was away. Whilst there was no choice in the matter, for me, it was not too onerous. Others may think differently.

Health costs?
Don't forget that some postings may require you to think about health issues. I lived in Hong Kong during SARS and, whilst we were all well, we were still under a cloud of misapprehension for a period of time. The children all wore facemasks to and from school and took many, many precautions.

How about the situation when you move to a polluted area? Or one that has a high level of humidity? Are you asthmatic? Or do you have skin complaints. Do you have a medical condition of any sort? We have a number of well padded friends who have suffered in the heat and humidity of Hong Kong silently for many years whilst personally I am now adjusting to a cold climate and can't put enough clothes on over summer to stay warm. Will there be any health issues for you to consider? How about travelling? Are you high risk, low risk or no risk for travel related injuries - deep vein thrombosis, economy syndrome?

Emotional costs?
Will you miss your family? Friends? Home country? Are you the sort of person who makes friends easily? Are you a high self-disclosure person or a low self-disclosure person? I find that I am attracted to people who offer a bit about themselves back when I talk to them - I avoid certain people who I think are akin to black holes - all conversations seem to disappear down them and never reappears. I need people who respond and who give feedback. Is the country that you are going to one that will allow you to integrate? Or will you mix with expatriates? Will there be others in the same situation as yourself or will there be very few of you? Even thinking about finding new networks can alter the equation. In some countries it is easy to find new friends as you stand out visually whereas in other countries you don't.

Amanda O has been an expatriate for most of her life and can't imagine living any other way!

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Posted 21Aug05