Supporting a ‘Trailing Spouse’ During Repatriation

supporting a spouse during repatriation

The term ‘trailing spouse’ has come to describe the (typically, but not always) women that follow their spouses on a foreign posting somewhere in the world. I dislike the term as it makes one’s spouse sound like a passive victim of circumstance rather than an active participant in the decision-making and household management that leads to a move abroad. In fact, I believe that our spouses hold the keys to the ultimate success of our repatriation plans and making sure they are equal partners in the ‘project’ may be the best way to keep them working as hard as we are towards that end. This post is an exploration of concrete ways to do just that and draws on research from the field of psychology to pull out ideas to help our spouses set themselves up for their success in the repat journey. That all being said, I am not a psychologist giving mental health advice. Rather, I am simply trying to formulate the best plan of attack based on ideas drawn from scientific research, and I would love to hear any feedback that might improve upon the ideas in this article.

If you’re an expat of your own volition; that is to say, you were not compelled to expatriate because the company you already worked for asked you to, it’s a safe bet that aspects of your personality were a big part in your decision to try out living in a foreign country. For whatever reason, you were ready to go out and grab the world by the horns and wrestle it into submission. In other words, in the spirit of adventure, personal challenge, or chasing a lifelong dream, you made the conscious choice to make a go of life abroad. Most of us were young, single, and eager to grapple with the many tests and challenges that were waiting for us in the transition to a life abroad.

Thinking back on those early days of expat life, the stress that came with navigating legal differences, homesickness, and visa/tax/employment issues was probably offset by the exhilaration you felt fulfilling your burning desire to learn an exotic language,  make a diverse group of friends, and try bizarre new food (and drink). Even though some of those early struggles were rather consequential and could have had serious repercussions, they effected you and you alone. It was easy to have a cavalier “Oh well, I can always go back to living in mom’s basement,” attitude as you threw back another pint.

Shifting gears for a moment, let’s consider your spouse’s story: growing up in their native homeland brought comfort and security. Irrespective of their family and economic situation, they know the rules for navigating cultural life there. Maybe they are from a traditional, family-oriented culture where following a certain cookie-cutter life plan holds great meaning. It is familiar and comfortable to them.

They might not appreciate all aspects of their home culture. Maybe it’s also a highly competitive and consumerist culture where showing off your status is very important. Even if they claim to disdain their home culture, in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, they know the rules they are supposed to follow and the path life is supposed to take. They may not realize it, but their intuitive understanding of cultural norms is a source of great stability, if not comfort.

I know expats with significant others of all stripes. Some are well-traveled and adventurous themselves. Others, less so. Regardless, they likely spent their life assuming lifelong residency in their home countries and figuring out how to fit their personalities and ambitions into that plan.

Then all of a sudden they got tripped up and fell —in love. With you.

Wake up call time: When you left home for your grand adventure, you had a safety net. But when you uproot your family’s life, YOU are now the safety net.

That same carefree, adventurous spirit that made you willing to take risks (when you alone bore the consequences of those risks) is, for your spouse that may be about to step onto a high-wire for the very first time, like depending on a safety net with visibly frayed knots and gaping holes patched with twine.

Have you brushed aside your husband or wife’s concerns about a place to live with something like, “don’t worry about it. We’ll just stay at my mom’s place until I get a job. Hey, free baby-sitting, right?”

Yeah, that’s not making he or she feel any better; perhaps even more anxious.

Is my analogy hitting a little close to home? Good. It should. You really need to let that sink in before any serious moves towards repatriation happen.

The good news here is that your spouse likely has a bit of an adventurous streak him/herself. They may not have embraced it as fully as you have, but the fact that they bucked cultural norms  in order to follow this romantic notion of love and be with you proves it.

Furthermore, you likely only have a vague sense of the depth of the stress they have endured from choosing to partner with you (and likely suffered incessant nagging and all manner of rude questions from family and friends); this man or woman you managed to hoodwink into partnering with you long-term has inner resources that put yours to shame.

Those resources can be coaxed out and put to work for the team. But you have to address their fears head on while giving them something to make them excited. Excited enough that living with your parents for an extended period of time becomes part of the adventure.

What Science says about Finding Happiness and Meaning

Although most researchers in the field of psychology are focused on development and mental illness, in recent years, niches focused on getting the most out of life have started to come into their own. ‘Sports’ and ‘positive’ psychology are two areas that have taught us a lot about how regular folks can reach our goals and get the most out of life. While a lot of focus has been put on happiness research, there is no consensus about happiness being the end-all-be-all.

In short, happiness roughly equates with gratitude, and the data backs this up. It seems like almost every day new research is showing this connection. A blind focus on happiness, however, can still leave a spiritual hole in your life.

A curious finding was shown in a study that showed the happiness level in couples that have children being markedly lower than couples that choose not to have children.

A book set for publication in January of 2017 dives into this gap in the research and pulls out meaning as the possible ultimate key to life satisfaction, even when happiness may be too much of a stretch.

Repatriating may be the greatest challenge of you and your spouse’s lives. It is going to be tedious and stressful as you figure out how to put food on your children’s plates while coping with a standard of living that is likely to be lower than what you enjoyed before the move.

I am not worried about my own emotional state during the transition from my cushy job that affords me lots of time for middle of the day lunch dates with my wife. I’ll be focused on making things happen for my family and expect to draw plenty of motivation from that. I am greatly concerned, however, for my wife. While I am pounding the pavement networking and going to job interviews and the kids are gone to school, she will be at home. It is not hard to see how difficult things could quickly become for her. After I land a job, it could be even worse. Our income starting out will likely be lower than it is here in Korea, and as she faces all the little emergencies that come up in day to day life with a young family, I will not be able to come rushing home at 11 a.m. on a Thursday to help her deal with it.

This concern for the future predicament of my wife, and my desire to support her as best I can in anticipation of being incredibly busy myself at a time when she really needs my emotional support has led me to develop a set of practical strategies—habits, if you will—designed to set both of us up to have the best chances of coping with the stress that will inevitably be on our shoulders

Enduring the emotional stress of repatriation

Grit, meaning, and happiness seem to form a sort of trifecta of factors that will be critical determinants of a successful repatriation. Luckily, for each one of these there are practical things we can do to intentionally develop them as character traits even if they are not something we are born with.

There is some overlap, particularly between meaning and happiness, but I can’t help but notice how neatly the three traits seem to line up with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Note that this is pure speculation on my part, and I am not a mental health professional.

supporting trailing spouse during repatriation
Honestly I’m not really sure about this order at all. It just sort of feels right.

Grit, for one, is critical to being able to dig deep and do what you gotta do even when you have a deep dissatisfaction with life. Happiness? Forget about it. Who has time for such a luxury when your kids gotta eat? It’s grit that will get you through the hard times when happiness and meaning seem like a trifling luxury.

If you don’t think of yourself as having a particular high degree of grit, it’s worth developing in yourself, first. After all, the pressure to take care of the base level needs for your family is likely to fall squarely on your shoulders, as it will be your home country that you are returning to. Some possible methods of pursuing this trait:

  • Study Stoic philosophy a little bit every day. In some ways, discovering stoicism was just affirming beliefs that I had already developed myself. But I had never really thought of my own personal code as an entire belief system, or brain operating system, in terms of habits that can be practiced, until I started reading about the ancient philosophy.
  • Developing a Growth Mindset was life changing for me, and it is a pleasure watching my wife as she goes through this change right now. In short: there’s nothing you are bad at. You can learn any skill with hard work. Although I haven’t yet read this book about teaching the mindset to others, I imagine that it will be particularly useful for helping other people to cultivate a growth mindset.
  • Getting into the habit of confronting situations by asking yourself “Is this something I have control over?” If yes, then look for the actions you can take to address the situation. If no, then make the conscious decision to put it aside and focus on things that you can have some influence over.
  • As you do these things, be discussing your journey with your significant other. Share the interesting quotes. Have him or her watch the TED Talks. Pretty soon she will start to adopt the viewpoint as well.

Naturally, the same steps above would be helpful to your spouse. It’s all in having conversations about the interesting tidbits you read and sharing the impactful videos. Let them come to it naturally, on their own terms, rather than you trying to force it on them.

The book I mentioned above about meaning has many actionable tips about creating a meaningful life for one’s self, and I would highly recommend everyone read it. Going a step further, though, based on the broad principles in the book, I have come up with a list of actions I can do to support my wife in her own personal journey. I start from the (perhaps over-)generalization that ‘meaning’ is really all about connections with other people, and look for ways to help her build those connections in a natural way.

I managed to find research on Korean immigrants in the U.S. that backs up this idea (although, unfortunately, I can’t find it NOW). The immigrants that report higher levels of satisfaction with life are ones that maintain a distinctly Korean sense of personal identity. The ones most at risk at having trouble with integration? People that don’t really feel comfortable in either culture. This could be a sign of the need for more in-depth inner work that might take more time. It might be really hard to repatriate successfully if your spouse has a hard time feeling at home in both cultures. Effectively, there is no comfort zone for them to retreat to when things get tough.

Supporting my wife to find her own meaning:

  • Researching existing Korean communities in towns we may end up in and encourage your spouse to make their own connections independent of you. For Koreans, there is often a website, or even a newsletter publication, for the local Korean community. These are not hard to find, and they include everything a typical community newsletter would: local community news, information on social events, and even classifieds for buying and selling. This could obviously lead to feeling like more a part of the community.
  • Repatriating to a place that you have a close-knit connection. It is very unusual for Koreans to make new friends in adulthood. New relationships are often based around employment and hobbies, and come to an end along with membership in that particular circle. Building close connections will be very difficult. Having your own family and friends in place so she can get a head start will be a big help. You need to be working on those relationships NOW though. While you were away, the people in your life were busy with their own lives. Don’t expect them to suddenly be able to pick up where you left off. And for that matter, don’t expect to be able to make new friends as quickly as you did as an expat either.
  • Reaching out to those communities with offers to contribute/volunteer myself in ways that help with their mission, knowing that my wife and family will likely come along with me. Starting with the local Korean community’s newsletter or website, you could try to find opportunities to give presentations or run a once a week English class for kids on a purely volunteer basis. Yes, you are a busy person, but it won’t be all that much work and you might even be able to outsource a lot of the prep to your spouse, who will likely make new personal connections out of it.
  • Finding ways for her to follow her already existing hobbies an interest through English, US-based resources. While this doesn’t technically increase any connections, it does get her using English in her daily life and has made my own wife infinitely more comfortable using English with people other than myself.
  • Getting her hooked on TED Talks for personal development. I started showing my wife TED Talks that were interesting for their social or scientific implications. Then I showed her a Talk by Brene Brown that honestly changed her life and got her hooked on TED Talks for personal development. From here, she has gotten into books and other resources that are helping her to become the person she wants to be. She is working hard on improving herself and I’m enormously proud of how much she has moved from having a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.
  • Encouraging her to try online courses through MOOCs like Coursera that show her there are ways for her to explore her interest in healthy cooking even when we are surrounded by McDonalds’ and Pizza Huts on every corner.
  • Gently pushing the family towards enjoying western-style meals for breakfasts and lunches, with Korean food for dinner. Interestingly, I found research on the dietary habits of Korean immigrants in the US that suggested this type of schedule for meals. Mealtime is psychologically important for all of us, but I suspect even more so for Koreans. Korean food is work intensive and, historically, the primary way that Korean women show their love for the family. Although I don’t have any data to back this up, I strongly feel that this habit, which many international couples seem to naturally institute, can go a surprisingly long way towards easing the transition.
  • Consider encouraging your spouse to go to church if it is part of your value system. Even if you are a non-religious family, your spouse might find learning about the faith (or one similar to it) culturally informative. Depending on the denomination and congregation, it might be worth it for the community alone. When I was an undergrad I had a philosophy professor that was an unapologetic atheist, but was actively involved in a local church. It was the church he grew up in and he firmly believed it was a positive environment for his children. That is where, in his case, he derived his meaning. Surveys suggest that he is not alone in being an atheist clergy member. In the case of the Korean diaspora, church is so deeply part of the way of life that the United States National Institute of Mental Health awarded a grant for it to be studied. Even within a certain faith, every congregation has a different atmosphere and feeling. You might be surprised at home welcome you feel at a certain congregation even though it’s connected to a tradition that you do not ascribe to. If the religious route isn’t for you, it might be worth your time to investigate the phenomenon known as “Secular church.” Kansas City Oasis is one such organization.

As I mentioned above, the equation for happiness seems to be fairly simple: G * F  = H. Gratitude times frequency, equals happiness. In other words, how often you practice gratitude is equal to your level of happiness. Notice how I used the word practice rather than feel? That is because it is something that you can develop like a muscle. Other people can’t make us happy either. We all have to figure it out on our own. But by adopting some of the practices below, my hope is that my wife will see the value in them and join in of her own free will.

  • Gratitude is something that you do. It is not something that you passively experience. This is incredibly good news. Saying ‘thank you’ to people directly is certainly part of it, but developing gratitude as an intentional daily practice can help even the most cynical of personalities to feel more happy on a day to day basis. The 5-Minute Journal is one way to cultivate this mindset.
  • While I would recommend investing the money in the journal in order to psychologically invest yourself in it, it isn’t absolutely necessary. Getting in the habit of jotting down a few things every day will go along way towards making gratitude second nature.
  • In retrospect, I now see and appreciate the wisdom of my parents’ insistence that we begin every prayer with an expression of gratitude. We said prayers with every meal growing up. In this sense, getting involved with a church or other spiritual community can be a boon to your chances of repat success as well.
  • To that end, although I have not been as strict about it as I should be, often times before a meal, I will ask our daughter about her day and use that as a segue to a discussion where we list things we are grateful for. Getting our daughter talking about it, and hearing my own examples as well, has, over time, gotten my wife to join in when we engage in the exercise. Even though our matching 5-Minute Journals remain untouched on the bookshelf, we are finding ways to put the principle to work. I believe it has had a big effect and will continue to do so even after the move.

Putting What Really Matters First

This was an ambitious post months in the making, but it was on perhaps the most important topic of all. I hope that at this point you have considered your own relationship and see that you are truly partners in this endeavor, if you didn’t before. I don’t think that the action steps I have proposed are going to be a panacea and I don’t intend them as such. They are a starting point, intended to just get the ball rolling towards an important goal.

I am constantly in awe of my wife. She has overcome more in her life than I can imagine. When her inner resources are focused on helping ‘the team’ that is our family, there is no way that we can fail at the challenge we are facing. On the other hand, when I am not present; when I am not attentive to her and her basic emotional needs, any partner would start to doubt whether their mate is deserving of their loyalty and trust and all of those inner resources would turn towards self-preservation rather than the success of the team. I general, remember to put attention and effort into the relationship itself. I found this infographic about happy relationships to be rather eye-opening myself.

Ultimately, even within the confines of the partnership of marriage, we are all responsible for finding out own meaning and happiness. But the support and encouragement of a loving spouse can be a huge part of helping them to make decisions that point them in the right direction for their own lives.

To this end, even showing a serious concern for what our spouse will face will help them to put their trust in you. But don’t rest on your laurels, because that is focused on the short term. You may be facing months, even a year or more, of struggle before feeling settled in your new home. Laying the groundwork now is important, but it’s just the groundwork. Through the entire process of repatriation you will need to be attentive to your spouse’s needs and offer him or her gentle nudges to get out and build a meaningful life in her new community on her own. Doing things together is a start, specially if your spouse is from a culture that makes it difficult to make new friends, but it may very well be the difference between burning through your life savings before tucking your tail between your legs and returning to expat life in shame and comfortably settling into a new life in your home country.