The “Trailing Spouse”

Photo: George Mavitzis

It’s hard to believe that I have been living in Europe for nearly six hockey seasons. Though, when I think back to my first year in Germany, and how much I have changed since then, it feels like it could be much longer. Of course making the nearly-spontaneous decision to move to Germany was exciting, but that first year abroad was equally as difficult as it was enjoyable.

Aside from learning how to adapt to a new culture and language, it was the change in lifestyle that really took the most adjustment. I had been employed, to some degree, since I was 12 years old. I didn’t know life without work. Just before moving with my then-new boyfriend, to this foreign place called Dusseldorf, I had taken on a great new job; the career kind. I had moved out of my best friend’s basement and got a little house all my own. I bought a brand new car, and everything seemed to be heading in the right direction for me. Little did I know then that within only a matter of months I would quit that job, rent out that house, and tarp up that car on my mom’s driveway. I wasn’t aware of the term at the time, but I was about to become what is known as the “trailing spouse”.

It wasn’t until this year, while working on my master thesis on the subject, that I learned of the concept of the trailing spouse. At first I found the title offensive. Images of a meek, submissive wife, trailing behind her important husband came to mind. But through my research I have come to realize that the term “trailing” isn’t offensive, it’s just true.

The reason I am here in Germany is because of my now-husband’s job, first and foremost. I have come here to be with him, so in all actuality I have followed him here. But that first year, without a job title, a bank account, or any plans for the immediate future, it was this fact, that my purpose laid exclusively in the shadows of my partner, that made life so difficult. Aside from the boredom of having nothing to do each day, beyond making meals and walking the dogs, it was the lack of purpose that proved to be my biggest challenge. For the first couple months life felt like a dream! Having worked for all of my teen and adult life up to that point, I relished in fact that I could sleep in as late as I wanted, stay in pj’s all day, and party and relax as much as I pleased. But it got old, fast, and my boyfriend wasn’t pleased. Here he had met this independent, educated career woman back in Canada, who had now morphed into this lazy hausfrau that rarely made the bed and was gaining weight by the second.

When I look back now, I think it was extreme culture shock, which included a change in both outward and inward culture, that morphed me into this less-than-desirable person. In addition to all of the psychological and sociocultural issues that all expats face, the trailing spouse has a whole slew of additional challenges. While our partners have a job or study program to hop right into, and the subsequent social circle that often includes, most trailing spouses are left to manage households and children, figure out daily doings, and most difficult, to reestablish who we are within this new environment and lifestyle, all on our own. It is a loss of identity that makes life as a trailing spouse so hard for so many. Who are we without our careers, our families, our community, our culture?

It was near the end of that first hockey season that I began looking into online school. Over the following few years I have chipped away at a masters degree and will now graduate this summer. I have also since started working as a freelance writer, able to add a little something to our family income. Additionally, I have found ways to integrate into my new community and culture. I have made friends, and make an effort to participate in activities outside of my partner’s reason for being here.  I am still a trailing spouse, but that’s not all. Finding ways to build up a new identity has helped me to better accept and appreciate my role as follower. I have always been happy to support my husband here, and now he is happy to support me as well. Six years ago I thought I was giving up a whole lot of myself to come to here, but now it has become obvious that my life could not have been nearly as enriched if I hadn’t made the leap. As trailing spouses, we may not control where the trail leads, but we do have to the ability to carve it out in our own way.

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