5 Things a Trailing Spouse Needs to Thrive

by Rebecca A. Watson on May 20, 2015

in expat, Germany, life

Last night I went to my first reading in Germany. In my attempt to be more of a writer, I’m doing things like submitting my work more often, leading a writers group and hanging out with authors. Cause, you know, that’s what I’ve read we expat authors do.

The author? Brittani Sonnenberg.

The book? Home Leave, a loosely autobiographical book about growing up living on several continents. Fantastic stuff, fascinating really, whether you’re an immigrant or not.

At the reading Brittani talked about some of the words we use to describe people in these situations. Third culture kid. Global nomad.

moab rest

I like to camp. I like to travel. Am I a global nomad? Proooobably not, cause I own a piano.

She brought up trailing spouse and said it brought visions of a person being dragged behind another.

I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with the term as well, at least when it comes to my situation. I like to believe that I was as much of a catalyst to live abroad as my husband and his job was.

Or maybe I don’t really like the image that phrase puts in my mind, which is one of a flailing woman, picking up her husband’s socks as he runs around the world.

But the truth is indisputable: I didn’t get a job in Freiburg, he did. One of the greatest things about my work  is the fact that I can do it in any country, any city. Sante works at a cycling company in Germany, and I am the trailing spouse.

Notice I"m not picking up socks ...

Notice I”m not picking up socks …

There are certain things that a trailing spouse has to deal with that their partner doesn’t. Of course they both have a certain amount of culture shock and what I call expat depression.

But there are other things the one working in the office doesn’t deal with, and I’m certainly not alone in thinking this. My friends remind me all the time: Sante’s social circle is built into his job. Sante gets regular interaction with colleagues. Sante has Pretzel Fridays.

Now that I’ve been here for a while and accepted my role, I’ve noticed a few things that have really made it a lot easier for me to acclimate and enjoy my life as a trailing spouse. I thought I’d share in the hopes that it helps others.

1. Time Outside Your Home

Your partner leaves most days to go to work. Of course you need time outside the house yourself too. And not just to go to the grocery store and get some fresh air. This is how you learn about the new place around you.

It’s very common for people with culture shock to want to stay indoors, so this isn’t just about getting outside the house without your spouse. The thing is, you also need to get outside your home with your partner. It alleviates boredom for you both. It gives you something new to talk about. It allows you two to feel like you’re part of something together. An adventure.

And I know that if the only time I see Sante is in this house, I start to feel like we’re living in some sort of expat Groundhog’s Day. He leaves. I work. He comes home. We eat, relax and watch TV. Go to bed. While, I’m a big fan of no drama and a calm, quiet home, it’s nice to change up routine a little.

This means sometimes I like to be gone when he gets home. Or I like to leave the house in the morning before he does. Or invite him to take a walk after dinner. It adds dimension to our lives and helps me to feel less isolated and alone.

2. A Schedule

Now I’m going to completely contradict what I said about changing up routine and tell you that having a routine — to a point — really helps. Since I work at home (I couldn’t even work at first), it is really easy for me to stay in my pajamas all day.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a pajama day now and then, but feeling clean and dressed does make me feel productive, even if the only person who sees me is the DHL guy.

In order to do that, I make sure I hit the gym after breakfast, shower, and work or do chores during the rest of the day. I eat lunch at the same time every day, as if I was working in an office. I even take a coffee break and practice my German at the same time every day.

Many people who travel abroad with their partner aren’t used to working at home and having completely freeform days. It can feel like the world has dropped out beneath you. Couple that with the fact that you’re in a different country, and things can get tough real quick.

Having a schedule keeps you from having too many pajama days, which can easily lead to feeling lost, isolated and a little like a waste of space.

I’m not going to lie. I have had days where I’ve laid in bed and prayed that no one came to the door. Where getting to the store was the most amazing feat ever.

I’m not suggesting you fill your day with busy work. Just eat on a schedule. Shower around the same time. Grab a coffee at the same shop every day or week. At the very least you’ll get to know the clerks a little bit, because hey! You’re a regular.

3. Language Skills

Unless you move to a country where the language is the same (read: U.K. to Australia), you’re going to be encountering a lot of people you don’t understand. And they won’t understand you. Do not underestimate the power this has on a human — it can isolate, anger and just plain confound you.

Regardless of how long you plan to live in the country, learning the language, at least enough to ask directions, order from the butcher and compliment someone on her scarf, will take you far in terms of feeling more like a human and less like an alien.

Because your partner is likely around folks all day that he or she can talk to. And you aren’t. Or maybe you’ve got kids, but we all know that toddler and teenaged conversations don’t make up for real adult banter, even if it’s just a few words here and there.

I didn’t realize how much this mattered until I traveled back to Minneapolis about a year into living in Germany. Most of the time I really don’t talk to anyone, but good lord was I chatty! At one point an old man started talking to me about how I could get a really good phone plan at Walmart.

My immediate reaction, instead of trying to get away as quickly as possible like I used to, was to stand there and keep up my end of the conversation. And then sit next to him on the bus and chat with him some more. He turned out to be quite an interesting guy. We even spoke some German.

So when I got back to Freiburg I decided I would just start talking to people, and it has made a world of difference. It’s true, my German isn’t fantastic, but I feel like I live here now, like I’m not just visiting and that makes a huge difference.

4. Regularly Scheduled Something

This can be anything, but try to find something that you can do at the same time every week. At first I went to clubs every week, like choir and knitting. Then I started meeting people, so we would meet solo, which is much better for the introvert I am.

For a while it was knitting every Wednesday with Amy. After Amy left, I started getting coffee every Friday with Ashley. It’s something to look forward to. I mean, Sante has Pretzel Fridays; I need something too, right?

Join a gym or a dance studio. I try to go to yoga on Wednesday mornings. There is a spin class I’m considering as well. (Lord help me.)

5. Therapist

OK, I know this might sound extreme. Maybe you are the most mentally stable human ever, and you have never been to a therapist before in your life. Maybe the stigma is too much for you.

The fact is, you’re going through a major change and you’re doing it all by yourself. As much as you have your partner and maybe your kids or your dog with you, this is a singular experience and it can be hard to go it alone.

Of course, you might find it difficult to find a therapist in your language. I know that the U.S. State Department lists doctors in each country that speak English, so that’s as a resource. And just Googling the language you’re looking for and the area you’re in can bring you some names as well.

Don’t be afraid to talk to a therapist. You may only need a few sessions. Think of it like servicing your car or getting your yearly physical. It’s just maintenance.

You may be like me and despise the term Trailing Spouse. Or it might not bother you in the least. Regardless, the experiences I’ve gone through are hardly unique. Being an immigrant is not easy, even on the best of days.

But it certainly adds a dimension to your life you couldn’t experience any other way.  All I know is these tips have helped me get through the tough days to get to those great ones, even if I did have to pick up a few of my husband’s socks along the way.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Elle June 22, 2015 at 9:20 pm

I am so happy I stumbled across your blog today! I’m 5 months in to this weird and wonderful journey. It does come with some bad days but I think I’m slowly managing them better.
I look forward to following your blog.
Elle 🙂


Rebecca A. Watson June 24, 2015 at 2:48 pm

Hey Elle! Thanks for the comment. It is a weird and wonderful journey isn’t it? Keep in touch and keep your head up. The bad days get less bad 😉


Kate Wilson July 3, 2017 at 1:25 pm

Whilst on the brink of booking myself in for some professional help I have stumbled across this whole new concept of “culture shock” it completely ticks every box and refreshingly steers clear of telling me I’m depressed and need medication. I never ever thought this was a “thing” maybe I need to take a whole step back, appreciate this huge move we’ve made and acknowledge that it’s ok not to be ok with a different way of life and it just takes time. To stop pretending I like everything just because I made the decision to come here. I’ve created a list of what part of this culture is particularly different and it’s hugely satisfiying and fun that me and my husband can laugh about it together rather than pushing against it. thankyou


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: