Tuesday, October 20, 2015

moving abroad with a trailing spouse

I feel a little weird writing about this for a few reasons, but I am going to regardless because even though some thoughts and feelings may strike a nerve or two, that doesn't mean they are not worth talking about.

Plus, it's the season for international school recruiting, and maybe this could help someone.

Let me begin by saying that I had never encountered the term trailing spouse, which just means an unemployed spouse, before looking into moving overseas. I first encountered the term while searching through an online database of international schools while looking for job opportunities. The entries would simply read Trailing Spouse: Yes or Trailing Spouse: No-- meaning an international school would either accept teachers who have trailing spouses or it wouldn't.

A lot of schools wouldn't, and this was one of the first hurdles we had to overcome.

It makes sense for them not to hire a teacher with a trailing spouse. Most schools provide free airfare, free housing, free healthcare, and other free perks. It makes sense not to bleed money on a person who is not working for you or giving you a service in return. Sometimes, one income is also just not sufficient to live off of where the school is located.

Sometimes, too, a trailing spouse can leave the school hanging. What if he or, as is most common, she becomes unhappy and wants to move back home?

Well, there goes that hire.

Trailing spouses are common-ish in the international teaching community. However, from my (still limited but growing) experience, the majority of international teachers are either unmarried or married to another teacher.

I think many schools think these people are the safest choices, and frankly, that logic makes a lot of sense to me. Currently, I am teacher married to another teacher, but this circumstance is only three months old.

My husband was a very well paid roofer before we moved to Taiwan. He worked in the family business and really enjoyed it. Obviously, he had to quit when we moved to Taiwan, and he was unemployed for three whole years, our first three years here, while he completed his degree in education.

We both knew he would become a trailing spouse from the day I signed my contract, however, we really didn't understand what that would entail or how it would affect us as individuals or as a couple.

I think a lot of people with trailing spouses find themselves in that situation too. They feel relief to have found a job with a trailing spouse and then think their worries are over, but they are wrong.
A new set of worries and stresses are waiting around the corner.

At least, I have to think it was not just me. However, like I said at the beginning, talking about this kind of stuff strikes a nerve in some. Maybe that's why a lot of people don't talk about it.

Regardless, what I can tell you is this-- there are hundreds of websites and blogs for trailing spouses that offer support and understanding and tips. However, I have yet to find one for the husband or wife of a trailing spouse. In my opinion, that is ridiculous. It is like ignoring the elephant in the room.

Well, I'm not going to do that.

Instead, I will address some things you should think long and hard about before deciding to move abroad with a trailing spouse, especially if you both, like most people, worked before deciding to move overseas. 

What do I think budding expats with potential trailing spouses should consider?

First, are you truly okay with being responsible for earning all of your family's income for X amount of time? It is so easy to say "yes, of course!", but if this wasn't your reality before moving abroad, how do you know that you will feel that way six months in? Or two years in? Let me tell you that the pressure can be immense, and sometimes, the resentment can be too.

Some days, it will seem like you got the short end of the stick, and it's easy to feel stuck or trapped. After all, you moved abroad for your job, so there is this expectation that you will suck it up and deal with it, but that is just not fair. Really consider this-- what is your out? What can you do if the situation is no longer working for you? What do you expect your spouse to do in this circumstance?

Just saying we'll go back home is often impractical and, in many situations, the last resort, so what will be your Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D?

Researching potential job opportunities that your spouse can pursue before leaving might be a good idea, or looking into online work that is location independent. I think this matters a lot for couples who plan on remaining abroad indefinitely. We thought about these things and decided that the most logical thing for Sean to do was become a teacher. Not everyone chooses that path. Luckily, all of the non-working spouses I know who want to work were able to find work; one as a translator, many as tutors, and some continuing their work from the states via the Internet.

If you plan to stay abroad long term, you have two choices. One, accept that your spouse will never work again, which can be impractical for both people, or start figuring out what your trailing spouse will do so that does not become your reality.  

Second, how will you deal with money? Is it yours? Or is it both of yours? Does that mean the non-working spouse needs to talk to you before spending a larger than normal sum of money? Or does it mean he or she can buy things without thinking of speaking with you first? Will you give them an allowance? Will they get X dollars a month to spend on themselves and things they want/need? I know this sounds ludicrous, but for all intents and purposes, a non-working spouse is your dependent.

If you were both working before, these things would be non-issues. Now, you will go to work, you will earn X number of dollars, and most likely only you will have a local bank account and card. You have to have these conversations, and I think it is better to think about these things before arriving in your host country.

Once again, it's so easy to say "of course it's ours/of course you can buy whatever you want/ of course you don't need to ask for permission" but until you live it-- especially long term -- how do you know you mean it? And how do you take back those statements once you've made those assurances?

This was hard for us. Before moving abroad, we had separate bank accounts and didn't really worry too much about money. Neither of us are big spenders, we have no credit cards, and we always had enough to make ends meet. Moving to Taiwan changed everything. We were suddenly all up in each other's business, and it felt uncomfortable at first.

In the end, we settled with an allowance; I got so much to spend on wants a month, and so did he. Definitely, more than once, we had some pretty petty and intense conversations about money. 

Third, schedule time to check in with each other and have tough conversations. Do this regularly. Your marriage matters, and resentment should not be ignored. I remember waking up in the morning and being so put out that I had to go toil all day at work while my husband would get to sleep in and then have infinite free time. This changed when he started school, but still, some days, shouldering so much of the burden made me angry. 

This was not healthy, and it was terribly difficult to talk about for all of the reasons I already mentioned, but these conversations matter. Your feelings and needs matter just as much as your spouse's. Check in with your spouse so they know where your head is at;  it is completely fair to ask them to find work or pick up the slack at home when you are bogged down at work.

Marriage is teamwork; don't let yourself get to a point where it no longer feels like that. 


Now, maybe I was the only expat with a trailing spouse who dealt with these issues and feelings, but I doubt it. While it may be more socially acceptable for a woman to depend long term on her husband, I still think men feel these things too.

I think, at the end of the day, the more planning and thinking and soul searching and talking you do before leaving your home country, the better prepared you will be to meet challenges head on and together as a couple on the same page working toward the same known goals.

That is really my point.
You need to be on the same page about these issues before you move, and you need to have a few Plan B's in your back pocket just in case things don't work out the way you think they will.


  1. Thank you, Jackie for sharing this post. It is nice to hear from the money earning spouse!

    I'm considered the trailing spouse and am considered a 'dependent' of my husband. When we first moved abroad I was finishing my PhD remotely and although I made a salary I was still considered a trailing spouse by his school - which was actually very difficult for me (because I felt as though it belittled my job). Our second year here I worked as a lecturer at a university and freelanced online but took a significant pay cut, which was really difficult for me. As you mentioned above, we did the allowance thing. Going from making a good salary to having an allowance as a mid- to late 20 year old was a serious blow to the ego - maybe Sean felt the same? This year when I go back to work it will largely be the same.

    We sometimes talk about moving back to the States but that brings with it a whole pile of other stresses. Do you ever talk about moving?

    1. Yeah, same story for Sean. I know it was so hard for him. It's such a tough thing to do. And I think it's about more than money, or at least it was for Sean. It was about being an equal partnership and having a clear role.

      We do talk about going home, but I think for us, if we choose to, it will still be years away. We are going to give this a go, partly because we have invested so much in this. Home does feel riddled with insuperable obstacles and stresses, and if I can choose to avoid those, then that's certainly my preference!

  2. My bf and I were in a similar position when we moved to Belgium. I had my job and he was going to start a Masters program. It's hard, people never tell you but it's hard. The resentment can get real sometimes. We worked things pretty similar to what you have mentioned here, although we didn't got for the allowance since we were too broke to even have that.
    Can't say I want to relive that year though!

    1. Oh no! That sounds so stressful. Having been on both sides of this, the employed spouse for 3 years and 10 months as the unemployed spouse, I can say that being unemployed is the much easier role as long as it is a choice. And moving abroad is often a choice. Resentment is natural. But, it doesn't have to linger or be a part of the equation forever. I think it's easier to place it on the back burner when you know it is temporary, and that's why having some kind of plan for a trailing spouse matters so much.

  3. Hello,

    Thank you for your really helpful blog post. I am an experienced teacher in the UK and my husband and I are in the process of considering a move abroad, possibly Thailand or Malaysia. My husband is self-employed and has been running a small logistics company since he was 19 (so 15 years now). He has always liked the prospect on returning to education in the future so this may be a great opportunity.

    However, he would like to find work, even part-time work, when we first arrive. You mentioned 'Luckily, all of the non-working spouses I know who want to work were able to find work'. How likely do you think he would be to find work without a degree?

    Also, I wonder if you would mind sharing your experience of surviving on a single salary. Did you find this a considerable struggle in terms of your quality of life?

    Many thanks! Your help is much appreciated.

    1. Hi! You may want to get your husband an ESL certification so he can teach at a cram school. Otherwise, he could probably find tutoring jobs by joining local Facebook groups. My husband and I lived on a single income for 3 years; I was earning about 3,300 USD/month take home, and we were able to make my student loan payment, pay for his BA degree mostly out of pocket, and save for big trips like our 3 week road trip through New Zealand; however, we receive free housing, free airfare home every summer, basically free health care, and our cost of living for the basics was $400 USD monthly. It was tight and hard at times, but we made it through!