Trailing spouse syndrome a mere blip, claims new study

Most spouses who see out the initial difficulties don’t regret their decision to move, and many thrive

They'll make it through to the other side as better people They'll make it through to the other side as better people
March 10th, 2016 8:00 pm| by Dave Smith
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Most of those who move abroad to follow their partner and see out the planned period never regret the decision, according to a new qualitative study on the topic of trailing spouse syndrome.

Often referred to as the expat blues, many struggle when they uproot sticks and leave their job, network, neighbourhood and relatives to follow their loved one abroad, claims Caroline Kjelsmark, the author of the study, but it does get easier – promise!

Consumed by doubt
According to the study, the spouses are confronted by one or more of five feelings during their first year of living abroad: a loss of identity, a loss of direction, loneliness, a gap between expectations and experiences, and relationship challenges.

Doubt creeps in as the spouses struggle to answer simple questions like “What do you do?” and “What would be appropriate clothing?”, whilst dealing with unrealistic expectations from family back home and their partners, who cannot understand how someone so ‘lucky’ and ‘privileged’ can be unhappy.

Comfort in company
However, this is just temporary, according to Kjelsmark. “The bad news is that there is not one single cure,” she said. “The good news is that most people get through it.”

While many might initially resist the ‘cliché’ of joining an expat community or two in favour of seeking out the company of locals, the study found that those who did so tended to be happier.

“We all enjoy being around people who interpret us the way we want to be interpreted,” said Kjelsmark, who recommends seeking the advice of experienced expats, and even professional counselling if needed.

Nevertheless, it is not an easy process. Kjelsmark found that progess was rarely linear and often “one step forward and two back”.

Growing as a person
And there are often huge positives. Moving abroad often awakens dormant dreams – from former hobbies like acting and learning a new craft to choosing a different career – and helps spouses evaluate their life values.

“The spouses begin to understand what truly makes them happy, and these might be entirely different things to what they previously ‘lived for’ or what others expected them to be engaged in,” said Kjelsmark.

“So despite the hardship, confusion and suffering, they all feel that they have grown – and even become a better person. It’s like the crisis has offered a window to ‘another you’ – a chance to ‘begin over’ in some aspects of life.”

Kjelsmark urges the spouses to be patient. “We actually end up growing tremendously from going through an existential crisis like this,” she promised.

“I know it can be hard to appreciate when you’re feeling down and confused, but you emerge on the other side happier and perhaps even more true to yourself.”