expat network

Expat Partner Or Trailing Spouse

expat partner
Any decision to take a role abroad is relatively easy if you do not have a partner or family, but as soon as a partner is involved decisions become more complicated.  Although partners and family can provide emotional support and enrich the experience, studies have repeatedly shown that the most common cause of problems with international assignments is issues that the expat partner faces.

Written by Nigel Ayres, CEO of Expat Network

There are many issues faced by expat partners and there are many types of expat partner, or indeed ‘trailing spouse,’ as they used to be known.  As Clara Wiggins says in her book, ‘The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide’, the definition was ‘someone who followed their husband or wife on an overseas posting’.  The term ‘trailing’ implied that they were ‘following behind, somehow being the lesser of the two in the partnership’.  Hence the terms accompanying partner or expat partner are more commonly used today.

The traditional model had wives following their husbands in the main, although even in 1983 when I worked in Hong Kong, one of my male colleagues was there because his wife had taken a role with Citibank and he was therefore the trailing husband.  There are now more women taking up roles abroad, but the vast majority of trailing spouses were and still are female.

When I moved to Hong Kong as an expat the partnership benefits were only available to married couples, whereas today most employers will provide the same benefits to those in a long-term relationship as to those who are legally married.

The position of same sex couples has also moved significantly in society generally and in the terms available to them as expat partners.  One example is in the diplomatic corps.  For many years homosexuality was considered to be a blackmail risk, but this vanished as social attitudes changed and it became possible for people to be open about their sexual orientation in most countries in the world.  Now most employers offer the same benefits to all couples, but issues and challenges do remain in countries where laws and attitudes make living openly in a same sex relationship difficult or indeed impossible.

When the opportunity arises to move and take up a role abroad, all couples have many decisions to make.  As Katia Vlachos says in her book, ‘A Great Move’:


When partners don’t share common goals, it can have a powerful impact on the relationship and the expatriate experience as a whole’.


The options available to an expat partner vary enormously depending on their own aspirations and circumstances.  Whatever the situation, success is only likely if both partners are committed to the move and have a clear view of what they can and want to get out of the experience.

From my own experience it is clear that the impact on your ‘trailing’ spouse can be different each time.  In 1983 we moved as newly weds to Hong Kong where my wife was able to work part-time and thoroughly enjoyed the expat lifestyle.  In 1996 on our first move to America we had two young children and my visa did not allow my wife to work, but fortunately she was happy to be a full-time mother.

However, when we took up a role in America again in 2002 life was more complicated.  Our children were at a critical stage in their education with one building up to taking GCSEs. My wife therefore stayed in England while they finished the school year and I lived as an unaccompanied expat for fifteen months.  Once the children had been settled in to boarding school we were able to settle in to a very different life separately to our children.  My wife had to leave the business she had been building up and see whether she could build something similar in America.  None of this would have been possible if we were not jointly committed to making a success out of the move.

The BGRS ‘Global Mobility Trends Survey in 2016 shows the scale of the issue faced by expat partners with 65% of partners employed before leaving on the assignment, but only 16% of these employed during the assignment.  This has enormous implications for the financial viability of an international assignment for many and creates a significant issue for many expat partners on what to do to ensure that they have a fulfilling time as an expat.

So, for many people a move abroad means that they have to take a break in their career path.  This can be an opportunity to take up a new path or to continue on a similar path in a new location.  A career break is fine if it fits in with their plans and they have a clear idea of how they will use the time but can cause major friction if it is done with any degree of reluctance.  Clara Wiggins said it well when referring to the gap created by a move abroad:


‘Perhaps in the end it comes down to a mind set as much as anything – if you look at this time as an opportunity rather than a problem, if you think of things to do that you would never have had the chance to try in your busy life back home (if you had a busy life back home, of course), you might find you end up with your life going off in directions you would previously never have planned.’


Full time parenting, study or training, setting up a new business or working in the same or a new role are all options to be explored.  It is an entirely personal decision what will work for the individual partner, but the decision will be key to making the expat experience a positive one for both partners and for the family as a whole.

There are many obstacles to accompanying partners who want to work, and they vary from country to country. These include the unavailability of work permits, problems with recognition of qualifications, language difficulties and a simple lack of appropriate opportunities.  Jo Parfitt and Colleen Reichrath-Smith in their book, ‘A Career in Your Suitcase’, advocate developing a portable career to get around the challenges ‘work that you can take with you wherever you go.  It is based on your own unique set of skills, values, passion and vision and is not based in a physical location.’  This is particularly important if your partner’s career is expected to involve moving to different countries so that an expatriate lifestyle is to be a long-term prospect rather than a brief interlude.

Identifying what you can develop as a ‘portable career’ requires you to identify what is important to you, what you want to get out of it and what skills and capabilities you bring and whatever the end decision this process is likely to be helpful in identifying your options.

Expat partners clearly provide important emotional and often practical support that allows the expat to settle in to their new role in an unfamiliar environment more easily.  Once the initial period of setting up home and establishing yourselves in your new situation is complete the opportunities for the partner tend to come to the fore.  At this point it is essential to develop something that ensures that both partners can thrive in their new reality and not just survive.