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On Surviving as a Trailing Spouse


Tuesday, August 14, 2007.


By Francis Wade


In the parlance of the world of expats who move to a foreign country, the "trailing spouse" is the wife or husband who follows behind the partner moving to work.

The welfare of the trailing spouse is critical to a move to a foreign land because studies have shown that some 60-70% of failed moves have nothing to do with the job, the employee or the company, but instead have everything to do with what happens at home, with the trailing spouse.

In my own move back to Jamaica, I have experienced some of this myself. My wife had only been to Jamaica twice before moving permanently, once to visit and the second time to get married. She has a Trinidadian background, but moved to live in the US when she was nine.

Moving to Jamaica was a culture shock for her.

Recently, as we have been interviewing expats and their wives, and doing research into what it takes for an expat to move successfully to Jamaica we have come across some excellent material that described her experience over the last two years perfectly. It was just a little uncanny in terms of its accuracy.

In fact, I think that the research might describe the experience of any couple that moves back to Jamaica -- whether they have a Jamaican background or not. More often than not, there is one spouse that wants to move back more than the other.

They take the lead in finding themselves a job. They move to take the job, either paying their own way or when sponsored by a company.

The trailing spouse, (who is a woman more than 95% of the time), agrees, but perhaps with a lot less enthusiasm than the working spouse.

They arrive in Jamaica, only to find that their working spouse is MIA (missing in action.)


For simplicity's sake, let's assume that the working spouse is a man, and the trailing spouse is a woman.

He spends all his time at the office, busy adapting to the new working culture. He has to be successful at the job, because that is the reason he came after all, and brought his family this far.

She, by contrast, is dealing with a new culture, a new language and is doing so on her own. More often than not, she cannot work due to legal restrictions. She probably left a good career back home to follow her husband, and is all of a sudden thrown into the unfamiliar role of housewife.

She experiences the brunt of the culture shock, and quickly finds that there are few people who can relate to what she is going through, including her old friends back home. The company typically provides few resources, as she isn't an employee and has few rights of her own.

In other words, she is in a tough spot.

What many do is to retreat.

The phases of cultural adaptation upon arriving in Jamaica, or any other country are simple:

1) The honeymoon phase comes first -- the expat loves the warm climate, the friendly people, the beautiful beaches and is in love with the experience.

2) The culture shock comes next as they realize the reality of living in Jamaica or Nigeria -- high crime, poverty, very little quality shopping, high prices, people trying to rip them off, etc. They begin to blame their new country for all its ills, and talk about it being backward, or stricken, or even cursed. They see the people as violent, aggressive and ignorant.

3) Most expats exit culture shock is by accepting that their new country of abode is not going to change, and that it is they who will have to change. They come to see that it is their own expectations and norms that are out of place. They question what they assume to be "acceptable" and start to understand more and more about the culture and its people.

4) Adaptation comes when they change their actions to suit their new environment. When surprising events happen, they have learned to question their own thinking and start asking themselves what they need to do differently. They eagerly look for and accept opportunities to get more and more involved in the world around them, learning the language and getting more and more integrated into Jamaican society.

Unfortunately, many expats never leave the second phase. Instead, they withdraw more and more into themselves, and venture out less and less from the safety of their homes. They mix only with other expats, and surround themselves with what is called "the expat bubble." Their favorite sport becomes "Jamaica bashing" which they enjoy doing with other expats who live in their bubbles.

The count down the days to when they will be able to leave, and leave for good.

They are likely to pressure their husbands to leave the assignment early, and some have left, with children in tow, telling their husbands "I'll see you back home -- I can't stand another day of this."

There is an excellent book called A Portable Identity -- a Woman's Guide to Maintaining a Sense of Self While Moving Overseas by Bryson and Hoge that I strongly recommend for trailing spouses of all nationalities.

As far as I can tell, Jamaican wives who are trailing spouses are likely to go through these phases, and I recommend this book to them. Working spouses can also experience culture shock, and there are some good books that address the difference in culture that they are likely to find.

All in all, anyone moving to Jamaica or any other developing country, returnee or expat, is advised to do a lot of homework before they come, and it's a good idea to assume that there will be some culture shock, and that they should be well-prepared.


Francis Wade is a writer and management consultant based in Kingston, Jamaica. His passion is the transformation of Caribbean workplaces, economies and society. He blogs at Chronicles From a Caribbean Cubicle.


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