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Life as a Trailing Spouse – The First Six Months | Flashback

By alison - October 14, 2011 (Updated: February 24, 2015)

Life as a Trailing Spouse can be a Lonely Road

Life as a trailing spouse can be a lonely road

After six years in Belgium, I’m still surprised when people refer to me as an ‘expert’ on expat life. It may seem like I have this trailing-spouse thing all figured out. But, I promise you, that wasn’t always the case. I found my first years here very difficult, especially the first six months. When I chat with new expats in Belgium, I can’t help but remember all the stress and depression I went through. Though I tried my best to hide it, it was certainly I challenge I had to overcome. 

This Flashback post isn’t a bunch of tips on how to get through it, nor will it solve any of your problems. What I do hope it will do, is show you that even if a trailing partner looks like she has it all together now, chances are she struggled in the beginning too. I hope it will show you there is a light at the end of the tunnel if you just hang in there.

Being a trailing partner is hard. The first six months or so can make or break the success of an expat posting, or even a relationship. Although I’m enjoying my Belgian life now, watching the difficulties of my expat friends, brings back my own moments of despair.

For me, the first six months were the worst. I felt alone. I knew no one, Andrew was at work all day and I knew my friends back home didn’t really understand what I was going through. To them, Europe was a vacation – not something to be sad about. After all, wasn’t this what I always wanted to do? Well, yes but …

We spent the first three months in Amsterdam so we could get our paperwork together. Although, it is my favourite city on earth, I couldn’t enjoy my time there to the fullest.

Thriving Abroad

The paperwork to get into Belgium was relentless. Every phone call made my stress level rise as I knew with every ring there would be yet another document from home that I didn’t have.

Moreover, I had lost some of who I was, (or perhaps misplaced is a better word, because I did eventually find me again). Instead of using my new found free time to do the things I loved, I spent a lot of time doing nothing. I slept late and I watched a lot of TV. In fact my daily routine revolved around what was on BBC.

Looking back now, I know that I was stressed out and depressed. But at the time, I couldn’t see it.

My support network was far away. I knew my friends and family loved and supported me, but I also knew they didn’t really understand what was wrong. How could they when I didn’t know myself?

The only person I had to talk to was Andrew. He would come stumbling in at the end of a long difficult day at work (saddled with his own stresses revolving around a new job) and just want to crash on the couch – the couch that still had the impression of my butt from sitting there all day long. I would be raring to go somewhere or do something – anything.

And I wanted to talk – and talk and talk, because I hadn’t talked to another soul all day (unless you count the cats who were frankly bored of my nattering and aren’t the greatest conversationalists.) Andrew just wanted to unwind from work, watch a little TV; read his book. It was a recipe for arguments – lots of them.

When we finally made it to Belgium it was worse. Instead of a sparsely furnished apartment in a city I loved, we were in an empty house in a country I barely knew.

My TV life was gone (a good thing) and so was my internet connection (a very very bad thing). I got so bored that I was going to Andrew’s office with him just so I could get on-line.

Thriving AbroadThe paperwork stress got worse, before it got better. The commune visits were demoralising. I was sure I’d get kicked out of the country for not having some critical document. My first summer in Belgium is a blur of stress that I can hardly remember now.

But finally, after six months in Europe things began to change. It didn’t happen overnight but there was a gradual shift when the percentage of good days started surpassing the bad ones by higher and higher margins.

My paperwork finally came through so I could finally stop stressing about getting kicked out of Belgium.

I re-discovered my love for writing and I started treating my photography as the job I always wanted it to be. My days suddenly had more purpose than watching British decorating shows.

Other expats started contacting me through my blog and sharing their stories. I learned that I wasn’t alone. I had people to talk to that understood the difficulties I was facing and didn’t think my life was one big vacation.

Andrew was also able to put himself in my shoes and did his best to understand that saying helpful things like “You need to get out more,” really wasn’t helpful at all.

So I dedicate this to my expat friends who I see struggling with this transition and to all of the other trailing partners out there. It’s hard. But if you can hang in there it does get better. Oh, and you aren’t alone.

Looking for more resources for trailing spouses? Check out our Expat Resources page.

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Alison

Alison

Big Cheese at CheeseWeb
Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel photographer and the founder of Cheeseweb.eu. She is the author of The Foodie Guide to Brussels: Local Tips for Restaurants, Shops, Hotels, and Activities. Alison landed in Belgium in 2005 and, over the years, has become passionate about slow and sustainable travel, in Europe and beyond. She loves to discover hidden gems - be they museums, shops, restaurants, castles, gardens or landscapes, and share them through her words and photos. She has visited 45 countries and is currently slow travelling through North America in an RV, with her husband, Andrew, and two well-travelled cats. You can also follow her work on Google+
Alison
Cheese + Goats = My personal heaven. We discover an oasis in the cheese desert. https://t.co/Os8U86UEiX - 10 hours ago

26 comments

  1. Comment by Mirka

    Mirka November 7, 2006 at 17:10

    You wrote it so perfectly. This is exactly how I felt soon after we arrived to Belgium. My husband working all the time, me sitting at home.. uh. Only problem is, we´re here for more than 2 years, almost three, and I still sometimes feel like that! Good to know though, I am not alone! 🙂

  2. Pingback: Finding Yourself as a Trailing Spouse: What to do When You Can't Work | Expat Life in Belgium, Travel and Photography | CheeseWeb

  3. Comment by Kalpana

    Kalpana October 14, 2011 at 18:51

    I can relate your post it when i first came here it made me wonder where i have landed depressing it was and now 4 years + i can say i kinda like Belgium and BBC was my BEST Friend 🙂

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison October 14, 2011 at 19:05

      I’m glad you can relate Kalpana and I’m also glad you’re enjoying Belgium more now. It’s sad how quickly you can become addicted to television programs. Not my finest hour 🙂

  4. Comment by Andrea

    Andrea October 14, 2011 at 19:50

    I had an almost identical expat experience here in Paris. The first 6 months is definitely the hardest. Thankfully those depressing days and long gone.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison October 14, 2011 at 20:08

      Glad to hear you’ve come out of your rough period too Andrea. I was so surprised when I wrote this post six years ago, how many people contacted me and told me how much they related to it. Back then there weren’t as many expat blogs so I think a lot of us suffered in silence. I’m glad there are a lot more resources for expats these days so hopefully they won’t feel so alone.

  5. Comment by Shweta

    Shweta October 15, 2011 at 16:29

    Thanks Alison for this.
    I am speaking in my very broken Flemish to anyone willing to listen. This has meant that everyone from the lady at the post office to the girl in our local bakery know bits about me. Poor things.. But what can I do, I am trying to make some time out for myself and fulfilling my need to talk to someone.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison October 16, 2011 at 20:21

      Good for you Shweta for getting out there and trying to communicate with people. I have to admit that as a shy person by nature I definitely didn’t get out and try to talk to people in Flemish at all when we first moved to Flanders. Even now it can be a big stumbling block for me when I’m in a new place but I try to press forward. Keep at it and before you know it you’ll be fluent and comfortable!

  6. Comment by Ling

    Ling October 16, 2011 at 10:09

    Thanks for this post. Moving to Tokyo to further my fiance’s career is very likely on the cards for me and I’ve been worried about losing my monetary independence and sense of identity. It helps to know I’m not alone in feeling this way.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison October 16, 2011 at 20:19

      You certainly aren’t alone Ling. I think the sense of identity loss is one of the biggest issues effecting trailing spouses. I wish you all the best of luck in Tokyo and I hope you are able to find yourself there in new and wonderful ways!

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  8. Comment by Katie

    Katie October 21, 2011 at 19:20

    this is so great to read… it’s so nice to be able to look back on our past stresses and compartmentalize them without devaluing them… i’m sure you are a great comfort to other trailing spouses through your writing. after all, sis, it’s how all great feminists get started. xo!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison October 21, 2011 at 20:04

      Aw thanks my lovely sociologist sister 🙂 It’s a good feeling that others can learn from and find wisdom in my mistakes. It makes the journey that much more worth it.

  9. Comment by RM

    RM October 27, 2011 at 15:30

    I can relate to being cut off from your support network and only relying on your husband for support…It has been two years and still adjusting and finally being in a job I like helps alot. I agree that friends love Europe but they don’t live here amongst the piles of paperwork. I really do miss Canada and strange things like sunday shopping and the dollar store…shameful but true…my good friend visited me in April and brought me a box of timbits…I never thought I would be so happy to get timbits and Kraft Peanut Butter 🙂 Thank you for the article!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison October 27, 2011 at 15:35

      I’m pretty used to no Sunday shopping now but I still miss Shopper’s Drug Mart 🙂

  10. Comment by Nikki Le Moigne

    Nikki Le Moigne November 12, 2011 at 13:17

    Okay,
    I may have actually teared up at reading this. I just felt like I was reading my own words. Watching TV, doing nothing and then acting like a golden retriever when your “master” arrives home.
    I have just moved to a ruralish area of France for my French Husband and I am Australian. Sometimes I wonder what the heck am I doing here? We live here for his job prospects but it just leaves me so empty, my french is nearly lost on the locals and this is his home town! So they do give me patience.
    I am trying to stick it out here. So far two and a half months and after reading this and a few other places I am going to stick with my original decision of two years minimum.
    Thanks for giving me some hope
    Nik

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison November 12, 2011 at 13:44

      Oh Nikki, it’s comments like your that give me the courage and determination to keep writing this blog. Please, please hang in there and know that it will get better. The first few months seem to drag on forever, but before you know it, you’ve settled in, things gradually become easier and you’ll look back a realise three years have past 🙂 Two years was exactly what I signed up for in the beginning as well, and it will go by quickly. If you’d like to vent, feel free to email me any time.

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  12. Comment by Courtney @ Translating Nutrition

    Courtney @ Translating Nutrition November 15, 2011 at 19:38

    Thank you for writing this, and for revisiting it. I’ve been in Belgium for 4 months, and I’m just starting to emerge from my own BBC coma. My teary outbursts have confused my Belgian boyfriend, and I don’t dare worry my family and friends at home. But I’ve started to meet some other expats and, as you say, talking with people who know what you’re going through is oh so helpful. That is my best advice for people in the beginning months of being an expat: talk to some other expats. Meet for coffee and confide in them. It lifts a weight of your own chest, and off of your relationship.

    I’m looking forward to things getting even better 🙂

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison November 16, 2011 at 10:11

      You’re welcome Courtney. I’m glad you liked it. It’s true. Having friends who are also expats and understand what you are going through can be really helpful. Sometimes you just need to talk to someone who ‘gets it’ 🙂

  13. Comment by Dianna

    Dianna November 28, 2011 at 12:58

    Wow. I had no idea there was an actual condition or term to describe what I’ve been doing lately. The late night tv, the hours drifting around the house, berating myself for not doing enough, not having the initiative to get out and be with other people. I have a blog and have been worried and blocked from writing what has actually been going on inside of me as a result of this move. Putting it into writing seems to make it more real. But reading your account is somehow less overwhelming. Thank you for posting this and for all the other advice and info. I will be following and hope that my next comment will document my shift from sad to hopeful. Thanks so much.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison November 28, 2011 at 13:25

      Dianna – You are 100% normal; I assure you. Back when I was going through this, I thought I was crazy and depressed. But, over the years, as I’ve talked to more and more trailing spouses, I’ve heard the same story over and over again. It takes time to adjust and you need to allow yourself that adjustment time. Keep at it and I’m sure in time your outlook will brighten too! Good luck!

  14. Comment by lily

    lily January 17, 2012 at 03:24

    I can relate to all the sentiments expressed. As a trailing spouse In Japan since April 2011 I have experienced periods of exhilaration, periods of great loneliness and fantastic cultural experiences that will live with me forever.

    Today is a bad day I am not well, it is freezing cold , my partner is at work until late tonight and I have no friends here to have a friendly chat or lunch.
    . There are other expat wives here but they are rather snooty and have rejected me as my partner is employed in a lower ranked role to their partner.
    I consider this experience as living on an airforce base were wives, partners are also ranked according to their status on the base.

    Although I can see how shallow these women are, it is very difficult not speaking Japanese to at least be able to chat with shopkeepers or salespeople when venturing out shopping.

    There are women’s clubs or expat clubs, but again I have found that there is little by way of acceptance if you are
    perceived as somewhat lower down on the class scale, that is, different than others. I am Australian with a strong Aussie accent.

    My husbands employer offers nil support to spouses other than to advise that there are expat social clubs to join, they do not provide translators to assist spouses, there is no work here for me to apply for, and English volunteer rules are only available to those who are on committees of the expat social groups.

    I am counting the days until I can go home and start to live my own life again and not my husbands life.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison January 17, 2012 at 09:36

      Hi Lily, I’m very sorry to hear your expat experience has such a negative side. It’s unfortunate but I think a reality that there are often cliques within expat communities. Although I’ve never felt blatent snobbishness from other expats, it certainly seems there is a hierarchy here in Brussels as well. Andrew and I certainly aren’t at the top of the financial ladder and found we had little in common with many of the other expats we met. On the upside, after 6 years, we have a wonderful network of friends here but it took a long time. I’m wondering if there are any classes or activities you are able to enrol in? Maybe some beginner’s language classes or cooking classes in English? It could be a way to meet some other like minded people. I also found the internet to be a big help when I was going through my rough times. There are many trailing spouses out there these days who are blogging and who are willing to lend support. Some of my best expat friends and supporters are people I’ve never met in person but have had meaningful emails and skype conversations with. Hang in there and I hope things get easier for you.

  15. Comment by Alison

    Alison January 24, 2012 at 12:46

    Hey Alison,

    It’s so nice to hear your story, as well as those of the other trailing spouses who have lived (or are living) similar experiences. My bum is currently plonked on the couch, where it has definitely left an imprint over the last few months. I’m looking forward to getting out and taking some dutch lessons next week to get myself out and about.

    We moved to the south of France 15 months ago, I didn’t speak a word of french and also being quite timid in unfamiliar environments found the experience incredibly isolating. It took 8 months for me to get my carte de sejour in France. By the time it was ready my husband had found a job in Brussels. It was really hard saying goodbye to all the friends we had made and knowing that we had to start all over again.

    We left France in July and have now been in Belgium for 6 months. I started the registration process 2 days after we arrived, and the local commune tells me that my Belgian carte de sejour will be ready in May …if all goes well. In total, I have been dealing with prefectures/maison communales waiting, going through paperwork, ordering translations, apostilles, trying to be nice and lovely to people who don’t have the time of day to deal with my application and feeling completely sub-human since October 2010! I can’t wait to get my ID card here and actually start a proper life! No more living in limbo…

    I have so much respect for people who can get through it. It is so nice to hear that so many people here have found light at the end of the tunnel so I will be sure to keep my chin up and hope that one day I wil get there too…

    Thanks for posting your experience, I’m just discovering your blog (and loving it!) 🙂 I’m going to try and convince the hubby to try out some of these Brussels restaurants you’ve recommended! Think I might hit the cash & carry store to test out my Indian cooking skills too. I have been learning all about how to be a good wife – something I never dreamed of in my career-driven pre-expat life. I now spend my time crocheting, cooking, cleaning… a retired old nanna way before my time!

    Alison

    PS I have to say that I am completely jealous you’ve had the cats and the saint bernard to share this experience with!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison January 25, 2012 at 09:49

      Hi Alison! (Always nice to find another who spells her name the right way!)

      First off welcome to Belgium!! It’s a dreary time of year here and when you’re in ID limbo it can really suck the life out of you. It takes a long time to settle in here, especially when you are the trailing partner. You don’t have the advantage of instant connections through your colleagues. I’ve gone through it and finally come out the other side and I am SO glad I stuck it out. Expat life isn’t for everyone, it’s true, but for so many of us the initial pain of settling in has been well worth it.

      On the up side, weather aside, Belgium is a pretty easy place to be an expat. Many people here speak multiple languages, there is plenty to do and see (You just may have to work a little harder to find out about it… unless you read CheeseWeb of course ;), and it’s easy to travel out of the country. And don’t forget the food!

      Do hang in there and if you have any questions or just need a sympathetic ear, don’t hesitate to drop me an email.

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