Finding Yourself as a Trailing Spouse: What to do When You Can’t Work

By - February 28, 2011 (Updated: February 24, 2015)

Being a trailing spouse can be a lonely road

Being a trailing spouse can be a lonely road

Landing in a new country as an expat can be challenging enough. You need to deal with paperwork, making new friends, learning new customs and often a new language.  But what do you do when you have to re-define your whole identity?  If you’re a trailing spouse, this could very well be your new reality.

In Western society, we often tie our identity to our job. One of the first questions people ask when they meet is “so what do you do?” This roughly translates as “what box can I put you in, so I can make all sorts of unfounded assumptions about who you are.” Like it or not, our sense of self is often inextricably tied to our job. So what happens when we can’t work?

The Trailing Spouse Identity Crisis

Often trailing spouses, those who have expatriated for their partner’s career, can’t work in their new country. Usually, as in my case, it is because their residence permits or visas don’t allow it. There can also be language barriers to employment and, in some cases, a simple lack of job opportunities for the trailing spouse’s skill set.  Without the possibility of employment, the trailing spouse often experiences an identity crisis that compounds the stresses of settling in a new country.

I was one such trailing spouse. I say was because, after six years here in Belgium, I feel like I’ve finally carved out my own niche. There are a few things I can identify myself as: photographer, writer, blogger and website administrator, copy-editor, and artist.

Thriving Abroad

This wasn’t the case when we first arrived in Belgium. In fact, other than a trailing spouse, I didn’t know who the heck I was.

To be fair, I’ve never had a solid sense of identity based on my career. I’ve done a lot of very different jobs, and none of them really pertained to my journalism or international development studies degree.  Even when I was working, it was hard for me to define who I was.

However, from the age of 16, I had always worked, at least summers during school. Although I never made loads of money or identified myself by what I did, I always did something.  Arriving first in Amsterdam, and then in Belgium, I legally could not work. I not only had to figure out how to fill my days, but I had to figure out who the hell I was.  This identity crisis was one of the main factors that resulted in a big case of expat depression.

To some, and admittedly to me during some low points in my working life, the thought of having endless days to fill however you want is exciting. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want. There are endless possibilities. It should be heaven right? The reality however, can be the biggest challenge facing trailing spouses, because we aren’t in the habit of asking ourselves what we really want to do.

I found myself, in those early days in Amsterdam, stuck in a tiny apartment, fighting with paperwork, alone and lonely. Those empty hours of the day stretched ahead of me like years.  I vacuumed and ironed, two chores I detest, just to pass the time. I counted down the hours with bad day-time television and couldn’t wait for Andrew to get home from work each evening.

When we arrived in Everberg, things didn’t get much better. Our boxes finally arrived from Canada, so I had books to read and crafting supplies to entertain myself with. But I still felt lost. It wasn’t so much I needed a job to identify myself with; I just didn’t know who I was without one.

Over the years I’ve heard similar stories from other trailing spouses and now I know my experiences were quite normal. At the time, however, I felt isolated and alone. I turned to the two things that have made me happy throughout my life, photography and writing. By now, you know this was how CheeseWeb was born.

What to Do When You Can’t Get A Job

There are many ways to re-discover yourself as a trailing spouse even if you can’t legally work in your new country.  Before you resort to ironing shirts to pass the time, you may want to consider one or more of the following:

  • Pursue your hobbies – Maybe you have a stack of books you’ve been itching to read or you’ve always wanted to build an iPhone app; Have you always wanted to make scrapbooks of your children’s’ baby photos?; Now is the time to really figure out what all of those buttons on your camera do. The thing is, most of us have been working for so long, we neglect the things we really enjoy doing. Now is the time to treat yourself to those things you love. You may even find they lead to the next suggestion…
  • Entrepreneurship – This option will really depend on the legal issues in your new country, but many trailing spouses find their best option for working, is to create their own job. I can speak from experience when I say this isn’t an easy solution or a quick fix. It can be a great opportunity to take one of the hobbies you love, and turn it into a money making venture.
  • Learn the Language – One of the barriers to finding employment in your new country can be a lack of language skills. Learning the language of your host country not only makes it easier to find a job, but also helps integrate you into the society and culture of your new home.  It also makes your day to day interactions much easier.
  • Take a Class – There are so many options for learning these days. You can find on-line classes for just about anything. You can do anything from learning a new skill to earning your MBA. You can also take a class in person. It’s a great way to meet new people with similar interests and it can also help you learn the language of your host country.
  • Volunteer – Even if you can’t legally work in your new country, there’s no reason why you can’t donate some of your time to a charity you care about. Many organisations are desperate for help and require many different skills. My only word of caution is most charities are looking for people who will be around for the long haul because it is time consuming to train volunteers. If your expat stay is under a year, you may have your offer to volunteer turned down by larger organisations.
  • Join a Club – If you live in a fairly populated area, chances are there are expat clubs. Here in Brussels, there are clubs for just about every nationality you can think of. You don’t have to ‘stick to your own kind’ though. There are great expat clubs that focus on integrating all different nationalities. Or, if you’re comfortable with the language, you can join a local club as a way to integrate with the natives.
  • Raise Children – I’m not suggesting that getting pregnant is a good way to beat boredom. The stress of being new expats will certainly be increased by adding a pregnancy to the mix. However, some trailing spouses I’ve talked to have found it rewarding to focus solely on their children for a few years. Perhaps your host country has a good reputation for raising children (like Belgium). If you were planning on starting a family, having the time to focus on being a parent could be a good option.
  • Start a Blog – It seems natural that I would suggest this, after all blogging has given to me. Many people think blogging is difficult, or you need to be a great writer to have a blog, but that’s just not the case. A blog doesn’t have to be a personal account of your life. It is actually much easier to write about what you are passionate about. Do you love to quilt? Start a quilting blog and share your patterns and designs. Do you like antique cars? Share photos and stories of rallies you’ve been to. No matter how obscure your passion, guaranteed there are others out there who share it with you.

Thriving AbroadNot all of these solutions are right for everyone and you may try a combination of several options before you find what works best for you.

Try not to look at the empty days of your new expat life as a sentence to be overcome. Look at them as an opportunity to grow and discover who you are. Trying new things and following your passions is a great way to make friends, build your self confidence and discover ‘the real you.’

Have you created a new life for yourself as a trailing spouse? Share your experiences in the comments and help the next generation of expats.

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

If you like this, you might like:

Alison Cornford-Matheson
Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel photographer and the founder of 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 Cornford-Matheson
- 3 hours ago


  1. Comment by laura

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    laura February 28, 2011 at 16:00

    Excellent blog Alison!!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison Cornford-Matheson

      Alison February 28, 2011 at 17:25

      Thanks Laura! I know you know all about this stuff too 🙂

  2. Comment by Shweta

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    Shweta February 28, 2011 at 21:15

    Thank you Alison!!! I love how insightful this one is…

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison Cornford-Matheson

      Alison March 1, 2011 at 09:16

      Thanks Shweta! I hope it’s useful 🙂

  3. Comment by Maria

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    Maria March 1, 2011 at 01:48

    All true! What inspires me is how many women are able to dig deep and find inspiration in their newfound “free time.” They rediscover some long-forgotten aspect of themselves, make a commitment to master the local language, unleash the entrepreneur within or find some other way to grow. I think it all boils down to attitude — once I ditched the “poor me” ‘tude (it took a few tries 🙂 ) I became so much more satisfied with who I was, and was able to better use the time I had. Great post!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison Cornford-Matheson

      Alison March 1, 2011 at 09:26

      Thank for your comment Maria! Attitude is key. I experienced some pretty dark days when we first arrived. It’s normal. The key is to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and do something that makes you happy.

  4. Comment by Nomadic Chick

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    Nomadic Chick March 1, 2011 at 06:49

    Some really great suggestions here, Alison. We always assume work is the great signifier in our lives, feeling useless when we are unable to. You’ve shown that fulfillment can come in many forms! Wish we were in Goa at the same time. 🙂

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison Cornford-Matheson

      Alison March 1, 2011 at 09:17

      I wish we were too! You take good care of yourself and if you need a good place for rest and recovery, just say the word. You always have a place to stay in Belgium 🙂

  5. Comment by Amy

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    Amy March 1, 2011 at 11:11

    Great post, Alison! I can definitely relate to this one, as you know. 🙂

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison Cornford-Matheson

      Alison March 1, 2011 at 11:36

      Thanks Amy!

  6. Comment by Camille Gaines

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    Camille Gaines March 1, 2011 at 19:27

    Great article. I would have given anything to have had the internet when I was an expat spouse in Bermuda for 13 yearrs; it was just getting going when I left. Now everyone can build an online business and connect with like minded others online; you are so right about starting a blog. Wish I could have begun my financial education alliance for women back then!But, life gives us what we need I guess when we need it:) and I had a great time raising my kids with part time work as an investor and corporate trainer.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison Cornford-Matheson

      Alison March 2, 2011 at 12:00

      You’re right Camille. The internet has really changed things for expats. Even in the 6 years we’re been here, there are so many more resources available on-line. I honestly can’t imagine living this life without it.

  7. Comment by Ewa

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    Ewa March 2, 2011 at 01:50

    Alison, first of all I am impressed with you pics. I love photography (kind of trying to become more pro)and enjoy watching photos taken by others. As fo your expats advice… All ideas are great but not always easy to apply for us ‘hard core’ expats. Since 1998 we moved 5 times, we lived on 3 different continents and on the top of that we extended our family from no kids to 3 kids. Plus I was naive enough thinking I would carry on with my beloved job in marketing. Wrong (though I was lucky to be able to do it for couple years). It is not only about work permits or lack of opportunities (though I would give it 70%). It is about, in many situations, becoming a single parent. Our husbands when being relocated are expected to dedicate their whole life to work. We have no family to share this new weight with. During the adjustment period we are struggling with not only papers, containters etc. but with upset kids who left their best friends behind or who can’t make new friends. Quite often all that does not leave time/energy to jump into job we used to have. The last thing I could say is “I don’t know what to do with my time”. At the same time… deep down I am missing my monthy pay check and yearly bonus, my business trips = my feeling of independance and having influence on my life.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison Cornford-Matheson

      Alison March 2, 2011 at 09:07

      Thanks so much for your comment Ewa. I’m by no means suggesting that theses suggestions will all work for anyone and certainly there is no ‘quick-fix.’ Being an expat trailing spouse is difficult. I’m sure that being a trailing spouse with children is even more difficult, although obviously I can’t speak from experience there. I can only imagine how challenging it is to not only manage your own feelings of adjustment but also keep the kids happy as well.

      You’ve made a good point about not getting support from your partner because he is too busy with work. That’s a whole other post that Andrew and I want to write. It’s true that the working partner has to commit even more time and effort into work and often the stay-at-home partner has to deal with absolutely everything else. I do understand about losing the second income too. It’s not only the financial aspect (although that’s important too) but also the feeling you aren’t contributing. As you said, you lose your feeling of independence.

      I wish I had an answer for you but all I can say is there are lots of trailing spouses in the same boat. Reaching out to people on-line helped me a lot.

  8. Comment by Ewa

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    Ewa March 2, 2011 at 13:33

    Alson, thanks for your comments. I know there is no quick fix… o
    Otherwise I would not be discovering sooooo many blogs run by trailing spouses. As for reaching for help on line… well, it takes ‘guts’ 😉 I think I would be happy to share my experience in order to help rather than to look for help. Running a blog – yes, but only if I can make it in some way different than what is already there…

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison Cornford-Matheson

      Alison March 2, 2011 at 13:42

      Haha well, guts or desperation…. it was a bit of both in my case (more desperation though I think). Even if you don’t run your own blog there are lots of ways you can reach out to others either to help or be helped (often it turns out to be both). There are lots of forums where you can ask for and offer help. Of course there are comments in blogs like CheeseWeb (and who knows who your own comments may help so thank you!) and there are active communities of expats and trailing spouses on Twitter, Facebook, LinkdIn. I guess we like to connect! Even just reading other people’s comments can help you become brave to speak out. Thanks for sharing and hang in there!

  9. Comment by Shweta

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    Shweta March 2, 2011 at 14:50

    Thank you Ewa for your post! I am a soon-to-be trailing spouse. Part of me is looking forward to it but part of me just wants to take my current job and move it with me but in my case that is not possible 🙁
    I am looking forward though to spending loads of time with my kids, learning Dutch and taking up some sort of fitness class (zumba preferrably). But I am sure this excitement is only going to last for about six months and then the homesickness will kick in and then I may rely on the handful of friends I will make in BE or skype with my friends here in the U.S. at wee hours of the night.! These thoughts do get me down… but then my thought process takes me to what I want the Belgian experience to be for my little ones. I want them to be happy (obviously) and also, I want them to take this huge change in good spirit! I want BE to be a happy place for them… and that will only be possible if they see me happy..

    P.S. Ewa, if you don’t mind I would like to be in touch once I get to BE.

    • Comment by Ewa

      Alison Cornford-Matheson

      Ewa March 2, 2011 at 15:53

      Shweta, good luck with your move! Actually I don’t live in Belgium… I am in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil 🙂

      • Comment by Shweta

        Alison Cornford-Matheson

        Shweta March 2, 2011 at 16:29

        Hee.. hee.. then see you via CW and good luck to you too!

  10. Comment by Donna Worrall

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    Donna Worrall March 2, 2011 at 14:59

    Some excellent advice and hasn’t the internet made a huge difference here in the developed world? What about those in more remote regions?
    Here at the Archive we have several stories about ‘making the best of it’and would love to hear more.
    You might also be interested to know that here in The Hague a group of women self-starters founded the International Business Womens Initiative, so there was clearly a gap in the market.
    Keep in touch.

  11. Comment by Leigh

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    Leigh March 2, 2011 at 20:24

    I can totally relate as a I was like you – too much time to fill while kids were in school when we first lived in Colorado. You’ve provided some great thoughts on what to do in new spots – which I will have to put to use come the fall when I likely move to Calgary. Even though I have a blog it’s the whole support system I’ll miss and starting all over again with friendships. Attitude is everything so working on positive thoughts only.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison Cornford-Matheson

      Alison March 3, 2011 at 13:14

      I’ve heard Calgary is great so I hope you enjoy it there. It’s true that each time you move you need to re-establish all of those relationships and networks. It’s hard work!

      • Comment by Alison

        Alison Cornford-Matheson

        Alison March 14, 2011 at 15:07

        You’re the expert Louise! 🙂

  12. Comment by Louise

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    Louise March 14, 2011 at 15:04

    I don’t know how I missed this post! But I couldn’t agree more!

  13. Comment by Louise

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    Louise March 14, 2011 at 20:57

    Theoretically, perhaps. Practically, you are not bad yourself 🙂

  14. Comment by santi d

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    santi d April 27, 2011 at 09:29

    Hi Alison,

    I found your wonderful blog through google and did a bit of digging on the trailing spouse postings.

    I’m an Adult-Third-Culture-Kid and a trailing spouse for almost 11 years (and still counting). We used to live in Amsterdam, Chicago, Muenchen, and currently live in Sydney.

    I completely agree with your 8 steps and have been doing all those since the past 7 years. Yet I still find myself in identity crisis mode from time to time 😀

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison Cornford-Matheson

      Alison April 27, 2011 at 09:50

      Hi Santi! Thanks for stopping by 🙂 Oh I’m certainly not saying expats won’t have identity issues from time to time. I certainly do and I think it’s normal to feel not quite at home in any country. I think that’s part of our identity though and maybe that’s a good thing… it means we don’t have to be in one specific place to be ‘ourselves’.

  15. Comment by santi d

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    santi d April 27, 2011 at 09:59

    Yeah .. identity crisis keeps on following us, no matter what .. especially oh no .. we are growing old and becoming less flexible (but still on the move .. !!) *big eyes*

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison Cornford-Matheson

      Alison April 27, 2011 at 10:16

      Haha well keep on going and maybe old age will get lost along the way 😉

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