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WSJ: Portrait of a Trailing Spouse: Dependent Dejected and Learning to Give Herself Some Slack

woman with luggage at the airport

As I stared at my new visa in the office of the Japanese consulate in Detroit just days before our move, my eyes focused in on one word on the document: “dependent.”
My husband Craig, whose job was taking us abroad, was listed as a specialist in humanities in his passport. As for me, for the foreseeable future I would be known to two governments as my husband’s ward. I went from being an educated, working professional to someone who — on paper — couldn’t get by on her own.
My husband and I are both journalists and didn’t want to pass up the chance to move abroad. When the offer came through to transfer from Detroit to Tokyo, we didn’t hesitate. We had both pushed for a move. But I didn’t quite grasp how much I was giving up until I had that visa, my new identity, in my hand.
At that moment, I had the first breakdown of the move — in the consulate. I didn’t cry, but I gave my husband a feminist earful he hasn’t forgotten. I grew up a true worker bee, raised to be totally self-sufficient. Now, I would become a shadow to my husband of less than six months in a country known for its patriarchal culture.
Dependent. It was deflating, but it was also just a word. It’s amazing what a label can do.
The term “trailing spouse” was coined in 1981 by The Wall Street Journal’s Mary Bralove to capture the concept of sacrificing your career plans to follow your partner. For some people, it’s actually a welcome opportunity to grow and thrive in a wholly new environment. But for the most part, the logistics of becoming a trailing spouse are more fraught and complicated than ever, largely because there are so many dual-earning couples. As a result, the sacrifices made by trailing spouses are arguably more intense, and the true effects may not sink in right away. The emotional pounding may come days, weeks or months after that final day of work.
“I only felt like myself when I started working,” said Katharina von Tschurtschenthaler, a journalist who moved to Japan last August from Belgium, reflecting on how getting back to work helped her once she relocated. Now employed at the website Savvy Tokyo, Ms. Von Tschurtschenthaler stepped down from her position as a political reporter when her husband was offered a position as a sales manager for a French company. She delayed her move to finish a major project she’d been working on, which helped her come to terms with the move.
Through her new position as well as her Japanese studies and clubs she’s joined, Ms. Von Tschurtschenthaler has been enjoying Japan. She said it’s an experience she would repeat. She was recently been appointed program director of For Empowering Women (FEW), a nonprofit organization that helps foreign women in Japan establish new professional and personal contacts to help them continue their careers. The group’s mission is to help women overcome the insecurities or anxiety they may feel about their new home and give them the tools to get back to work.
As I sat listening to Ms. Von Tschurtschenthaler in the cafe where we’d agreed to chat, I felt both comfort and camaraderie.
My father dropped me off at my first job once I hit the legal working age and told me: “Welcome to the real world.” As a 2009 college graduate with a degree in journalism, it took me years to land a paid position that allowed me to use my skills and I worked my way up. I moved away less than two years later. While I’ve been able to maintain some duties from my previous position, I went from 60-hour work weeks to eight-hour work weeks. I sat in our company-furnished temporary apartment watching reruns on Hulu, making mock floor plans of our new apartment on Photoshop while awaiting the arrival of our crates from the U.S. and new furniture. I delayed getting dressed until I knew my husband was less than two hours from returning home. I felt lost. What was I now? I didn’t want to immediately be judged as a pampered, smile-and-nod, “kept” wife whose only job was to schedule grocery deliveries in between fitness classes and blowout appointments.
Dependent. That word taunted me. I hadn’t been called that since my parents stopped claiming me on their taxes. How did I become this agoraphobic version of myself who could feel her own fire and drive burning out?
“Moving to a foreign country is always hardest on the trailing spouse, as they have less support and routines in their lives when they move to a new country to help them adjust to the new environment,” said Vickie Skorji, Lifeline director at Tokyo English Lifeline (TELL) and herself a trailing spouse who left a career in neuropsychology to follow her husband from Australia 16 years ago. “The number one reason for an overseas assignment to fail is an unhappy spouse, followed by a child that is failing to adjust to the new environment. Often the spouse and the child have little say in moving to a new country.”
According to a report published in 2009 by the Permits Foundation, which polled 3,300 trailing spouses and partners in 117 countries, 75% of participants who weren’t working in their new country wished they could. The 2008 International Survey of Expatriate Spouses and Partners found 90% of respondents were employed before their relocation. Of that group, only 35% were currently employed in their host country. Participants agreed their employment status played a key role in their willingness to stay on in their current assignment or accept another one and either negatively or positively affected their relationship.
When it comes to Japan in particular, the secondary role of women is what caught me most off-guard about the culture and made the title of dependent sting even more. When we set up our bank account, I wasn’t allowed to sit with my husband, who now controlled our finances. My name isn’t on our apartment lease. My husband is registered with our ward as the head of our household. I’m just a resident.
“There are many cultural rules of behavior and learning about these in advance can reduce the stress many new foreigners find in Japan,” said Ms. Skorji. “Depression can be a common problem for anyone struggling with cultural adjustment issues. When an individual is struggling to adapt to a new country, it can place stress on their relationship and any children in the family. If there were already any issues in these areas, they will be compounded.”
TELL receives between 500 and 600 calls a month to its lifeline from both foreigners living in Japan as well as English-speaking Japanese. The average age of callers is between 30 and 50, according to Ms. Skorji, with more women tending to call than men.
I learned about TELL from Mary Saphin, a fellow trailing spouse and relocation consultant with Asian Tigers Mobility, who assisted us with our move. According to Ms. Saphin, the most common issues expats she works with face are language, cost of living, food and more compact living conditions. Gender, personality and whether or not they have children all affect how expats adjust to Japan.
“Some can just jump right in, others take their time and watch from the sides for a while,” she said.
Both Ms. Saphin and Ms. Skorji said establishing a routine is essential for a trailing spouse, as well as a support system of people in the same situation. While I’m getting better about using my limited Japanese, I’ve told friends and family to never underestimate how much we take for granted just speaking freely in our own language.
The dependent label doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. It can have the opposite effect given the circumstances involved.
James Downes is a U.K. native who relocated to Japan 10 months ago. A member of the military, Mr. Downes followed his wife, a diplomat, on her first posting. The couple had Japan at the top of their list. Mr. Downes was eager to step away from the military life and welcomed his new status. Nonetheless, no longer working required an adjustment. “It was more down to my ego and feelings of self-worth,” he said.
Mr. Downes and his wife are thoroughly enjoying Japanese culture and he plans to continue his study of the language and pursue higher education. Japanese locals find it odd he’s the one at home for the time being, while his wife finds it funny.
“It’s definitely given me a bigger perspective on how pervasive sexism is in western society as well as other societies,” he said. “It’s better when all these roles are less important.”
While I may not have felt as he did in the beginning, I can now identify with Mr. Downes’ enthusiasm about the opportunity for adventure. There are numerous challenges to starting over and I was spared many of them.
My own turning point came when I first met the wife of my husband’s boss. They are fellow Americans who hadn’t been in Japan much longer than us, and we met for dinner while my husband and I were still in temporary housing. She looked at me and asked how I was doing. When I gave the polite answer, dancing around my own insecurities, she did something I didn’t expect: she congratulated me. She told me not to feel badly about wanting to stay inside and feeling overwhelmed.
My life had changed in ways that, by no fault of his own, my husband couldn’t understand. While I didn’t resent him for it, in some ways he would never understand. She told me to set small goals for myself, like taking myself out to lunch for an hour a day. If that was all I got done, it was more than yesterday and the day before. I exhaled and finally learned to cut myself some slack. I would get where I wanted to be — I’d worked too hard not to — but it didn’t have to betomorrow.
While there’ve been hard days since that turning point — days when everything seems to go wrong and I think for a second I want to go back to the U.S. — those feelings don’t last long. I’ve found clubs and work projects to fill up my time and give me a sense of purpose. I’ve had the freedom to explore new career opportunities I didn’t have time to pursue earlier. I’ve become a better citizen of the world with a broader view on my own country and a greater respect for what makes us different.
All the other expats I’ve met here in the past 16 months, both dependent and non-dependent, have agreed it’s not always an easy life, but there’s no disputing it’s a good life. We get to explore, learn and grow, to travel to places perhaps reserved for post-retirement and share that with our family and friends. I’ve given more weight to my accomplishments and stopped apologizing for this new, odd life I have. I’ve learned to navigate a new country, to run a home even when I don’t speak the local language. I’ve developed a new confidence to put myself out there that will only serve me well in the years following this experience.
Yes, I’m a dependent. And while I may like to change the word, I wouldn’t change my mind about coming here. Because it’s a good life.