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Trailing spouses and depression

Some of my clients identify themselves as “trailing spouses.” They use this term to indicate that they have followed their husbands, either within Canada or around the world, moving whenever their husbands’ jobs demanded that they move.

Frequently, these women would stay behind in the city they were leaving, after their husbands accepted the promotions, so that they could “close up shop” and coordinate the move for the entire family. Sometimes the situation would entail waiting until the children had completed the school year before following their husbands to a new location. It typically meant staying behind to sell their current home, packing up the family belongings, and arranging to have those belongings shipped to the new location they were heading to.

Trailing spouses are not always women, but in my professional experience this has been the case.

Women who are trailing spouses (please substitute the word “men” for “women” as you read this article if it makes sense to do so) share with me that they have spent years, and sometimes decades, moving homes whenever their husbands came home and told them they were being transferred.

Accepting these moves made complete sense, especially early on in their marriages. The moves usually came with promotions, or the promise of career advancement. The moves were exciting, particularly for the husbands, and the women were happy to oblige because it meant that the whole family would benefit down the road.

These moves made particular sense when the women were at home, raising children. The women had frequently already stepped out of their own careers, even if temporarily, and were happy to be flexible to support their husbands. They anticipated that they would be able to find meaningful work in the new city they were moving to, once the family had settled in and life had returned to normal.

When trailing spouses come to see me, however, it is usually because something has gone wrong. These clients have supported their spouse for years, accepting move after move, often as frequently as once every three years, for a prolonged period of time.

When trailing spouses come to see me, they are often suffering the long-term consequences of these frequent uprootings. These women feel socially isolated because they have torn the fabric of their social worlds repeatedly. They are tired and are unwilling, and often unable, to marshal the energy to build a new circle of friends, anticipating they will be told to close up shop in another three years yet again. They tell me it’s too painful to have to lose people they love, over and over.

These women tell me they have subjugated their own career for the sake of their husband’s career, and are feeling the long-term effects of these sacrifices. Subjugating their own career made sense at the beginning because their husbands were climbing the management hierarchy at work, even though the women’s careers were languishing.

These women often explain to me that they would quit a good job that they had enjoyed to follow their husbands, and would lose any seniority they had earned each time they quit another job. They speak about having had to search for a new job each time they arrived in a new city, and having to prove their worth each time they arrived to work with new colleagues.

These women speak about not qualifying for pensions when they reach their 50s because they started new positions over and over again with new organizations, rather than staying in one place long enough to accrue the long-term benefits.

Sometimes these women have been out of the work force for prolonged periods of time because it didn’t make sense to try to keep a career going with the frequency of moves they were asked to participate in. Sometimes they made the decision to not work because their children were showing signs of the stress that comes with frequently being uprooted, and the women chose to put their children’s needs ahead of their own.

When these women arrive at my office, they are usually depressed. They tell me they can’t continue to be a trailing spouse because the cost outweighs the benefits. We discuss this fact, and I support them in their assertions that the cost has indeed been high.

We also discuss the fact that the husbands of trailing spouses sometimes have difficulty supporting their wives emotionally because they don’t understand why their wives are distressed. For the husbands, moving around the country or around the world has frequently been a grand ride, full of intellectual pursuits, rewarding challenges, and opportunities for advancement, and they may not have paid sufficient attention to the cost their wives have paid to follow them.

Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta 

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