real life

The trailing spouse

I have a number of friends who have moved interstate or overseas for work. Most of them have been in a relationship at the time which makes things extremely tricky. If one partner has an opportunity for major career advancement or just the opportunity to do something they love, how does that impact upon the other?

You don’t want to crush your partner’s dreams but what about YOUR life? They may be fulfilled or you might take a joint decision that it makes sense financially but what happens to the other person who has to make a new life in a country not of their choosing?

I love a syndrome with a name and this one doesn’t disappoint: Trailing Spouses. And in most cases, it’s the woman.

CNN recently published an article about it…..

It’s common for couples to place more emphasis on the man’s career, according to a 2007 study of more than 9,000 married men and women ages 25-59. The researchers, from the University of Iowa and the University of California-Davis, also found that when couples relocate, the husband tends to get a salary boost — $3,000 on average. But the wife loses $750.

“When couples migrate, they are [typically] doing it for the benefit of the husband’s career, and so the wife is what we call the ‘trailing spouse,'” says study author Mary Noonan, associate professor of sociology at the University of Iowa. “She may have to take a job in the new location that is a less-than-ideal match for her skills [or] qualifications.”

Why do couples, even today, let the woman’s job take a back seat? Blame it on socialization, says Noonan.

While it may not be true for every relationship, more often than not, she says, “men and women are taught to play very different roles within marriage. Women are socialized to play a homemaking role within the family, whereas men are encouraged to focus on their careers and breadwinning.”

Experts have some tips for couples clashing over a career move:

Trade places. “It takes some heartfelt conversations to begin balancing the career scales in a marriage,” says Les Parrott, a clinical psychologist and faculty member at Seattle Pacific University. “It requires both spouses to be honest with their feelings.”

Parrott asks clients to list what’s important to them about their careers, assigning each element a value from 1 to 10. After each spouse makes a list, they try to guess how much their partner values each item. “It’s almost always an eye-opener,” says Parrott. “It helps them empathize. It helps them trade places. And with that new perspective, they are ready for a more honest and grace-filled exploration of their options together.”

Try the “package deal” approach. When a couple is considering relocating, Buccino says, one spouse should see what the new company can do for the other.

Switch off. Buccino says the fluidity of today’s job market gives couples “opportunities to evaluate and re-evaluate and hopefully switch off between whose career takes priority at various phases along the marital life cycle.”

When neither is willing to budge, there’s always the long-distance marriage.”I have seen two-career couples that live in two different cities,” Buccino says, “because neither is willing to pass up great career opportunities.”

While such an arrangement may be a good interim move, it can take a toll on the relationship. “Some couples have not made it,” Buccino says. “If they’re committed to each other and the relationship, and otherwise so busy with work when apart, then it can work. But I’m not sure I’d recommend it as a first choice.”


Have you ever had friction in a relationship over careers?


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