A toolkit for trailing spouses

By Peace Farideh Azad, MEd, MSW, with Rachel Middagh

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Moving far from family, friends and a familiar way of life can be very challenging, because these things give us a sense of security and belonging. Work offers us a great sense of value and importance, and if you are a supporting spouse, you likely left your job in the move as well. The combination of these two losses can cause many people to feel like they have lost everything, including their identity.

Experiencing this sense of loss and confusion is normal. But coping with these feelings and thriving in their wake sometimes requires a plan.  Resetting expectations, understanding how thoughts and activities affect your mood, and having an “inspiring” action plan are all valuable tools to help you survive your new role as a trailing spouse.

Accept and understand

A fulfilling job provides so much more than income. Being part of a work community, developing expertise and proficiency, and contributing to a larger goal can create feelings of greater self-respect and selfworth. Work is an important part of how we identify ourselves. Many of my clients are stay-at-home mothers in Shanghai. They often tell me how much they miss their career and the stimulation it provided them, and this does not mean they don’t enjoy raising their children and supporting their spouses. Rather, if you studied or worked many years in your field of interest, accept and understand that it is natural that, if you enjoyed and loved what you did, you would miss it. 

Be responsible for yourself

When supporting spouses first arrive in Shanghai, it is sometimes with a sense of elation. No work and the opportunity to have household help and childcare can offer a welcome break to people who were run off their feet back home. For most though, this elation soon fades, as they are left alone with little to do and too much time on their hands. Unfortunately some spouses can end up feeling lonely, bored and directionless.

One client, after arriving in Shanghai, grew increasingly lonely and unhappy as her husband threw himself into his new position. She told me that the only time she felt happy was when her husband would come home and they could spend time together. During our sessions we discussed how she could seek activities that would lessen her sense of abandonment and isolation. She gradually improved after joining a volunteer organization, finding community and meaningful work. Most importantly, she came to understand that her spouse could not meet all her emotional needs, and that she was responsible for creating a satisfying life in his absence.

Know what makes you happy

There are other practical things we can do to improve our feelings of wellbeing while in Shanghai.  One technique that is helpful is to know what makes you happy. Make a list of things that inspire you, such as cycling, crafting, dancing or being close to nature. Then, make a point of including these things in your week. Slowly increase the number of positive activities in your routine to build a happy and emotionally healthy life in Shanghai. For best results, join a group of people who also share your passion, or start one yourself.

It is also important to take note of the things that make you sad. For example, if it depresses you to go back to bed after your spouse and children leave for the day, stop doing it and replace it with an activity you enjoy. It could be as simple as playing uplifting music and dancing. I had one client who loved Barbara Streisand! A few times a week, when she felt painfully alone, she played Streisand DVDs and sang along. She told me it always worked to help her feel better. If certain times of day are especially difficult, schedule a visit with friends or other activities to avoid feeling down.

Make it work

Although careers and jobs are often shuffled to the backburner while in Shanghai, some trailing spouses are simply not comfortable taking a sabbatical while living abroad. Some of my clients respond very favorably to using this time in Shanghai to pursue further training and education. There are many institutions that have comprehensive remote study programs, and online classes abound. Some forward-thinking companies also offer their employees online training options. Ask your employer what skills would make you a more valuable employee upon repatriation to best maximize your time away.

 

Shanghai also offers a unique opportunity for reinvention. Many trailing spouses find that, in the absence of their job and professional community, they have a newfound sense of freedom to do whatever they want. Treasured hobbies and neglected pastimes can be turned into a job with time, effort, and above all, networking. Seek out like-minded people, ask lots of questions, and get your name out there to find your new niche.

 

This article first appeared in the CARE magazine published by Community Center Shanghai