What NOT to Say to a Trailing Spouse


Over the past several months I’ve been faced with a few questions and comments about my life choices. Most of them are basic questions, asked out of love, caring and curiosity, but then there are others that have just rubbed me the wrong way. From complete strangers giving me career and financial advice, to new acquaintances asking me personal questions that are really none of their business, I feel like I’ve heard it all.

And I knew I mustn’t be alone. My situations in Canada, Spain and England can’t be unique, so I reached out to other expats and trailing spouses (or love migrants as one referred to herself) to find out what questions and comments they get asked that hurt their feelings, made them feel judged, or just rubbed them the wrong way. I received a number of responses, but there were a few themes/comments/words that seemed to pop up over and over again.

So, without further ado, here’s what NOT to say to an expat or trailing spouse:

What do you do all day? Don’t you get bored?

This question popped up in almost every response I received. It is probably one of the questions I am asked the most, and the one I enjoy answering the least. Not that I have to justify how I spend my time, but between writing for and running this blog, and developing its brand; completing assignments and homework for my creative travel writing course; fulfilling my freelance obligations; looking for work, and completing applications and cover letters; and, socializing, staying healthy and exploring, there aren’t very many hours left in the day.

It also shouldn’t be assumed that my life stops or is boring just because my partner isn’t around or I don’t have a typical 9-to-5 job that fills my time. It is possible to live a very full and fulfilling life without going to a day job, something that I’ve learned over the past year and a bit. I actually enjoy my time more now that I’m in control of how I spend it.

Tracey, author of Journal of a City Girl, also seems to get this question quite often: 

NO! This slightly less conventional way of life, this semi-nomadic lifestyle has taught me that we are so much more than just our jobs. A job does not define who you are. I am privileged to move country every few years, thus every day is filled with new experiences and people, even going grocery shopping is now an adventure.

Sometimes it feels just as soon as we have set up a house, unpacked the last box, and finally found your favourite local burger joint it’s time to pack up and start again – so there is never a dull moment, no.

Are you going to have a baby?

Although I’ve never been subject to this question, it seems that many people see living a trailing spouse lifestyle as the perfect opportunity to have a baby.

Danielle of LiveRecklessly.com has this to say: [One[ of the more annoying questions I get [is]: “do you think you’ll just have kids now that you have all this spare time?” …Because children are the perfect antidote to boredom?!

A sentiment Tacey echoed, but for different reasons: When are you having children? Not any time in the foreseeable future! It is challenging enough just moving us and our cat across the globe periodically at the drop of a hat’s notice. Adding children to the mix would add a whole new dimension of consideration, planning and resources, that we are nowhere near ready to take on.

So, you’re just following them?

I’m going to try to keep my ranting to a minimum, but let me just say that I HATE this question. I know most people are probably asking it without any malicious intent, but just don’t. Don’t ask it. Or at least don’t use the word follower. There’s really no way to make that sound like a compliment. This question makes my blood boil more than any other.<end rant>

No, I’m not following my partner. We made this decision together. I’m their partner, not a sheep, groupie, or hostage. It should never be assumed or inferred that one partner makes all the decisions and that the other just follows blindly, giving up their life and dreams.

This inference wouldn’t be there if we didn’t live abroad, so why is it there just because we’ve chosen to live a less conventional lifestyle?

Danielle of LiveRecklessly.com has faced similar questions when she announced to her co-workers that she and her fiance were moving from Australia to the USA:

One Aussie co-worker even told me at the time of the move “wow – good on you. I’m way too much of a feminist to move for a guy”. I think I had to pick my jaw off the floor at that one, and delicately explain that moving overseas with my fiancé was a decision we made together and didn’t mean I was handing my soul over to the patriarchy.

To be honest, I don’t love the label ‘trailing spouse’. Moving interstate or overseas should always be a joint decision, rather than one person ‘trailing’ behind another. While it isn’t always the case, both people should be able to benefit from the move and enjoy the experience of living in a new city. It’s a rare but wonderful opportunity.

And, finally, it’s not always about what people do ask, rather what people don’t ask, as Mae-Gene, author of the Wandering Suitcase pointed out:

In social situations when we meet new people (we moved from Melbourne, Australia to Boston, USA and hence our accents stand out here) we are always asked: “what brought you to Boston”. The response to this is my partner’s sponsored place at MIT to study his MBA.

The follow-up question to this is always what did my husband do before moving, however, I am very rarely asked: “what did you do before coming here?” It is almost assumed that since I moved with him, I didn’t do anything or that I am purely secondary to his career. As someone who has had a very fulfilling career back at home, this has been a very difficult adjustment to make. Most people who meet a “trailing spouse” wrongly assume that that one spouse “followed” the other, however, what they don’t realise is that the decision to move is joint and that it is not about one spouse moving to support the other.

Expat and trailing spouse life can be hard enough without other people making comments or asking questions that make us feel bad. While I know most everyone means well and aren’t asking questions to be mean, there are just certain words and comments that make it seem like we’re being judged or belittled for our choices, and as if we’re secondary players in our own lives.

Moral of the story: Pause and think about your words, don’t assume, and if you wouldn’t ask a friend those questions at home, maybe don’t ask an expat.

A huge thank you goes out to Tracey, Journal of a City Girl, Mae-Gene, The Wandering Suitcase, and Danielle of LiveRecklessly.com, who responded to my pleas and helped me out with this post.

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4 thoughts on “What NOT to Say to a Trailing Spouse

  1. mininina76 says:

    Make the most if your adventure and learn to laugh at these questions. Seriously, Just laugh in their face ! I had a job and I still got this…
    The right people always pop up and you will have a blast 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kat Truman says:

    I think my most challenging questions where in regards to if I always wanted to move to another country, it always seemed to imply I snared my husband in order to see the world. The other was challenging me on my heritage and political stance of my home country from people that often were poorly informed and judgmental. But maybe that was more my insecurities showing. But after living abroad for a great number of years I am glad to say that I moved back home last spring and could not be happier.


  3. cjgainer says:

    As a male “trailing spouse” I found this article most timely. Just as I was getting settled into my routine here in the Netherlands and had a few positive freelance positions lined up, it seems we may (or may not) be on a short notice assignment to the UK.

    As much as I dislike gender bias, I find myself subject to it in the context that I am not the “bread winner” in my relationship. It’s most interesting for me to reflect on how life must have been for my ex-wife when I was the “bread winner” and she was my “trailing spouse” during my 15 year military career.

    Now the inverse is true as I “follow” my wife through her career in oil and gas, I have a much greater appreciation for how hard it can be for the spouse to create something out of nothing in every new location at short notice.

    You’re spot on when it comes to the questions that are asked – up to and including that of having children – where in our case, there is a possibility that we shall, and that I would remain the “house husband”. It does become tiring feeling the need to always explain yourself to others in order to satisfy their conventional views and opinions.

    Like yourself, I am building my own blog and perform freelance work which is most suitable when put besides the rigour and demands of my wife’s career. We have discussed and decided that it’s more important that I have the flexibility to provide her TIME and support above anything else.

    Thanks for the article. I would like to link it and reference it in some of my own future posts.

    Liked by 2 people

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