Life Abroad as a “Trailing Spouse”

Instead of
Instead of “trailing” how about “accompanying” spouse?

“Trailing spouse”: It’s a term that makes me grimace. The idea that there is one partner in the relationship that trails (by virtue of the word) behind the other. To me, the term “trailing spouse” brings with it a feeling of having less power, less say, less importance. That this person’s capacity is defined by their relationship to another person, that is, the non-trailing person.

How would you better describe this experience? Is there some catchy nomenclature we could apply that better accounts for the incredible courage and resilience that partners in this position display as they take on great challenges? What snappy term encompasses what it is like to approach the adventure of living abroad without the safety net of a job or post-doc to provide financial, social and professional security and consistency?

Beyond simple wordage, people in this situation encounter many challenges specific to being the partner who does not receive compensation and recognition for the difficulties inherent to living in their non-native country. We already know that people who live abroad are at a higher risk for anxiety, depression and substance use disorders than their domestic counterparts. But we know much less about the subset of individuals that fall within this “trailing spouse” category.

Here are some things we do know:

-Thanks to globalization, more people are living abroad than ever before

-Often, people are moving abroad at the same time when they are contemplating starting a family or are raising young children

-They may be giving up or compromising their own professional trajectories

-They are sometimes in bi-cultural partnerships

-There may be increased stress in the relationship with their partner as a result of moving or the partner’s new work responsibilities

-They have to set up new routines for themselves without a lot of information about what resources are available

-They may have to learn a new language

-There may be more financial stress

-There is less social support (at least initially)

-They may be exhausted from coordinating the move

-They may not know how long they will be living in their new country

-They may have to manage their family of origin’s reaction to their departure (i.e., guilt)

-They may have very little experience living abroad

-They may have felt pressured to move

-They may have a history of a mental health problem

There are many factors that could influence how well someone in this capacity copes with moving abroad. It is an almost infinitely complex experience that requires flexibility, courage and self-compassion along with a healthy sense of humor.

To those “trailing spouses” out there, you are not alone. You may be living in an incredibly beautiful country with more material or financial resources than you have ever had and still feel unhappy or lost. Your friends on Facebook may be in awe of the pictures that you post of your new domicile. In spite of this strange feeling of incongruence, it does not mean that you’re not adjusting or “doing it right.” Moving abroad with your family or spouse is a shock to the system and feels different for everyone. It is my hope that this post normalizes the experience of difficulty that so many experience when they move abroad.

When in doubt, talk to others in your position. Don’t be invisible. Or seek the support of a psychotherapist or other mental health practitioner. Other suggestions for making a smoother adjustment can be found here. It is certainly possible to survive and thrive as a “trailing spouse” but it takes time, self-compassion and courage to do and think about things differently.

(Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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Guided Practice: 20-Minute Body Scan

lyingdownOne of the foundational practices of mindfulness meditation is the “Body Scan,” introduced by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the early days of his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction courses at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. If you haven’t tried it, this link will take you to me guiding a 20-minute version of the practice.

(Photo courtesy of Steven Leonti)

Practice of the Week: Mindful Stair Walking

Stairs

One of the biggest obstacles that deters people from practicing mindfulness on a regular basis is the idea about how much time is needed. The formal practice of mindfulness conjures the image of people sitting quietly for many minutes. And while these bigger chunks of practice will help make mindfulness into a habit more quickly, informal practice is also useful. Mindful movement, or the intentional tuning in to the movements of everyday life, is one such way to practice informally.

I invite you to consider mindful stair-walking for your practice this week. Whether you’re at work, at home, or out and about, you can give this a try.

1) Stand at the base of the stairs. Feel the anticipation of movement building in your muscles.

2) Intentionally give the command to initiate the climbing movement. Perhaps repeating to yourself “lift, place, push” will help you to stay tuned in to each part of the step. Take it slow so that you can observe sensations as they arise.

3) Name physical sensations that you notice. Perhaps “burning” or “tingling” in the thigh muscles. What does it feel like when the heart beats faster? Can you notice your breath coming faster?

4) When you get to the top, take a moment to come to a standing position and notice how it feels for the body to be at rest.

5) Repeat on the way back down, feeling the momentum of the body working with gravity.

You could repeat these steps (no pun intended) more quickly or more slowly, or over a given number of minutes to experiment with noticing sensations of fatigue or impatience. This is a great practice to try on a day when your mind is quite busy or sleepy and you need a more vivid anchor to the present moment. It is also a fun way to practice in a public place and a good “mindfulness bell” for your daily routine.

Although it is potentially a very short practice, when repeated throughout the day, walking the stairs mindfully can provide a very effective and routine way to check back in to the moment at hand. So next time you’re standing in front of an elevator, try taking the stairs instead!

Approach Rather Than Avoid: Embracing Emotions to Minimize Suffering

Many of the clients who I see in my practice seek support as a result of unknowingly avoiding some or all of their emotional experience. Avoiding a painful or confusing emotion works really well in the short-term. So well that it often comes as a shock to people when it is suggested that they try something different. In real life, avoiding emotion often looks like avoiding certain situations or people, not a particular emotion itself. It is only when people grow frustrated with the results of living their life within these very particular confines that they begin to question what is truly driving the avoidance. Throughout the process of psychotherapy, they can begin to explore what it feels like to approach an experience rather than avoid it. In doing so, great richness can be found in relationships, opportunities for growth and a compassionate, empowered sense of self.

Take the example of a client I am seeing. As a child, she was the victim of prolonged sexual abuse by one of her primary caregivers. In order to survive this horrific experience, it became adaptive for her to eliminate feeling. The emotions one naturally feels were disabled so that she could navigate the world around her. She describes how, as she matured, it was difficult for her to turn her emotions back on in relationships after they lay dormant for so many years. As a result, she felt unable to express her opinions, frustrations and desires to her partner. She found herself avoiding conflict and intimacy. Resentment and hopelessness grew.

In our sessions together, we work toward enhancing her ability to identify her emotions earlier in the “cascade”. For her, this has meant tuning in to body sensations and the “bristly” feeling she experiences as a cue that something is going on for her emotionally. She can now label the emotions that she feels and is working to be able to express them in a way that empowers her. Although this work was initially very frightening for her, bit-by-bit she was able to challenge the belief that “emotions are dangerous” and instead see them as an important part of her psychological landscape.

It can be very confusing to recognize that not only do we avoid painful emotional experiences, but sometimes avoiding pleasurable experiences becomes a habit as well. As can be the case with depression, positive emotions can seem very threatening and the fear of disappointment can drive people to avoid acknowledgment of their own strengths, building healthy relationships or taking care of themselves. Although for the short-term this can result in a sense of self-sufficiency and insulation against pain, in the long-term it can lead to isolation and suffering.

Psychotherapy combines helping clients to see how avoidance worked for some time and how it was adaptive in order to cope with a stressor or painful situation. We talk about how reasonable it is to develop some way of keeping it together. At the same time, we discuss how this habitual way of responding usually does not work over the long term. We talk about how emotions, although powerful, do not have to overpower. My hope is that by cultivating their ability to approach rather than avoid, clients learn how to integrate their emotional experience with their values and long-term goals.

Mindfulness Reloaded

IMG_6452
The beach can be a buffet for the senses

Last week, I was on vacation in Florida. We spent a day at the beach during which I found myself mindfully aware- really awake- to sensations that were previously mundane. I watched my young son playing in the sand and wondered what this was like for him, given that he was experiencing this beach day as a true beginner. I tapped into my “beginner’s mind” and opened my awareness to all sensations equally: the sand between my toes, the breeze on my face, the warmth from the sun, that distinctly oceany smell. When I noticed my mind clinging to any particular sensation, I took note and then expanded outward.

Yes, I think it is easier to be mindful of sensations that are inherently pleasurable and evoke positive emotions. But my overall pleasant experience of the beach was no less interesting. I watched as my mind worked harder than usual to cram all the goodness in, almost bingeing on the details of the experience. Simultaneously, I saw my mind never letting go of the idea and images of what we were not experiencing back in Switzerland (which my mind deemed “bad”): cold, cloudy, wet days of winter. I was aware that my mind was both enjoying the feast while preparing for the famine. There was a hurried and almost gluttonous pace to my practice that day.

Now that I am back in Switzerland (where it is indeed cold, cloudy and wet), my mind often boomerangs back to the memories from that beautiful day. I notice a range of emotions- longing predominant among them. Yet when my awareness widens beyond the images of the beach, I notice the less exotic but pleasurable sensations of contentment, warmth, ease, the breath. I recognize that this is a “famine” that I can manage.

I have heard happiness described as “the lack of sadness.” This definition suggests that the contrast between states is responsible for generating the emotion, or perhaps recognition of the emotion. However, being mindful showcases the possibility of many emotions existing together and that the recognition of difficulty sometimes makes ease feel sweeter. Practicing mindfulness illustrates that the mind is a wonderful, curious and incessantly complex lens through which we experience our circumstances.

As I go forward with my mindfulness practice in 2015, I intend to bring this lesson with me: that experiences can be wonderful and mundane and thrilling and uncomfortable all at the same time. And that the feast and the famine only exist as such because that is how my mind labels them in a given moment. Each experience is colored by the context of our thinking and that is absolutely ok.

12 Tips for Surviving (and Thriving in) Expatriate Life

Life abroad is equal parts adventure and hard work
Life abroad is equal parts adventure and hard work

Moving to a new country is not easy and can challenge even the most thick-skinned adventurer. As a psychologist, mother and weathered survivor of a move abroad, I hope I can offer you a number of tips that will help you to flourish in your new expatriate home.

1. Keep your sense of humor. This is far and away the most important piece of advice. Without an ability to step back from a situation and laugh at yourself, your time as an expatriate will be difficult. Just yesterday, my son and I used the boys’ locker room at the pool. I did not know the German word for “boy” and there wasn’t a visual representation on the door so after a quick eeney-meeney-miney-mo, we chose one. Luckily it was empty but the lifeguard informed us later of our mistake. After turning a deep shade of fushia, I laughed and vowed to start German lessons.

2. Learn the language. Before moving to the German-speaking part of Switzerland, we lived for three years in the French-speaking part. I found that learning French helped me feel more connected to the community. For instance, once I learned how to properly tell the cashier at the grocery store to “have a nice day,” I relished the smiles I received in turn. However, make sure that your expectations regarding language learning are reasonable or you risk demoralization. Most native speakers will appreciate your efforts and overlook your mistakes.

3. Find a group. I found that taking language classes was an important way to meet other people who could share my experience of being abroad and learning something new. Connecting with people helps to ease the feeling of isolation that naturally occurs after moving abroad. If you have a baby or small child, see if there is a teacher willing to provide lessons to you and a friend at your home. Sharing a teacher cuts costs. Taking lessons is activating, creates routine and contributes to the development of a social support network, which is crucial for most people to maintain their mental health. If you already speak the language, joining a running group, church or parenting group may be something else to consider.

4. Find your niche. What did you do in your home country that helped you feel like yourself? Are you a gym rat? A coffee house aficionado? Are you a movie buff or an animal lover? Sports fan? Do you enjoy volunteering? Find a place in your new location that supports pursuits where you can connect with those parts of your personality. Perhaps it is a special park or museum or even the public library. Integrate a visit into your routine so that it can be a place to check in with yourself on a regular basis.

5. Be aware of your personal risk factors. Prior to moving abroad, I had no idea how much the weather could impact my mood. As a native Floridian, I never had the opportunity to see how three weeks of gray weather would affect me. And now I know. When I feel edginess or low motivation coming on during a spell of bad weather, I have a plan for managing it. And other factors can also impact how you feel you are handling your expatriate life, such as hormones, stress, loneliness, change in physical activity level, change in diet, lack of sleep. Know your triggers and how to work with them.

6. Cultivate friends with whom you can both brag and whinge. There is a tendency in the early years of life abroad to join any social opportunity that presents itself but at some point, it may be important to select which relationships to focus on in order to cultivate more quality than quantity. I would recommend finding friends with whom you can both brag and “whinge” (whining binge). These are people who can celebrate small victories with you because they recognize that life is difficult and can also listen nonjudgmentally to you when you just need to vent.

7. Give yourself a year- or more. A client once reported to me that she was having a “bad Switzerland day” after experiencing a number of incidents that she felt illustrated the worst part of the country’s cultural values. These days will occur a lot in the first year and into the following years. Resist the urge to make any big decisions on these days and start fresh the next day. Beyond that, the mounds of PAPERWORK and reorganization involved in moving abroad often takes an ENTIRE year before it is settled. However, take your time and monitor your stress level. It will get done.

8. Resist culture blaming- you’ll just feel more isolated. We expatriates are in a unique position to compare our own native cultures to our host culture. There are some things that work better and some things that may not work as well. When you notice yourself tallying all the things that do not work as well, resist the tendency toward all-or-nothing thinking. When you start to feel like the culture itself is flawed, you will only feel more alone. Let the thoughts and emotions pass and recognize that you may feel differently the next day. Cultivate a gently curious “let’s see how I feel tomorrow” mindset.

9. Be aware of resentment in your partnership. This is an insidious scourge of expatriate relationships. Often, one partner is relocated abroad while the other goes along. When things are not working well for the partner who does not have the benefit of routine and socialization provided by employment, it is easy to hold the other partner responsible. Be open about how you are feeling with your partner so that resentment does not fester. Recognize that acculturation is hard and ask your partner for extra support and patience while you attend to self-care. Your relationship will be better for it, even if it means spending more money or time to get what you need.

10. Establish a routine but leave room for spontaneity. Following a major life transition, routine and predictability are very important. Setting in place a rhythm can help you to increase your resilience to the small and large bumps in the road that will inevitably occur. Even small routines like going for a walk every evening, or visiting your favorite coffee shop each week, or buying an English newspaper will help you to establish a sense of order. However, avoid clutching rigidly to routine- if an unexpected opportunity for joy or long-term gratification occurs, seize the moment.

11. Keep your traditions but adopt some new ones. At our house, we have established a “Swiss-giving” tradition (no turkey, just a big chicken!) that helps me to tap into holidays that are important to me and to teach my son about his American heritage. Advocate for those traditions that help you and your family connect to what is important for you. It may not look exactly the same but the intention itself is affirming. On the same token, partake in the local traditions and try them on for size. Is there space for you and your family to integrate them into your way of life? If so, new and unexpected pleasures await you.

12. Get support in your native language. Need a little extra support as you adjust to life abroad? There is no shame in finding a professional who can help you to figure out your own plan for flourishing, whether a medical practitioner, psychologist, yoga teacher, midwife or priest. If possible, finding someone who speaks your mother tongue as a native speaker is ideal but otherwise make sure it is someone with whom you can freely utilize the richness of language to describe how you are feeling and doing.

(Image courtesy of khunaspix at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)