The Trailing Dilemma

Trailing spouse. You can’t be an expat and not have an intimate relationship with those two words. In fact, being or having a trailing spouse is not just relegated to expat territory. Rather, it’s a universal issue of humankind that bores deep into the essence of a relationship, if not your very identity itself.

The best illustration of the dilemma of the trailing spouse is brought to you by Grey’s Anatomy, Season 11, Episodes 1-4. (Don’t judge me. I have been binge-watching Grey’s Anatomy for the past year. I have teenage daughters who got me hooked. Also, spoiler alert!) At the end of Season 10, Derek took on an important government brain surgery research project and wants to move the family to DC, but at the start of Season 11 Meredith ultimately decides that she doesn’t want to leave Seattle. She tells Derek she won’t give up her job as a surgeon to become the trailing spouse. This prompts Derek to relent and resign his position on the research commission so that he can stay with his family. But does that make Meredith happy? No. Because she full well knows that he is now going to play the victim and blame HER for the decision HE made. She rightfully points out that it was his decision alone, but of course she is also aware that living separately with two kids between them would have had its own problems. Is there a way out? (I don’t know the answer in this particular case – I am currently on Season 11, Episode 5.)

If you don’t know these characters, you’ll think, what was the big deal? Why doesn’t she just take a similar job at another hospital and continue her career there? If you DO know the characters, you’ll love Meredith for what she did there. If you are a woman, that is.

Because it IS a big deal for her to stand her ground (aside from the fact that her moving away would have totally screwed up the plot). I’m not a surgeon, much less the leading neuro-surgeon in the country, but looking back at my life I had that very same decision to make. Except I made it in about 2 seconds and happily gave up my friends and my job (and my minivan!) to move from North Carolina all the way to Singapore to support my husband’s career, our 1-year old son in tow. Saying no, saying “I don’t know what you’ll decide but I want to stay here and continue to work, even though I’m making peanuts compared to you” never entered my mind. I belonged at his side, I was happy for him to have this opportunity, I was looking forward to the adventure. My own career? I threw that under the bus without a second thought.

Couple with toddler strolling in Singapore
Clearly I was not fit to make any decisions in my early 30s, judging by my choice of haircut!

Twenty years later, you find yourself in a very different place. You’ve taken a big chunk out of your life to follow wherever the trail leads, and you eventually get just the tiniest bit tired of always trailing along. But by now you’ve been out of the workforce for such a long time, how do you build something for yourself again that allows you to stay put for once? And where do you even want to be?

Don’t get me wrong, I have no regrets. Every step that we took was the right decision at the time. But if I were to counsel any young married woman – it is still usually the woman, though nowadays there are more and more exceptions – setting out on a similar path today, I would say: “Proceed with caution. Don’t rush into this without thinking about the consequences. You are your own person. You are allowed to make plans for yourself, aside from the plans for your family. There will come a time that you may regret not thinking about yourself, your work, your personal goals, your dreams.”

As in Derek and Meredith’s case, thinking about yourself first isn’t nearly as selfish as it sounds. It is actually the right thing to do by your partner. Because the alternative is NOT to be selfish and to happily trail behind – and start breeding resentments just the tiniest little bit. Over the years, those might accumulate, and then you haven’t done your partner any favors.

I once read an essay called The Simple Marriage Manifesto by Dr. Corey Allen (more information at http://www.simplemarriage.net). Its premise is that the best marriages are those where each partner is focused on “creating a great life and allowing your spouse to be the ‘icing’ on the cake.” I believe that this is what the writers of Grey’s Anatomy so beautifully zeroed in on. Of course, this makes a lot of sense in a TV Series. You have to have great individual characters, even – or especially – if they are in a relationship. But in real life, we often put the relationship above the individuals. In the long run that puts a lot of strain on that very relationship. Perhaps we should all try to live a little more like TV characters.

“One of the scariest aspects of marriage is the fact that your spouse is a separate being beyond your control. They can behave however they like and can choose to do whatever they want,” the manifesto goes on to say. What an alien concept, right? It almost sounds revolutionary to say these words out loud, but in fact it’s the honest truth.

To become a trailing spouse – or let your partner become one – is not really the natural state of things. It’s just the much easier route to go at that moment in time. But as John F. Kennedy once said, “We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”

If you want to take your marriage as far as the moon, remember that you might first have to learn to stand on your own two feet.

For another look at the Trailing Spouse dilemma, check out Trailing: A Memoir.

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