When it’s a Spouse Trailing Under Duress
I’ve just had lunch with a STUD. No, this was not a hot date, but a perfectly correct meeting with a Spouse Trailing Under Duress aka …STUD. This is an affectionately humerous moniker given in Brussels to male partners following the careers of their female counterparts.
Jim is blissfully married to the beautiful and successful Angela and has 2 wonderful children. They moved to Brussels from the US 9 months ago with Angela’s job as a senior VP with an international fmcg company. Jim and Angela were a two career family, so considerable discussion was needed before Jim finally decided to put his own career as a Sales Director in a B2B construction company on hold.
It was apparently not as agonising a process as I had imagined. ” There really was no duress! The opportunity, not just for Angela, but the whole family, was too great to turn down. The construction industry was badly hit last year in the US and although I still had my job, the company had been forced to make many lay offs. I wasn’t sure how much longer things could go on. Career wise Angela’s sector is buoyant and is pretty recession proof. The girls will get a wonderful education at a top international school. We are here for 3 years and intend to maximise the opportunity. ”
But what about his own career and professional challenges? ” What I missed most initially, was the structure of a working environment and the basic interaction and collaboration with colleagues. I struggled with not being able to define myself by my profession, thinking I would be perceived negatively – but I got over that pretty quickly. I’m setting up my own internet based business , so I just say that if anyone really pushes and I’m also taking an online MBA. So combined with being a “House Dad ” I’m pretty busy. ”
I asked Jim if he was afraid that those 3 years might impact his career long-term? “ I don’t think anyone can tell any more what will happen in 3 years. The economies are too uncertain. I intend to go back with additional skills and hopefully an understanding of international business. I think the experience is changing me and I may decide to do something completely different. I think people imagine we guys play golf and poker all day! But it’s not true. It’s also about how you sell it when you get back. I’ve read your blogs! ”
Aaah thank you! Someone reads!
I have trailed as a spouse, not once, but twice. Both occasions involved significant decisions impacting every part of my life and were not taken lightly. This was many years ago, long before global and mobility had morphed into biz speak and were simply two disconnected words in the dictionary. Facebook, email, Twitter, Skype and texts were just twinkles in a cyber geek’s eye and those were the days when I would almost knock the postman off his moped in my rush to get my letters! Remember those? Paper!
Back then it was regrettably mainly women who trailed with a multitude of organisations set up to support their assimilation. Now in dual income households where both partners have career parity and happily there are more women occupying senior roles, that is changing, but no less challenging. It’s becoming yet another interesting career transition.
Spouses and onboarding
In executive search when placing anyone internationally, I always hope that strong support arrangements are in hand for any trailing partners. Today, this can be either the man or the woman. The working partner tends to slip into an existing business structure and support network, which is quite often the same one they left behind in the previous country. All they do is go into a different office very day. This is not to diminish their challenges, but they are rarely completely isolated. So our mantra is that if the trailing spouse is happy – everyone is happy.
Each move will be unique and the success will depend on the destination country and culture, combined with the backgrounds and personalities not just of the working partner, but the whole family. I have seen many executives ask to be repatriated or even leave their companies altogether, because their partners or perhaps kids could not make the transition into an adopted country. Many marraiges end in divorce. Many organisations will provide either relocation or cross cultural support for the trailing spouse, because all research indicates that effective onboarding of the employee can be negatively impacted by an unhappy trailing partner. Some companies also provide allowances for language lessons, re-training and even coaching. Most countries have expat support organisations and very often national communities overseas have groups supporting incoming families.
What advice would Jim give to anyone in the same position? ” Consider it all from every angle. Financial, the kids, both careers, the shift in dynamics within relationships when one person who is used to working, stops, with the other one shouldering the burden exclusively. The whole family has to be committed and on board. It’s definitely not something to do if your partnership isn’t 100% sound. There are lots of challenges which you don’t have if you’d stayed at home and there is very limited network to call upon especially in the early stages. Otherwise – just go for it!”
In Brussels, the Belgian STUDS organisation is set up to deal with trailing male spouses trailing successfully under duress