‘My identity went’: Mental health issues torment trailing spouses

When women follow their husbands on an expatriate journey, they often experience loneliness and loss of self worth.

mental health of trailing spouses
Most 'trailing spouses' are women and leave their careers behind when moving abroad [Jawahir Hassan Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Doha, Qatar – At first, Elsbeth Blekkenhorst was excited about moving to a new country. 

She left her job at Mercer, the world’s largest human resources consulting firm after her husband was offered a tax lawyer position in Doha. 

She thought the opportunity would be beneficial for her husband and relieve her from the corporate world of London, where she had spent most of her life.

But after arriving in the Qatari capital, the days went by slowly as she unpacked and did housework while her husband was out at work. 

Bored and alone for most of the day, she soon felt regret.

“My whole identity went,” she told Al Jazeera. “I began questioning my sense of value, like whether I was any use to society sitting at home or if it was a waste of time.

“There was this ‘now what?’ feeling when I first arrived eight years ago.”

Blekkenhorst is known as a “trailing spouse” – a term coined in 1981 by The Wall Street Journal’s Mary Bralove to convey how wives sacrifice their career plans.

The transition didn't come very naturally to me - I had more time than I knew what to do with.

by Mubaraka Ahmed, legal researcher

Behind closed doors, partners who follow their spouses can spend long amounts of time in isolation in an unfamiliar country without an established network, often contemplating their left-behind careers.

“The new environment changed me without even realising,” said Sahdia Ghulam, a physician who is now a stay-at-home mother after she and her husband moved to Doha. “I did feel isolated and lonely at times. Sometimes other people would point it out and I began to miss who I was.”

According to InterNations’ 2015 Expat Insider Survery, 84 percent of trailing spouses are women, and 72 percent of non-working spouses said they left a career when moving abroad. 

“Being an expat has its own set of challenges. A common thread is losing the support network in your home country, which can include the fulfilment found in a strong background, like education or work,” said Sam Nabil, a therapist and founder of Naya Clinics, which offers counselling to international expatriates facing challenging transitions.

Nabil moved from the United States to Qatar at the age of 24.

In the tiny Gulf state, more than 85 percent of the population is comprised of foreigners. 

“I found myself working long hours and spending the rest at the mall buying things I didn’t even need. It was difficult to invest time in building relationships,” he said. 

After seeking medical help for anxiety and depression, he was disappointed to have been prescribed pills to ease his mental health challenges. 

“The need for human connection to treat psychological issues is tucked under the rug,” said Nabil, who explained that stigma against mental health is not limited to one country. “If you break your arm, no one feels embarrassed about seeing a doctor, but if you break your heart, people feel ashamed asking for help to fix it.”

‘Have a goal in mind’

Ren Wlasiuk is a life coach accredited by the International Coaching Federation and writer for the support group Qatar Expat Women. 

She said some expatriate women tend to “lock themselves away”, instead of taking an opportunity to “reinvent themselves” to avoid losing their identities.

But reinventing requires personal initiative, according to Mubarka Ahmad, who moved to Qatar four years ago from the UK after her husband was offered a position at a clinic in Doha. 

Before having children, Ahmad was a legal researcher with a master’s degree in law.

“The transition didn’t come very naturally to me – I had more time than I knew what to do with. I was a student and an employee for a long time, so I always had something leading my schedule for me,” she said. “It’s easy to feel down or depressed when you don’t have that productive day that you used to.”

During her transition period, Ahmad said she found it difficult to “find her feet”.

“Self-motivation is huge because you need to inspire yourself in a productive way. You find ways that maybe aren’t as intellectually stimulating, but entail productivity with a new identity as a mother or as a spouse.”

After feeling a similar loss in terms of her self-worth, Blekkenhorst began several businesses in Qatar and currently owns an online shoe boutique. 

“My husband was very supportive. But I know a lot of my friend’s don’t have husbands who understand the struggle, and it ruins their relationship,” she said.

To avoid spousal resentment and maintain one’s mental health, Wlasuik advises women to evaluate what they want from the expatriate experience.

“You need to have a goal in mind to avoid wandering aimlessly for two years, and then realising you’ve become a completely different person and actually not like yourself,” she said. “Even if you do [adapt] as a result of the environmental change, at least you’re aware of it and not lost.”

Above all, she recommends communication.

“Reach out,” she said. “You are not alone. You are not the first one to go through this, and you are certainly not the last.”

Source: Al Jazeera