When a couple emigrate it is usually because one of them has a job offer, or sees better career opportunities abroad. It is rarer for both of them to be in that position. The other partner is called ‘the trailing spouse’ and it is in the nature of things that, even nowadays, the trailer is usually a woman.
My own eight year stint as a trailing spouse is about to come to an end, with no more harm done than a weight problem caused by lack of winter exercise and a loathing for snow that will probably last the rest of my life, but for many trailing spouses the risks are high.
They will often have to give up career opportunities at home in order to allow their partner to pursue his abroad. In the host country, their qualifications and experience may not be easily translated into an equivalent job and career. This can lead to isolation, loss of sense of identity and depression. Many get round the problem by taking a career break to have children, but this means they have even more difficulty getting back into the job market later on.
But, the difficulties they face assimilating may be as nothing compared with the obstacles if they decide to return home. If their partner refuses, then marital breakdown is on the cards. Alternatively, the marital breakdown occurs first and they then want to return home where they can resume their old lives and careers. Either way, they are likely to find that their financial security and custody of their children is dependent on the family laws of the host country.
There is a regular stream of women in this position who seek advice and support on the ex-pat forum that I contribute to. Thanks to the British press, most people are aware of the difficulties a woman may face getting custody of her children in a Middle-Eastern country where the law gives men most of the rights. But, it is less well known that most American states will be reluctant to allow a child to be removed from the USA, or in some cases from the state itself.
Canadian courts seem to be more sympathetic, but one member of the forum was recently advised by her lawyer that, if she returned to the UK, her support payments might be reduced or cut off, because the court would see her decision as a willful reduction in her employment prospects compared with a recommended move to Alberta.
A trailing spouse with children may find herself effectively trapped in the host country until her kids are of age, by which time her chances of career fulfillment and home ownership in her home country are permanently damaged.