Re-Thinking our identity as trailing spouses: how we tell our stories

Street art saying I exist (in French) - Trailing spouse

Whether you like to call us accompanying partner, trailing spouse or expat wife (or husband), these words all bare some kind of negative and passive connotations. While they may be technically accurate, they often do not represent the whole truth nor do they do many women (or men) any justice.

Inevitably when someone asks me why I live in Germany or why I moved to Germany, I reply: “for my husband’s job”. And there, with those words, I am labelled as a trailing spouse by many. This is not wrong. It is what I am. And I have no qualm about using that expression. It is just that I had never really thought beyond that. Until last March that is.


Create new ways of explaining yourself

Earlier in March, I attended the Families in Global Transition conference in The Hague, The Netherlands. While there were many amazingly interesting presentations and discussions, one, in particular, struck me. I kept thinking about it as I made my way back home.
On the last day, Elisabeth Weingraber-Pircher invited her audience to think about how they define their own coherent identity across postings, moves, roles and routines. As an intercultural coach, a mother and a serial expat herself, she encourages people to create new ways to define and describe their identity.

What labels do you use when you introduce yourself? Do you consciously think about it? What labels haven’t you used yet but that apply to you? These are all questions Elisabeth asked her audience.

Identity is a dynamic concept. It changes. Today, it is different from last year or even maybe from last month: for example, you may have moved to a new country, had a new baby, or gotten a new job. You can have different stories depending on who you speak to also. You can decide to emphasise different aspects of your story: your languages, your roles, your passions, etc.

As expats, parents of third culture kids or global nomads, we are often more opened to the concept of having different stories. But how do we tell those stories or how do we pick what story to tell?


Write your story with curiosity and wonder

Elisabeth’s suggestion for looking at your story differently and constructing a meaningful identity is to draw threads.

  • Write your story on paper. Write everything you can think of.
  • Then look for patterns, how you made decisions, what priorities you have, what relationships, what is important to you.
  • With colour markers, highlight or draw threads that weave through your story. One colour could be for a particular passion that recurs throughout (like in the case of Lisa and her eye for capturing the beautiful), another one could be for family-centred events, etc.
  • If you struggle with this, ask a friend to read and help you spot patterns.

These threads will become your story. You can choose to highlight whatever thread you like and create your own meaningful identity.

“The words you speak become the house you live in” – Hafiz

Redefining my own trailing spouse introduction

Thinking this over and over on the train journey back home, I attempted to redefine my own identity in the way I tell my story. It is not an easy feat for an introvert who had found a simple and straight-to-the-point kind of blurb to repeat when meeting strangers.

I am a trailing spouse. I moved to Germany as my husband got a job opportunity he couldn’t refuse. This is not the whole story.

I had originally moved from France (my birth country) to study abroad. In the U.K., I studied, lived, worked for over 13 years in total. I was the one who left France to learn a new language, to study abroad, to immerse myself in a new culture. The husband came later. No trailing anyone here.

As a young child, I always dreamt of learning and speaking many languages. My mum always tells this story of finding me in campsite bathrooms trying to chat up every foreign camper I could find.
I learnt 3 foreign languages at school. My dream life included friends from all over the world. I pursued friendships with different pen-pals on different continents. I even visited some of them on my own as a teenager.
Later, as an adult, I dreamt of having my own multilingual family as I wrote my doctorate on bilingual children.

Falling in love and marrying a man from Portugal who happened to speak perfect English, bad French (at the time) and a bunch of other languages was the icing on the cake. Travel, multilingual children and multicultural family values were just there for the taking.

Moving to Germany (after 13 years in the U.K.) was not entirely my own doing. I convinced my husband that leaving my job, learning a new language as a family and living in a new country was not a big deal. He had a lot more doubts than I had.

“You have the power to tell your story in an authentic way.” – Elisabeth Weingraber-Pircher

This is one thread through my story. This is a different story, a story I do not tell very often, a story I definitely do not tell when meeting people. This passion for multilingualism and multiculturalism is what drives the big decisions in my life. I had never thought about it that way until that day in March. This is how I should start constructing my identity across these moves. I feel like this is how I want to introduce myself. This is me. Trailing spouse, yes, but one who seeks out multilingual and multicultural experiences and values wherever she goes.

What threads weave through your own story?

Author: Annabelle Humanes

Annabelle wants to live in a world where diversity is celebrated and valued, where parents of multilingual children are never asked to stop speaking their home language and, more importantly, where books come bundled with chocolate.
As a linguist, she worked in academia for a decade teaching languages and carrying out research in language acquisition in young children. Multilingualism is her passion and her own family lives with four languages (and cultures) on a daily basis.
When she is not travelling or eating her way around the world with her little European citizens, she writes about being the mother of two cross-cultural children.

Comments 10

  1. Annabelle this is super writing and I loved reading it so much. I think you will make all of us think who have felt stuck with this one label “trailing spouse” for far too long.
    I am going to go away and celebrate for like you I am far far more than that.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I love the story approach and your story. I think I may just sit down and try to write mine the next days! 🙂

    I personally dislike the trailing spouse (very much), it triggers something in me. It is so negative as if one lingers around and that is certainly not true. A move is so much more than a one sided decision. And just the word “trail” is so wrong with its meaning “to walk or proceed draggingly, heavily, or wearily / to carry or bring along as an addition, burden, or encumbrance”. So yes, while it is often use, it will always get me into a discussion 😉

  3. This is beautifully written thank you Anabelle. I would go even one step further saying I dislike the “The job the spouse couldn’t refuse”-excuse as much as “trailing spouse”. Like whole families passively are moved around by invisible forces! Moving abroad has to be a couple’s project, a conscious and shared decision. A job offer may have been a trigger or unexpected opportunity but it has taken a decision and huge amount of motivation to make it happen… so there’s always more to the story!

  4. Lovely writing, Annabelle. You used an FIGT workshop as the pivot and related it to your own life in such a way that left me hungry for more. Insightful. Thank you. Love that exercise!

  5. Wow, Annabelle! Thank you for putting into words what I am so passionate about that words elude me sometimes. Thank you for sharing how you are redefining your story in a way that has me hooked on your writing…what will be your next story?

    Jo, the exercise is also great for writers workshops… 😉

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