5 ways to maintain your career as a trailing spouse

  • couple with suitcase
Published 11 months ago

The first Monday morning in a new country is hard. Your spouse goes to the office, leaving you standing in the echoing space of your new home. Maybe you feel guilty that they have to work, while you play house? But at the same time, you’ve given up your job for the sake of theirs! So you make another cup of coffee and look out the window at an unfamiliar street, wondering where it leads.

Jo Furniss

Jo Furniss

Jo Furniss is the author of the best-selling novel All The Little Children. Originally from the UK, Jo is a former BBC journalist who has lived in Cameroon and Switzerland, and now resides with her family in Singapore. You can visit her at or on her Facebook page.

In a perfect world, an international posting would come with an exciting new job for both partners, but that’s rarely the case. On that lonely Monday morning, the obstacles facing the trailing spouse loom large: no work permit, the language barrier, uncredited qualifications, lack of family support with childcare. But there are ways to survive and even thrive as a trailing spouse. I’ve made five international moves to three continents. Once, we relocated with only two weeks’ notice: days after I’d been offered a dream job. My career path has meandered, and it’s seen a lot of stumbles, but I’ve learned a few lessons to smooth the way.

Plan ahead

plan the future

Hopefully, you’ll have more than two weeks to prepare! Use the time wisely. You could undertake training to make you more employable. Before I left the UK for my first posting to Cameroon, I studied a TEFL course that enabled me to teach English at the British Council when I first arrived. Teaching didn’t turn out to be my long-term career, but it was a great start in a new place where I could interact with local people — and I loved it!

You can also start networking before you leave home. Get your resume in order. Gather your certificates and qualifications. Research community websites, which often have public or private sections run by expats in the new country, or support groups for professional women and working mothers.

‘Happy wife makes a happy life’

happy family

Both male and female trailing spouses can learn from that old saying! Most companies recognise that the contentment of the accompanying spouse is key to the success of an international assignment, so consider asking for professional support as part of your partner’s relocation package.

The job-holder and their HR department will probably focus on big ticket items: shipping of personal belongings, international flights, a housing or school budget. But don’t forget the extras that could make all the difference to your experience, such as cultural training, career guidance, and a relocation specialist to help find your feet. At the very least, a few sessions with an in-country career advisor can ensure that your job applications, qualifications and resume are presented in a way that is appropriate for the new country.

At the crossroads

An opportunity

Life is rarely a straight path. Could your expat posting be an opportunity to take a career side-trip? When I found it difficult to return to formal employment after having kids in Switzerland, I took a Master’s degree by distance learning. This led directly to becoming an author. Even if your diversion is less drastic, new experiences and skills from a course or volunteer work could boost your job prospects later.

After many years, I know bankers who became novelists. Fashion designers who became relocation specialists. Techies who launched shopping holidays to tropical climes. You may have to innovate to accumulate.

Think big

Successful business woman

For trailing spouses who prefer the corporate life, many focus on landing jobs with large multinationals. The benefit of companies with an international presence is two-fold. First, they will absorb you into their diverse community within an office that is likely to be English-speaking. Second, you may be able to transfer your post should you move again, so you can continue your travels without going back to square-one.

You’re a commodity

skillful man

Finally, don’t underestimate your skills. The business environment of a new country can be intimidating, with different rules and strange office protocol and peculiar etiquette. (If you ever work in a Swiss office, don’t forget to take snacks on your birthday). Take a good look at your resume and you might find a unique selling point — language skills, technical training, experience in a burgeoning sector. Your foreign-ness might be just the ticket for a new career!