The trailing male spouse

The needs of male trailing partners differ from those of their female counterparts. TheMIGroup explains, offering advice on how to ensure a smooth relocation and a happy family unit.

Trailing Male Spouse
In discussions about the push for better representation of female expats within the mobility sphere, there have been several questions raised as to how the dynamic of a ‘trailing male spouse’ presents itself within an assignment opportunity.In an ideal world, the spousal support requirements would be equal, regardless of gender. However studies show that the needs of a male spouse are vastly different and that, if overlooked, these unaddressed needs can discourage a potential female expat from accepting the assignment, or if she does accept it, eventually contribute to its failure.Organisations need to ensure that their programmes and policies for spousal support are well defined, yet flexible enough to account for this shift.

Male spouses’ differing needs

Dr Nina Cole, associate professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management, has conducted two major field studies, sponsored by the SHRM Foundation, involving in-depth interviews with expat spouses to delve deeper into the unique challenges associated with the adjustment process of a ‘trailing’ individual. In the 33 interviews with male spouses, there was a clear consensus that their needs were different from those of females from a cultural, social and personal standpoint.Males tend to create social circles and networks very differently from females. Since the worldwide expat spouse community has for so many decades been dominated by women, male spouses are finding it challenging to tap in to these communities.

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While these predominantly female spousal circles (consisting of coffee dates, shopping trips, or impromptu meetings over school dropoffs or pickups) are, of course, open to men, they are not optimal for meeting other male trailing spouses. Males frequently gravitate towards networking around a common activity, often something physical. With this understanding, niche markets are forming, creating new spaces in which men can find these connections.

Finding a new social community

The prevalence of social media and social networking platforms has also opened up a new corridor for male trailing spouses to find a social community within their new home. The InterNations site, for example, connects expats from over 390 cities, hosting meet-up events for them and their families as well as linking up expats of the same nationality.Often, overwhelmed by staying afloat within a totally new culture, language and lifestyle, it can bring great comfort to meet a community of people from your home country who have navigated the same process and can offer valuable tips and suggestions for helping to ease the sting of culture shock.Some groups cater specifically for the male trailing spouse, offering a welcome alternative to the typically female-dominated expat spouse groups, which, for many men, are uninviting and isolating. Most notorious is Brussels-based Spouses Trailing Under Duress Successfully, the expatriate male spouse network and social club. Affectionately known as Studs, it has been around since the mid-1990s. The group allows members to participate in forums through a blog, keep abreast of local events, share hobbies, and arrange regular meet-ups over a beer.Newer to the scene is Shanghai-based Guy Tai (a play on ‘tai tai’ – Chinese for ‘lady who lunches’), which hosts regular meet-ups in a microbrewery and organises sports, factory tours and lunches.As well as their witty names, these male-based groups have three things in common:
  1. A cure for the social isolation that many male spouses experience.
  2. A stepping stone to developing a community within the new local environment.
  3. A catalyst for the creation of similar networks; as expat spouses move to other countries, they form their own local groups to recreate the support network they found through groups like Studs and Guy Tai.

Success of social groups in international assignments

From a mobility perspective, these groups also significantly contribute to the success of the assignment of the working spouse. Given the fact that family issues are consistently cited as the number one reason for assignment failure, providing an outlet in which males can ‘swap war stories and man-talk’ goes a long way in terms of assisting the husband in the settling-in process, alleviating some of the stress often placed upon the working spouse.In fact, some of these established male-spouse expat networks have begun recruiting members through HR departments, creating a synergetic partnership, more exposure for the group, and an easy solution for employers who recognise that a happy family equals a productive expat worker.In the Financial Times article Tales from Trailing Husbands, Alan Welch, who became a member of Studs after his wife’s career brought them to Brussels, agrees that these public platforms can be a valuable resource for companies to promote, rather than trying to establish their own internal expat networks. “[At your spouse’s workplace], you need to keep in mind to whom you’re talking … With a group like Studs, it’s more like meeting [friends] in the pub – and you’re not relying on your wife for a social life,” he says.With a growing number of women eager for mobility opportunities in their workplace, how best to meet the particular needs of the trailing male spouse will become a more pressing issue for many organisations. Companies and their mobility partners should see the value in leveraging these pre-existing grassroots networks as a low-cost (or in most cases cost-free) method of helping male spouses to create valuable support networks, ultimately increasing the chances of assignment success for the working female.

For related news and features, visit our Partner & Family Support section.

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SourcesExpat Info Desk: Trailing Spouse Syndrome Remains an Issue for ExpatsExpatriate Living: The Trials and Triumphs of a Male Expat Trailing Spouse, 11 March 2014Financial Times: Tales from Trailing Husbands, 10 June 2013Managing Global Talent: Solving the Spousal Adjustment Problem, Nina D ColeExpatriate Connection: Male Trailing Spouses: An Inconvenient Truth, 2 February 2014

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