Looking Past the Stereotypes of a Trailing Spouse in China

By Leonard Stanley, September 5, 2019

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Advice from Dad by Leonard StanleyFrom a father and educator’s perspective, Leonard Stanley is here to give you some advice – whether it’s questions about school, your teenager, family life, expat life or if you just need a dad’s point of view. In Advice from Dad, he answers your tough questions and gets a parent’s perspective.


So my wife recently left her job to pursue entrepreneurship. It was undoubtedly an exciting and simultaneously nerve-wracking time in our household. Giving up financial security and a stable income for the uncertainties of being your own boss was not a decision that was easily made.

It required many in-depth conversations and a few years of hemming and hawing until we finally decided to just take the risk. How is it working out? Well, so far so good pretty much sums up our experience to this point. The business is growing and more importantly, my wife is happy. 

Despite our current state of contentment, I can honestly say that it was not initially easy to convince me to endorse a career move that could potentially disrupt the stability we had enjoyed here in Shanghai. There were far too many variables to consider, and I was not sure that the time was right. 

What I was sure of, however, was that this move had the potential to make one of my dreams come true. Early retirement! That’s right; if successful I could finally become a ‘guy-tai’. I could just quit my job, relax, and enjoy the life of a ‘trailing spouse’. That got me thinking about what exactly a trailing spouse is, and what life in Shanghai is like for those of us fortunate enough to enjoy the freedom of not having to work. 

I don’t know about you, but when I think of a trailing spouse I think of gym memberships, yoga, weekday brunches and a life unencumbered. However, as I more carefully considered the concept of a trailing spouse, I found it was much more complex and nuanced than simply living a life of leisure. 

It contained sacrifice and uncertainty, and it isn’t something that everyone is cut out for. So, as my curiosity carried me into conversations with people in the community, I learned a thing or two and wanted to offer a different perspective on these often misunderstood members of our expat community. 

The term ‘trailing spouse’ was first coined in 1981 by The Wall Street Journal’s Mary Bralove to convey how wives sacrifice their career plans for their husband’s success. Obviously, it has since evolved to include not only women who fit this description, but also any partner who has decided to put their career on hold to support their significant other. 

Furthermore, the term trailing spouse is antiquated. It carries a negative, somewhat condescending connotation and is more commonly being replaced with the term traveling spouse. Simply put, it is a term used to describe someone who follows his or her life partner to another city because of a work assignment. 

Perception, as always, has the tendency to differ from reality, and this situation is no different. While the perception can easily be that traveling spouses enjoy endless days of hours waiting to be filled, as they sit around a local Starbucks in between an activity and on the way to a hobby, reality is often far different.

In actuality, a significant number of expats have sacrificed their own careers to be in this position and not all of them embrace the idea of having to put their professional lives on hold. While it is easy to assume they do not want to work, they oftentimes just cannot. 

We all know that living in China presents many external obstacles that keep a spouse from pursuing a career here: the lack of a work permit; the language barrier; unaccredited qualifications; and a competitive local job market are just some of the inherent challenges that put a traveling spouse in the predicament of not being able to find employment regardless of desire.

Add to that the fact that these people are usually well educated and highly qualified, and you start to see how this is more of a sacrifice than a sabbatical. If you examine data retrieved from a 2015 Expat Insider study, conducted by the social networking site InterNations, it claims that of 14,400 of its members in 64 countries, more than 50% hold postgraduate degrees, yet only 24% are currently employed in their host country, and close to 72% of non-working spouses left a career when moving abroad. 

“A significant number of expats sacrificed their careers to be a trailing spouse; not all embrace putting their professional lives on hold.”

More than just a move that threatens your professional life, becoming a traveling spouse also has social implications. Spouses who no longer have careers can quickly find themselves alone far more than they are accustomed to, and are subsequently become prone to feelings of boredom and regret. 

It can call into question your idea of who you are and what you contribute to the partnership and family unit. Some find themselves fully immersed in the day-to-day lives of their children, if they have them. Caring for the kids becomes their new identity. This may be sustainable – if not ideal – for some, especially in the early years of childhood. But as the kids go off to school and leave home for most of the day, it can seem as though everyone has a purpose except you. 

Even more disconcerting is the possibility that you may not even be the nurturing type, and then all of a sudden the bulk of the child rearing responsibilities are foisted upon you. A person can easily feel overwhelmed in a new environment with a completely foreign set of relationship expectations.

So, what does a highly educated, career-oriented, independent individual do when they cannot work? When they either don’t have children or they aren’t keen to devote all of their time and energy to the kids they do have? The best thing to do is to focus your attention on what you can do to make the most out of your situation. There are an abundance of opportunities this city has to offer.

Returning to school to enhance your academic qualifications is always an option through online universities and local programs. Immersion in the local culture, especially through language acquisition, is a huge benefit to your family and will serve to ease the transition of a new city and culture shock. Furthermore, Shanghai is a very social city replete with organizations, sports teams and expat groups for people looking to meet likeminded individuals. Join one! 

Finally, you may even look at this as an opportunity to do what you love. With recent changes in the business laws here in China, it is easier than ever for foreigners to start a business doing something that they enjoy. Wait a minute; is my wife now the traveling spouse I always wanted to be? 

Anyway, I can think of several examples of spouses and partners who have embraced this new chapter in life as an opportunity to do something they always wanted, but maybe were too scared or busy to do back home. Whatever it is, get out there and take the risk. You only live once, and the fact that you are here makes it obvious you’re the risk taking type! 

Whatever you decide to do in your new role as a traveling spouse, remember that self-motivation is paramount. You will need to find ways to inspire yourself to be productive, while striving for intellectual and social stimulation. It’s understood that this change can be distressing, especially for someone who is used to being very active. 

I recommend that you enjoy the extra time with family, if you have it, and remember that this transition doesn’t come easy for everyone. Stress manifests itself in many ways and then morphs into anxiety, so communication is key. If at any moment you feel uncertain about the decision to relocate you should open up a dialogue immediately, otherwise you run the risk of creating resentment, which could ultimately cause major problems in your relationship.

Hopefully you not only have, but also are an empathetic spouse who listens and works together to overcome obstacles in your relationship. Again, whatever your specific situation may be I am fairly certain that with positivity and open communication you can make the most out of your Shanghai experience.


Leonard Stanley was born and raised in Washington D.C., and has lived in Shanghai since 2009 with his wife and two children Kyle (15) and Christopher (11). Leonard teaches Theory of Knowledge as well as Language & Literature at the Western International School of Shanghai.

For more Advice from Dad columns, click here.

[Cover image via Wiki]

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