Trailing Spouses: What You Said

Thank you, Unaccompanied Baggage readers, for your thoughtful responses on the use of the term “trailing spouse.” When we asked whether it’s the correct description of those Foreign Service husbands/wives/partners who are living overseas with their direct-hire significant others, and whether anyone is offended by it, these are exactly the kind of answers for which we were hoping.

John Krotzer summed up his feelings nicely while also suggesting an alternative (via e-mail):

This is my two cents on the issue: Life is way too short to get hung up on a name that is not intended to be insulting.  Unless both partners are FSOs, one of them invariably is following the other when they change posts.  My wife is the FSO, and I am a trailing spouse.

The term “trailing spouse” does not imply anything other than that one is a spouse and is following the other when his/her post changes – I think some people try to read too much into it and feel the term implies something inferior, uneducated, or worse.  It shouldn’t.

If anyone asks, however, I always say I want to be referred to as “trophy husband”. 🙂

(We previously posted an anonymous similar response here.)

Douglas Morris, also via e-mail, proposes a (more serious) alternative.

I’ve never had an overly emotional response to the term “trailing spouse” one way or the other. Same with “accompanying spouse”. Though “spouse” causes problems for me, as I am in a long-term opposite sex, committed domestic partnership”, having been with my “partner” for over 10 years. … So “spouse” does not fit, though I answer to it, and if you want to get all semantical (not a word but it fits) about it, I would highly recommend using the term “partner.” …

Should “trailing” or “accompanying” be the appropriate term? “Trailing” is definitely the more negative. It creates an image of subservience. “Accompanying” also has negative connotations, as if that person does not have a will of their own, and is simply along for the ride. So how about we choose option C: neither.

Which begs the question: What are we, those of us who choose share the globally nomadic expat life with our life partners? How would one describe us? Well, oddly enough, I just did. We are “expat partners”. That phrase can work just as well for one, as the other. Whether one has the full-time job in country or not.

Responses on our Facebook page were mixed as well. There were a couple of straight-up “Nope, not offended!” or “Yes, it’s horrible!” votes. Some make more substantive arguments against “trailing spouse.” Among them:

Yes, I hate trailing spouse. It’s like I am 100 feet behind at a respectful distance. I wish they would say accompanying spouse, when we are separated we are unaccompanied so it makes sense to have parallel language.

I always get weirded out by the implication of the phrase that I’m following my spouse. When I read it, I see it visually, like I am trailing the requisite 7 feet a woman is supposed to walk behind her master/husband? Or a quiet servant in the background, always ready to bring a cool drink when he’s looking parched?

Yes, I’m offended by it. I am part of a tandem now, but we moved based on my husband’s job for 13 years before coming in. Did I ever “trail” him? Never, we are a team.

But, similar to the response blogged previously, others embrace the use of “trailing spouse” as clear and concise — or argue there are bigger fights to be fought.

While it could be time for this term to evolve yet again, it is fine by me. I am overseas because of my spouse and all my rights/privileges “depend” on that posting. I am thankful for the benefits all of us in the family can get (tickets, mail, medical, CLO services, housing, advice, etc.). IMHO trailing spouse is much better than dependent spouse — which for in-host-country status may be more accurate.

Nope (not offended). I’ll take that over the official term that I see on all the paperwork, “dependent.” Over 20 years ago, my husband’s military paperwork said “spouse,” yet the oh-so-progressive State Dept. can’t be bothered to use the term.

It’s a misnomer, but I’m not offended unless someone is being foolish about my relevance in the equation. Then I still don’t have to be offended. I will, however, make clear that their false opinion is short sighted and rude. But I find the name silly. EFM= Extra Flippin’ Marvelous.

And along those lines …

In my many years in the Foreign Service I saw numerous changes in appellations: Personnel Officers became Human Resources Officers, secretaries became Office Management Specialists, Support Communications Officers became Information Management Specialists, Administrative Officers became Management Officers, and so on.

At the end of the day, anyone want to seriously make a case that any of those name changes made an iota of difference in the job, the status attached to it, the level of deference accorded to the title, or any other element you can think of? Call me what you want, it changes my circumstance not a whit. In the time that people have been squabbling over titles and monikers what REAL changes have been made that have positively impacted the lives of Foreign Service spouses and families? A few positive changes (EPAP, perhaps), yes, but overall, if you ask me, the changes have been for the worse.

For example, the organization has failed to extend Overseas Comparability Pay to the rank and file. Danger pay is being decreased or eliminated in most danger pay posts. There are far more unaccompanied posts and precious little support for families who are separated. Where the Foreign Service used to cover any and all medical costs for its employees while they were stationed overseas, now it pays only the difference between the deductible and the total billed amount only for in-patient care. Air travel has gotten more difficult and the organization has done little to help us. And since we travel for our job, could the organization not help us with the security lines? Why do we have to get Global Access on our own?

I could go on, but I think you get my point. Even though both members of a marriage having careers has been the norm in American society for most of my adult life, the fact is, there is still little recognition of that fact in the structure of the Foreign Service.

We doubt the term is going away anytime soon, but those of you have presented alternatives should feel free to persuade others to adopt your lines of thinking. As mentioned above, such titles do evolve.

suitcase vintage

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