What if you are the trailing spouse or partner?

Thank you, Korey Henson for the topic today, and for not leaving my doorway until you pointed out that this is a tougher problem than it seems on the surface to be.  So I’m going to give it a go, but there may be more than one question in here, and I may have more than one way of looking at this challenge.

I don’t like the terminology here–trailing spouse has a kind of forlorn sound to it.  I can’t think of a different description that isn’t wordy or weird, so I’m just going to go ahead and use this, and edit later if someone suggests a better way to capture the challenge.

And it is a challenge.  I think the first thing is to make peace with your decision to be the trailing spouse.  For the uninitiated, a trailing spouse or partner is the member of the duo or family who has agreed to give priority to the career, job offer, opportunity, or assignment/orders of the other member of the family leadership team.  And to go–geographically, and presumably emotionally–where that takes them all.  It is assumed by the outside world, of course, that you do this happily, willingly, and with a sense of adventure, though simply doing it willingly and with a sense of responsibility for keeping everyone on track might also work.

But publicly or covertly, or even in the privacy of your head,  re-litigating the decision or revisiting the process after you’ve started to implement is not a good idea.  It takes a while for the kinks to shake out of any change and for everyone to adjust to a new normal.  Openly sharing your ideas for making things better is good, but not if what you have to contribute is “I wish you’d never enlisted.”  For example.

If the question is staying behind, it’s one thing if that is staying behind for a while, or commuting, for a while, or trying this out, for a while, or anything that’s just for a little while;  it’s another if that is just an excuse to delay.  I believe that half in and half out doesn’t offer an honest sample of the future, only that it offers different struggles and different issues.  Sometimes you do have to wait for the school year to end, for the house to sell at the price you want or need, or the end of year commission or bonus to come through.  I get that if it’s real–but opportunity cost (dollars or emotional/professional collateral) is a real thing also.  The sooner you get started on the next chapter, the sooner you reap the benefits of the decision to open that chapter.

When one spouse has to quit a job, delay his or her own career move or opportunity, or figure out a new plan for a new reality–while the other is also facing the unknown and untested in a brand new job in a brand new place–more than the practical aspects of what to do are likely to emerge.  I doubt that I can help with the nuances of the personal side of this, but from a career development perspective, my priorities would be, if you are that spouse:

  1. Make the most of your choice.  Don’t waste time.  Put on the new headset and listen–to your own ideas, your words, and your thoughts, along with everyone else’s.
  2. Set goals for your own side of the equation.  Don’t suspend your personal goals, but add new goals.  Adapt the words, the language, and the spirit.
  3. Try new things: actions, behaviors, and reactions.  Don’t try to stay in your groove.  Affirmatively change things up, in the interest of expanding your portfolio of possibilities.

Make the most of your choice.

If you know where you are going, and if you know you will be there indefinitely, try to find the right job for your career progression in your new community.  That means conducting a job search in the new place, which you can do from the old place or wait until you get to the new place.  On a practical level, no one really needs to know what brought you to the new place, but when you are asked what brought you there, you are going to have to answer.  My best advice is to give it all up–tell all–with enthusiasm and joy at your great good fortune.  Regardless of what you really think of where you landed, you love it and look forward to meeting everybody.

You can’t control everything, and that includes the probability that some folks you talk to might think you have another move in your future.  And, you might.  But if someone has the bad judgment to ask, just act surprised and say, “No, we’re committed to This Town.  We both chose this, and couldn’t be happier with our decision.”

If you don’t know how long you are going to be there, and if you are aware it may not be that long, assess your circumstances.  I don’t think you can or should fabricate a scenario of staying forever when you know that is unlikely, or tell a prospective employer that you don’t know something that you do know.  And, by the way, if the spouse or partner is in the service, on secondment for a big company that often relocates families for well-known periods of time, or subject to a published contract that specifies a date, it is what it is.  If you can afford to, consider the following:

  1. Sign up for more education; add credentials.  Consider distance education in a field that will enhance your own career, or help you to transition to a transfer-friendly career.
  2. Start and build a business or practice than you can run from your home, or base from your new location.  Web-based ventures, income-producing blogs and vlogs, consulting, online teaching in your field, and virtual services are not geography-dependent and can represent sturdy economic platforms.
  3. Figure out how to do the job you want from the place you are.  This is not that strange, although the caveat is that you may have to adapt your notion of the job you want.  Don’t say it isn’t possible, just figure out how you would do it if you could.  That’s the starting point.  As a subset of this item, if you are a licensed professional, and you love your profession, you need to become licensed where you are going.

Set goals for your side of the equation.

Wherever you are going, you need a network, a plan, and for heaven’s sake, goals.

Goals make your story and your side of the story meaningful; goals protect your career accomplishments.  Goals give you a role and a purpose that might otherwise start to fray a few weeks into your journey.  Goals reflect your intentions and tell you who you are.

As you meet the new friends you are inviting into your life, goals are what you mention, and ideas are what you ask for.  You may be completely unaware of the opportunities in your new community, but by talking about what you want to accomplish while you are there and as you get to know your new friends, a world of possibilities will probably open up.

  1. Join local organizations, clubs, and groups–not indiscriminately, but within your interest areas or profession.  Volunteer for assignments, jobs, and events that give you a chance to meet other people and talk about your ideas, plans, and goals.
  2. Ask others about themselves, their town, their interests, and their opinions.
  3. Write.  Even if you are not a writer by nature, keep a journal, a record, and a daily quota for getting your thoughts on paper.  Because you are in a very new place, your imagination, your fears, your dreams, and your words, which are always important, are especially rich.  Don’t fail to capture them.

Try new things.

You may not know all the things you are good at; you may have never tested all the things you thought you wouldn’t be good at.  If you have always done what you’ve been doing until now, you really don’t know what other things might make you happy every day.  If you are otherwise uncommitted, this might be just the right time to sample other choices.

In the Try New Things Department, doing research on yourself is worthwhile.  Here is how you do that:

Ask the people who know you well what they think you are good at, or what you would be good at if you overhead the chance.

Seek out the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Strong Interest Inventory, Strength-finders, and other instruments that provide you with insight (when delivered by individuals qualified to offer insight, by certification and experience).  

Pay attention to what you say, do, and respond to positively or negatively for a while.  Write down your impressions of what happened and why you reacted as you did.

Review your past; take a good look at your box of old stuff, your expired resumes, and your transcripts from college or grad school.  Give some thought to what you loved and hated about the day to day in those days, and compose some thoughts to accompany the narrative that is playing out in your present. 

There are clues to some hidden talents, skills, and interests in all of these.

If you try one new thing every week for one year, you will have 52 new experiences by the end of one year.  Whether you try consciously or not, you will have had new experiences, but you will not have planned or prepared for them, or tried the ones you’ve always wanted to.

Let’s talk about your resume.

What your resume looks like depends on your choices.  If you create continuity you will have continuity.  If you create a left turn in an otherwise fairly stable career, you will have a left turn.  Your cover letter is usually the place where career ventures or adventures are brought to life; your resume is just the timeline and sequence of what you did and what it yielded.

As you are making your decisions, it’s probably less important that they look logical than it is that they look like you liked what you did and added new skills, new competencies, and new connections.

I am not a fan of the resume that has every detail of everything you did in your career to date.  I have had to talk intelligent adults out of including a 9th grade science fair project on an executive resume.  (Allow me to say for the record that I could author a pretty effective cover letter that included that science fair, but not on a resume, please.)  I think resumes should help tell a story, but never the whole story.  A resume–along with it’s constant companion, the cover letter–needs only to get you into a conversation with someone who can get you an interview.  Thus, be brief, and interesting.  There is not much more to it.

Gigs, on Resumes

Let’s say that you have built a family business around selling second-hand fashion on eBay.  Let’s say that this is so successful that you have full-time and part-time employees on your payroll and that you expect to cover the cost of your children’s education out of your profits from this venture.  But it is not your profession, the way that you see it.  You are, in fact, a lawyer.

Does the gig belong on your resume? That depends.

If you are looking for a lawyer job, this won’t help you, and in fact, it might suggest to a prospective employer that your attention will be divided.  However, you could identify it as an interest, hobby, or avocation.  Whether or not you have heretofore involved the whole family, you can make the case that this is a family venture, implying that you are not the driving force on it’s specific operations.

On the other hand, if you have to feature the business as your economic platform during a period of unemployment, your resume may instead reflect the prominent leadership role you held, the business experience you gained, the entrepreneurship and sales/marketing skills you now possess.  You need not go into great detail on the resume itself–all you want to do is get into the folder of candidates.  If, as a lawyer, your business operated in a state where you were licensed, and if you in fact, set up the business, structure, and documents, and if, in fact you conducted the business’s legal affairs, you might be both its CEO and General Counsel.

Both of these treatments of exactly the same set of circumstances are correct, assuming you are able to smoothly transition in your head from facilitative leader of the family business, to founder and leader of the family business.  You might, for the record, have not one dollar of sales, not one customer on the line, not one iota of confidence that you will ever figure this out.  That doesn’t mean that you are not an entrepreneur, that you are not working at your business every day, that you are not one day going to experience the exhilarating feeling of making a profit.  Or on a different timeline, enjoying the spectacle of your son or daughter figuring out what you had not been able to for years.

Building a narrative for your situation is part of brand-making, endemic to turning yourself into a great candidate, and making your story compelling.








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