Disconnected Callings: When one is Sent and the other Follows

by Susan Butler, LMFT, LPC, LMHC

In a perfect world a couple makes a decision to “go” together. Both have a strong sense of calling, are equally committed to make the move, and desire to provide significant live-giving services. But unfortunately, none of us live in a perfect world. Often one spouse may “get a calling” while the other “hears nothing”. This can lead to conflict, marital stress, and resentment and guilt. After all, how does a partner say “no” to their loved one’s call from God?

Surprisingly, not all couples head out on their new venture in agreement. This happens not only in the Christian world but the secular world too – in ministry, military, foreign service, academia, or families transferring jobs from one location to another. One partner gets a job offer, a call to ministry, a service opportunity and their spouse goes too, not sure what they will do, often giving up a career, a lifestyle, and a community for their partner’s new fulfilling opportunity. Even though a lot of organizations are working towards making sure both partners share a passion or have meaningful work to do, usually one of the partners will have a more prominent role. 

The partner who follows, is sometimes referred to as the “trailing spouse”, “supporting spouse”, or “passive partner” and may experience loneliness, isolation, loss of identity, loss of self-worth, disillusionment, feelings of giving in, or that they are putting their life or career on hold for their partner. This can cause stress in marital and family relationships, lead to financial pressures, cultural disconnects, parenting disagreements, feelings of resentment and disconnection, loss of social support, and depression.

IT COULD BE EITHER SPOUSE

It is not always the wife who follows her husband, men are “trailing spouse” as well. We are seeing more men in this role as women are in roles that historically were filled by men. Husband may find themselves as the stay-at-home parent, taking care of the household, preparing meals and taking care of the kids. Many spouses have jobs they can do from anywhere, and so they set up a home office so they can also take on the role of care-giver. Couples may have the opportunity to split home responsibilities and both carry on their careers simultaneously. Whether it is bringing your career with you, starting a new one in the new location, or being the stay-at-home parent, if one spouse is moving for the other’s new appointment, all of the stresses, decisions, and disillusions apply to all genders. 

MY OWN JOURNEY

For most of our married life, I have followed my husband’s career choices, beginning with Seminary. During our early years, we were involved in ministry in Central America. With one organization my husband frequently traveled to Central America while I stayed home alone in the States with the kids. We spent time in Guatemala for language school where we were both on the same page, but for most of our years together, the focus was my husband’s job. I was supportive and never felt that he made a decision without me. Later in life, I went back to school and began to focus on a career of my own. During the next 10 years, we were both happy and content in our separate careers.

For most of our transitions we were in agreement, until 2014. We made the choice to leave the Northwest for Southern California when my husband was offered a job that moved us close to my aging parents who were in need of care. My husband moved first, and I moved a year later as I had work commitments I wasn’t ready to let go of. The following 10 years in Southern California were difficult in a new way, and for the first time I felt like a “trailing spouse”. I gave up my career to support my husband’s and never really acclimated to our new location. However, amazingly, over time this  opened the door for the work I do now as an associate counselor with Olive Tree. At this transition point in our lives together, my husband has become the “trailing spouse” supporting my work at Olive Tree. 

In the beginning, moving to a new location, country, or city may sound exciting and adventurous, but without open communication, thoughtful planning and managing expectations the new adventure can quickly turn sour. 

STEPS YOU CAN TAKE

Take care of yourself: As simple as it sounds focus on getting enough sleep, plenty of exercise and eat healthy. Be aware of what you are feeling, don’t dismiss the feelings that arise, take note of them, and talk with someone even if it’s a good friend back home via zoom. Don’t let negative feelings fester. 

Give yourself grace: Moving, regardless of how far, is a life changing transition. It takes time to figure out all the ins and outs of a new home, neighborhood, city, country, culture. Give yourself time physically and emotionally. New things will become familiar eventually. Allow yourself the time to get comfortable with your new environment. 

Treat yourself along the journey: Making the journey to a new home is stressful enough. Plan some fun and relaxing things to do along the way. Visit a city you’ve always wanted to, see a historical site along the way, Give yourself a night or two in a nice hotel. Treat yourself to a good restaurant you’ve been longing to try. Be a tourist for a few days before beginning your new job and jumping into the stress of relocation. 

As the “trailblazing spouse”: Remember that your partner and family are making a sacrifice for you, even if all of you agreed to go. Be patient with each other when the thrill of the “going” wears off and the reality of what you have all done sets in. Find ways to stay connected when the distractions of a new position keep you preoccupied with new responsibilities. 

As the “following spouse”: Remember that unless you take care of yourself as a priority you will not be able to be present for others. Find things that give you purpose and meaning in this new environment that use your gifts, talents and abilities. You should not have to “settle” for doing something just because it needs to be done. 

As a transitioning couple: Keep your communication open. Seek professional help if things start getting distant and resentment sets in. Work hard at making your relationship a priority (before work and kids!). Find new things to do together, make some space in this new world just for the two of you. Find people outside of work that you can connect with. It will take time to build a new community, and we all need community to survive. 

A note to consider: Historically, we see that the non-primary role spouse (or even the kids) that aren’t able to do some language study and develop meaningful relationships outside of the home, both peer and ministry, tend to be much less satisfied or fulfilled. So planning for this time and energy expenditure from the beginning (most often for moms, especially with young kids) becomes very important for their satisfaction and wellbeing over the long term.

1 Comment

  • Janet Kotynski

    This is so excellent. I am looking over the last 45 plus years in ministry in Indonesia and all God has done -even though I was the spouse following my trailblazing husband...Now later in life I have followed again to TN for this senior season of life -again because my husband and children asked for it. I would not have left "home" and the midwest. Again I am seeing God's goodness. It wasn't always easy. I grieved (Excellent book that helped me through is Westbergs "Good Grief"! But I can sing with ya'll -"His goodness is running, it's running after me!" Thanks for a good article to help me think back over life and encourage young women.

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