Chasing a career as a ‘trailing spouse’

Quitting your job to follow your partner's career can be stressful, but it can work

Shweta Taneja
Updated2 Sep 2021
Shruti Khattar with her husband Saket Kumar in Switzerland.
Shruti Khattar with her husband Saket Kumar in Switzerland.

When Saba Menezes, 32, decided to marry her childhood sweetheart Richard, a petroleum engineer with Shell, they knew one of them would have to give up their career.

Menezes, a Delhi-based litigation lawyer, had been unhappy with her job, and decided she would take a break. After marriage in 2013, the couple moved to Rio de Janeiro; by 2015, just as she was becoming proficient in Portuguese, Richard took up a job in Brunei. “Even though I knew this was going to happen, it took me time to accept that law as a career option for me was over as we are going to keep moving,” she says.

According to a September 2017 study released by InterNations, an international community of expatriates, only 45% of the spouses who move with their partners to a new country end up finding work. More than 80% of the spouses are women. Work permits, education degrees, language, or the career itself are some of the challenges these trailing or travelling spouses, as they are known in business parlance, come up against.

Supriya Ebenezer with her husband Vinay V. Kumar—both study in Europe.

At times, these professional roadblocks force couples to live apart and continue their careers. Take the case of long-distance couple Vinay V. Kumar and Supriya Ebenezer. In 2014, Kumar, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon, got a scholarship to do his PhD in Germany. Ebenezer had a good practice as a periodontal surgeon in Bengaluru and didn’t want to move. “Our careers are important for both of us. If Supriya wasn’t going to be productive, that would spoil the whole experience of being in a different country,” says Kumar, 38. So Ebenezer stayed behind in Bengaluru with their four-year old child, while Kumar started work on his PhD, spending four-five months in Germany.

In Brazil, Menezes had tried to get freelance assignments from law firms in the US and India, without much success. Last year, she segued to a new career as graphic designer. “I’m still doing pro-bono work in graphic design to prove my abilities, though my friends are top-shot lawyers with their own practices,” she says. Had she done more asking around, she believes, she would have been able to choose an alternative career earlier.

Dual-career spouses who do follow their life partners to a new city or country find that making professional adjustments is particularly stressful, says Yvonne McNulty, senior lecturer, S R Nathan School of Human Development, Singapore University of Social Sciences, and lead author of Managing Expatriates: A Return On Investment Approach. One good solution is to ask for help with the spouse’s career too, suggests McNulty. “Ask the company hiring you about what assistance your partner can be given in getting a job,” she says.


Also, take advantage of the opportunities offered. When newly-wed software engineer Shruti Khattar moved to Zurich with her husband, who works at Google Switzerland, in 2013, half of the engineering jobs were closed to her as she didn’t speak German, and didn’t have a long-stay permit. But she made use of a Google Switzerland-sponsored professional support network for spouses to brush up her CV and make a professional cover letter that was suitable for the country. Within three months, she had found a job with a contractor and started working indirectly for UBS, a Swiss multinational banking and financial services company. After a short stint elsewhere, Khattar is back at UBS, as a full-time employee with a long-term permit in hand. “I’m proud that I persevered, didn’t give up and figured out a career in a new country. I feel worthy,” she says.

It’s important to keep trying. In 2015, after they had their second child, Kumar and Ebenezer began actively searching for ways to reconcile their professional and personal lives. In February, Ebenezer got a scholarship and moved to Switzerland to study, leaving the children with Kumar in Germany. One step closer to their goal, Ebenezer says, “Our careers are important to us so we adjust, discuss things and work it out.”

The H-4 visa controversy

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services had approved 126,853 applications for employment authorization for H-4 visa holders (spouses of H-1B visa holders) in December under a Barack Obama administration rule. Ninety-three per cent of H-4 visa holders in the US with work authorization are from India. The Trump administration is planning to end work permits for these spouses. Source: Congressional Research Service of US Congress

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