We thank Jean for allowing us to publish this interesting article, which he wrote for the ADE (Association of Spanish Diplomats).
Over the last 12 years spent abroad, my position as male spouse of a diplomat has been a source of admiration and envy (in a healthy way, I think). No wonder. Seen from the outside, the life of a spouse is undeniably comfortable. Seen from the inside, it’s not bad either. Most comments have come from men, who do not see any danger in the fact that male trailing spouses’ economic dependency, limited or blocked career opportunities, and endangered self-esteem can let loose an excess of testosterone.
Personal experience has shown me that male trailing spouses are not a rare species. However, what the condition means to each man depends on his geographical and sociological background. When I arrived in Ethiopia, I met three Norwegian men in a similar situation to mine. I tried to find out what being a trailing spouse meant in their culture, and I got the impression that there was little to say, that it wasn’t a big deal. A battle victory for the Norwegians? I don’t know.
Being male trailing spouses has never really been considered a status, and our contribution, as males, won’t raise its ranking. In this world of dependency, however, it has an important advantage: it is a new gender. It does not follow any rules and there is no stereotype. You don’t expect anything from a husband, whereas a wife is supposed to adapt, or comply with a series of centuries-old obligations. In the end, it’s better to be the Duke of Edinburgh than Queen Sofia.
There is another positive aspect we trailing spouses have (but how long will it last?): by following our loved ones, we are modern husbands, whereas a female trailing spouse is considered old-fashioned. And there are two more advantages. In many countries, men have more freedom of movement than women. When it comes to receptions, I have the impression (but I could be wrong) that diplomatic men welcome us more easily into their circles. Professionals usually look at us in a less stereotyped way and we feel less stigmatised.
But at the end of the day, nothing or little distinguishes us male trailing spouses from female spouses. It is hard to accept our label of trailing spouses (that’s not all we are), and this weighs heavily on our social and professional life.
In French, my mother tongue, there is a pun that reflects this dependency. I follow my wife is Je suis ma femme, a sentence that also means I am my wife… Actually French is very hard on us, since conjoint (spouse) would appear, etymologically, to originate from con (idiot), and joint (added). Fortunately this is not actually the case: it’s pure coincidence.
Leaving aside gender, male trailing spouses fall into different categories according to the role we assume. I have identified five of these categories. These are not watertight, and over time, one can move from one to another.
The Stay-at-Home Spouse
Because of his professional aspirations, he flatly rules out following his diplomatic spouse; he remains and will remain in Spain no matter what happens, waiting for his spouse to come back, or doing everything possible to prevent her from going. This has become a fashionable species in the last 20 years, but also an endangered one in the present economic context. This model suits men perfectly. The Stay-at-Home does not consider himself a trailing spouse, does not belong to the AFD (Agence Française du Développement) and does not read this article.
The Suitcase Spouse
He has a career (who hasn’t?) and the idea of giving it up depresses him. He is the professional spouse. He does everything he can to make the move match his professional expectations. He will only leave if he can take his career with him.
The Vocational Spouse
going abroad is everything he ever wanted from life. His economic needs are covered, and he embraces the diplomatic setting as a wonderful opportunity, a source of growth. He accompanies his spouse to her various postings with interest and curiosity—even with admiration, if asked to do so. If he has any professional aspirations, he tries to fit them into the project, but without animosity. This attitude, which in theory suits all parties, is quickly stigmatized. He is labelled either a profiteer, mentally retarded, or the victim of a still to be discovered disease. I belong to this category.
The Homeless Spouse
Every day he asks himself: “What have I done to deserve this?” He lives abroad because that’s what happened to him. From time to time he hits rock bottom, particularly when he is asked: “What do you do?” Obviously this is not the best category, but it’s the one most male spouses belong to, at least for a time.
The Upgraded Spouse
He belongs to a higher category and there are just a few like him. He takes his profession or passion with him in his backpack and, like the Stay-at-Home, would never give up on it. But contrary to the Stay-at-Home, life abroad in itself enriches his professional life, or in any case does not damage it. Blessed are the spouses that belong to this category: painters, ornithologists, inventors, entomologists, webmasters, evangelists, pianists, Argentinian psychoanalysts, Uruguayan psychoanalysts.
Leaving aside this last group, there is something which binds us all, regardless of our sex. We must justify ourselves. To ourselves and certainly to others. Whether we are frustrated or satisfied. Whatever our mood, our status as a trailing male spouse will always appear a bit suspicious.