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Identity and the Accompanying Spouse

By Charise M. Hoge, MSW

One of the most challenging aspects of being the accompanying spouse in an overseas move is this: how to maintain a sense of self in the midst of so much change.

In the book A Portable Identity: A Woman’s Guide to Maintaining a Sense of Self While Moving Overseas by Debra R. Bryson, MSW and myself, we define identity with four facets:

  1. Roles
  2. Significant relationships
  3. Internal view (how you view yourself)
  4. External factors (how others view you, as well as the impact of culture and society on you)

In this identity picture, you are everywhere-invested in all facets of your identity. In the course of an overseas move, each of these facets of your identity is altered and the degree to which you are affected is based on how much of you is invested in your roles, your relationships, your internal view, and external factors. For example, let’s say that you have quit your job to move overseas in support of your spouse’s career. Your identity picture is altered in the following ways:

  • You no longer have the work role to which you are accustomed.
  • You no longer have the relationships linked to that work role (or you must maintain them from a distance).
  • Your relationship with your husband/wife/partner is affected (by being in the role of accompanying spouse rather than also employed).
  • You have taken on new roles (such as accompanying spouse, diplomat, dependent, foreigner).
  • Your view of yourself changes (you may see yourself differently without the role of work in your life and with the addition of new roles such as those described above).
  • How others view you may change (especially if they primarily identified you with your work role, or as they see you in your new roles and new environment)

This example shows how one shift in roles causes a ripple effect of change throughout your identity. This is because the four facets are interrelated. Moving overseas means many shifts in all facets of your identity occurring simultaneously.

Moreover, there is the additional impact of living in a foreign culture. What happens to your sense of self? To continue with our example, if you invested your sense of self primarily in your work role, and you no longer have this role in your life when you move overseas, you are likely to feel that a part of you is absent or unfulfilled. It is important to acknowledge the loss you feel. You may even feel that you have completely lost your sense of self and question who you are. In reality, your sense of self is not gone, but rather the ability to anchor your sense of self to a particular role (your work) that defined you.

When you are no longer invested in that role, when you can no longer define your self in the same way, your sense of self is more vulnerable and more open to new possibilities for expression. Your identity is in transition. What can you do? You can turn to yourself as the keystone for building a new identity picture. You can be willing to take risks, to grow and change. In the process of reconstructing your identity, you must tolerate uncertainty as you explore your options and make choices.

Case in point: one accompanying spouse I met in Thailand confided in me that she began to think about having a baby based solely on the suggestion of others that this was a good time to start a family. It was her first overseas posting, and she had been in Thailand for about three months. While she had no specific plan for her time overseas, she had to remind herself that having children was not what she wanted at this stage of her life. She was in her twenties and had been married for only a year. She didn’t want to make a decision based on the convenience of her lifestyle as an expatriate spouse. What she really wanted to do was to try to find a way to utilize her business skills, though she had no idea how or where she could do this. She determined that she would be happier looking for an opportunity that suited her interests, even though she didn’t know the outcome, rather than deciding prematurely to have a child. Despite the temptation to fill a void in her life, she chose to honor her sense of self.

By taking some time to look inward, you can determine what is meaningful to you and find a way to put it into place in your life overseas. You may choose to put your focus on family (or even start a family). You may decide to seek employment in the foreign culture or instead develop a talent, skill, or passion of yours. The end result is that you resolve the transitional state of your identity for a successful adjustment to life overseas.

Charise M. Hoge, MSW is co-author of A Portable Identity: A Woman’s Guide to Maintaining a Sense of Self While Moving Overseas.

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