The Dangers of Self-Actualization: An Evaluation of Needs for the Modern Trailing Spouse


Maslow divided the needs of individuals into five categories, including physiological, safety, social, esteem and self-actualization. The traditional idea is that an individual would meet at least a part of each lower level in order to move to higher levels. Once an individual is satisfied in a category, they can move to a level of needs that allows them to get closer to attaining actualization.

While the original pyramid structure may not portray the path to actualization for trailing spouses in the most accurate fashion, it does provide specific categories to evaluate whether or not a spouse has greater potential to reach a level of fulfillment and appreciation for one’s life overseas. In order to evaluate the needs properly, it is important to remember what Maslow believes, that “self-actualization must be selfish; and it must be unselfish. And so there must be choice, conflict, and the possibility of regret (Maslow, n.d.) To paint an accurate portrait of the spouses life, the following evaluation will include areas of needs met, as well as the areas that need improvement.

Starting from the bottom of the pyramid –

Physiological Needs – When spouses arrive at post, living quarters are provided. The search for, and the stress of looking and paying for a home in a foreign land is completely alleviated as it has, more than likely, already been taken care of and established before the family arrives. In addition, sponsorship programs through the liaison office secure a fridge full of food for the new family upon arrival. Immediate outings and shopping excursions are the normal functions of sponsors to help the new officer and spouse adjust to life in their new city. The embassy housing office makes sure that all lights work, and the water is running properly before a family moves into a residence.

When the spouse arrives, they come bearing at least one suitcase, if not more. Shortly thereafter, Congress authorizes reception of unaccompanied air baggage to help the family supply their home with furnishings that make the adjustment easier and more comfortable. Eventually, a shipment authorized up to 7,200 pounds of household effects arrives ‘neatly’ packed in containers.

However, it takes almost a year to grasp the shopping options and availability of items in a new town. Much effort is expended to reach a comfortable routine for life. All shopping options must be searched, searched again, and then kept in a mental list of acceptance or elimination; then a final round of searching is once again necessary to determine if a certain store really is a necessary stop.

In the book, The Paradox of Choice, research suggests that too many options leave people overwhelmed. Spouses understand this concept very well when living overseas. The decision to exert the energy and time necessary to find another unsatisfying replacement of their favorite store back home, lends the spouse to simply go to the nearest grocery store and ‘deal’ with the selection available.

Other popular solutions include searching online and ordering from the exhaustive list of options on Amazon. Sometimes, the only way to meet the physiological needs of an American spouse is to MEET THE NEED FOR AMERICAN FOOD CRAVINGS. Shipping costs, time delays and hours spent in the kitchen trying to recreate the dish and taste become irrelevant factors in the equation. The need must be met, no matter what it takes.

In addition to the frustrations for finding the most basic of needs, food, there is also the disingenuous and often refuted chance for an officer (and family) to move to another housing location. Excuses that there are ‘no other’ choices, that the family should suck it up, the housing committee won’t approve their reasons, etc. do not grant the spouse necessary autonomy or control over their own situation. The focus of needing ‘appropriate’ housing for their own level of satisfaction is denied and the spouse may spend the entire tour trying to make the house given to them acceptable, not allowing them to focus on other needs to reach fulfillment. If they are not able to overcome the frustration, they may stay fixated on this lower level of need, feeling dependent on the system and doubting their own cognitive competences, two outcomes that hinder the actualization process (Heylighen, 1992).

With the idea that a spouse loses a large part of independence in a most basic need of housing, and half of the tour is searching for places to buy food, it is easy to contend that actualization for that individual is not only hindered, but suppressed. At the end of one tour, the cycle immediately starts again, leaving the spouse back at the bottom of the pyramid to learn a new language, a new town, where to shop and dine and how to, once again, make the ‘supplied’ house a home. This leaves little time for a spouse to further their growth, or they must make allowances to outsource the meeting of these needs to another individual – such as an interior designer, housekeeper, cook, or the like.

Safety Needs – There are different types of safety needs each individual requires to maintain a healthy lifestyle. These include physical, psychological, and even financial security. For many, a tenured position within the Department of State (DOS) gives a sense of relief and safety – and not only for the officer, but for the spouse as well. Financial security often opens the door for spouses to immediately pursue higher levels of needs to reach actualization.

However, financial security is only one aspect of the safety needs level. If a spouse doesn’t feel physically safe, no amount of money may make a difference. Especially if they do not feel comfortable enough to leave the ‘supplied’ home. Because of the nature of the job, there are certain issues that spouses must become accustomed to that are simply not relevant to the average American citizen.

Luckily, physical safety is fairly easy to observe and evaluate. For spouses to feel physically safe in their new environment, there are several measures DOS takes to maintain a sense of security for the entire community. For instance, most residences are equipped with a telephone, alarm system and/or radio to contact the embassy security team for emergencies. And, depending on where one is posted, the home may also have a ‘safe haven’ room, or double-barreled, bullet-proof door installed as an extra barrier to intruders. If living on a compound (and sometimes individual residences), the embassy will employ a guard staff to secure the grounds 24/7, check visitors with metal detectors, or conduct bomb checks on cars before entering the gate. In addition, spouses are briefed upon arrival by the Regional Security Officer, and instructed on how to conduct oneself in a manner that lessens the chance of unwelcome threats – in other words, spouses are given some local ‘street smart’ tips.

While all these security measures are necessary and allow spouses to feel comfortable and guarded, they can also have the opposite effect. Once the feeling of security is attached to guards and AK-47’s, bomb checks on cars and 15 ft surrounding walls with edged barbed wire, spouses can leave post with a major sense of vulnerability as they try to repatriate to America, or follow the officer to a less guarded post. The period of transition may leave the spouse not only feeling vulnerable, but also paranoid and ill-equipped in the average Western neighborhood.

To be continued,…UP NEXT: The Evaluation, part 2

New to the series? Start reading here.


Heylighen, F. (1992). A Cognitivie-Systemic Reconstruction of Maslow’s Theory of Self-Actualization. Behavioral Science, 37, 39-57. Retrieved March 23, 2016, from

Maslow, A. (n.d.). Critique of Self-Actualization: Some Dangers of Being-Cognition. Retrieved March 25, 2016, from v15 n1/Critique_of_Self-Actualization–Maslow.pdf

Schwartz, B. (2005). The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s