The Dangers of Self-Actualization: An Evaluation of Needs for the Modern Trailing Spouse: Part 3, Esteem

“You’re always with yourself, so you might as well enjoy the company.”
― Diane Von Furstenberg

Esteem needs are critical to the development of autonomous and actualized individuals. “In sociology and psychology, self-esteem reflects a person’s overall subjective emotional evaluation of his or her own worth. It is a judgment of oneself as well as an attitude toward the self. Self-esteem encompasses beliefs (for example, “I am competent”; “I am worthy”) and emotions such as triumph, despair, pride, and shame” (Wikipedia, Self-Esteem).

Oftentimes, in America, worth is correlated to monetary values. Because many people feel the most worthy in their area of work, it is commonplace to attribute the value received from that work as a definitive measure of what one is worth. The more money someone makes, the more valuable they are. This measurement tool causes problems in the evaluation of spousal worth and value. Most likely, the spouse has relinquished the idea that worth is only attainable through money and thus has agreed to follow their partner, in hopes of finding a meaningful life outside the paycheck.

The environment the spouse then enters causes a conflict of interest and a conflict of evaluation, for one’s own esteem. It begins the moment their partner qualifies them as an EFM—an Eligible Family Member. Eligible for what? For benefits. Spouses are now ‘worthy’ of receiving benefits deemed appropriate and tailored for their position. They can start receiving without any need for reciprocity.

Just as there is conflict about the defining term of Trailing Spouse, the EFM label comes not without its own criticisms. One in particular is its insinuation towards a loss of choice. With the label of Trailing Spouse, there is a hint of choice that remains. The spouse chooses to follow their partner, which involves a connotation of sacrifice and willingness. Changing the title to EFM, not only diminishes the power of the spouse, but breathes an air of entitlement, and reception of something for nothing. It removes the personal connection within the bureaucratic system to cover all family members and breeds an attitude that spouses and other family members are acknowledged to exist in the system, but without any authority. They have been chosen, as opposed to being the one to choose. They are now dependent on the system.

According to research, esteem needs include “achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, self-respect, respect from others” (McLeod, 2014). The idea that one is no longer dependent on their self to make their worth, but to remain eligible to receive their benefits, plays mind tricks on the benefactors. Because they receive such a luxurious package of free housing, free travel tickets, good schooling for their children, medical services, etc, they have little room or authority to complain, or reject their compensation. The attitude is that spouses should alway be positive and thankful for what they receive. The luxury package of benefits becomes a potentially strong influencer in silencing spouses, reducing their esteem, self-respect and autonomy.

To regain the respect and esteem lost, spouses may look for work inside the embassy. Most management offices in embassies accept the need for spouses to find work while overseas seriously. They diligently work to open new positions and allow spouses the opportunity to find esteem this way, if they so choose.

While a job offers a chance for spouses to showcase their area of expertise and ability to master a task, it can also give them a sense of worthiness for the compensation they receive. However, a majority of the positions available to spouses require few skills, or expertise, and may not use their strengths to maximum levels, giving a sense of sacrificing their authentic self.

In addition, the pay may be substantially lower than the salary they made prior to joining their partner overseas, and any amount of worth hoped to gain through a job can easily be diminished. Especially when the spouse does not find the job to equate to a good use of their time, in such cases when the need for money is not a factor. The spouse needs and wants to be useful, to contribute to the society. A job for the sake of a job adds no value to the spouse, or to the embassy. It becomes fluff and unnecessary, giving an impression the worker, too, is unnecessary.

If a feeling of usefulness and worth is not found within a paid position inside the embassy, the alternatives for spouses lead them to engage in volunteer work, immerse themselves in their hobbies, find online resources to further develop their professional skills, or innovate by starting their own portable career. Several spouses use this opportunity to pursue a creative field like jewelry design, painting, writing, and other artistic endeavors. To support those that choose to work outside the embassy, there is the Professional Development Fund, which distributes grants to spouses that meet certain requirements. The fund is designed to help spouses maintain their skills and competitiveness in their respective careers.

Of course, the option to work outside the embassy does not come without its own challenges. Since spouses are no longer rated for their contributions to the community, the shift in the systematic way has gone the other direction, perhaps too far in the other direction. Now, spouses are almost like freeloaders, following after their partner, receiving all the benefits, without any requirement or reciprocity expected. Nothing is expected, or asked, out of fear of insult. The real insult is in not asking them to help, or contribute, in a way that doesn’t involve cash exchange.

As the spouse internalizes the back-handed treatment of their usefulness, they may begin to withdrawal. A great example of this treatment is when called upon to volunteer for a special event or activity. Thrilled to be needed, the spouse asks to do ‘such and such.’ Perhaps the suggestions are not the status quo, so the spouse is looked upon as ruffling feathers, or trying to change what doesn’t need to be changed. Behind the scenes, something is done to curtail the spouse from making those changes. In extreme cases, someone else is given the slot and the spouse may show up to volunteer and the work has already been performed. The spouse’s excitement is deflated. The feeling of not being needed, or respected, clouds their own perception of self-worth and their esteem needs suffer greatly.

It does not go without saying that spouses can and do find small ways to express a level of competency in even the simplest of tasks. Because so much is already provided and controlled through the bureaucracy, the small things become big things, and spouses may seek approval from their partners and friends for anything from wearing two shoes that match to successfully reorganizing the pantry to planning a three week excursion over the summer break.

In addition, esteem is built through mastery of the new language, a local custom, cooking with local ingredients, comfortably decorating the home or even making a routine that eases the stress of everyday family life. The trailing spouse is not immune to the universal emotions and happenings of friends and family back home. The scenery may have changed for them, but the ability to successfully coordinate/attend a PTA meeting, send the kids off to school dressed and fed, diffuse sibling rivalries, maintain a healthy marriage or get dinner on the table at a reasonable hour, are just as commonplace and can give a nice boost to their esteem through a feeling of accomplishment.

While mastering the most simple tasks has a role in the esteem of a spouse, it should not become the only way they seek worth. The real esteem for spouses should come from acknowledging their ability to overcome the adversity of their lifestyle. To fully accept one’s position and role as a dependent, to retain a ‘normal’ level of Americanism in the household, to stay true to one’s own set of standards and to remain sane in a chaotic, never-ending cycle of change, is worth celebrating.

To be continued, up next…Self-Actualization Needs

New to the series?  Start Reading Here.



Haidt, J., Ph.D. (2006).  The Happiness Hypothesis:  Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.  New York:  Basic Books.

McLeod, S. A. (2015). Humanism. Retrieved from

Self-Acceptance –

TED talks –

Wikipedia, Self-Esteem,



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