By Anne Hendershott, published on September 1, 1995 - last reviewed on January 23, 2015
A recent slogan for a major moving van line warns couples to "Pick
the Right Mover, or Pick the Right Marriage Counselor." Strategically
placed in business periodicals and designed to appeal to the frequently
relocated corporate employee, the ad makes explicit every couple's
nagging fear: The relocated family has only one dependable source of
Granted, uprooting the kids from the old neighborhood is
disorienting, but that's not even half the battle. In the age of the
dual-income couple, corporate relocation may mean dragging a spouse out
of job. And if that spouse happens to be a husband, you may find yourself
tangling with a cultural taboo--one that will put a huge strain on your
marriage. At the very least, your beliefs about equality will be tested
against the actual balance of power in your relationship.
Few couples have tempted the rocky cultural terrain. Of the 22
million people who packed up and moved for work last year, only 2 million
were husbands trailing their wives. While that's double the number from
1980, it's a sluggish progression considering the large number of women
who have reached middle- and upper-management, positions ripe for
Even though countless women have silently resigned themselves to
trailing their spouses for decades, the smattering of men who follow
their wives are kicking and screaming so loudly that their dilemma now
has a name. "The Trailing Spouse Crisis" hit the front page of the Wall
Street Journal and the New York Times. The articles warn of the "dangers"
of being the trailing spouse and document the indignant male cries of "It
isn't fair!" One husband complained that after three moves to follow his
wife, "I have never been able to remain in one position long enough to
find out how successful I might have been in my own career."
Haven't we heard this before? Sure, but the trailing spouse issue
came alive only when it became real for men. But what really smarts is
the fact that it doesn't apply to more men. Of those people who moved for
work in 1993, a scant 17 percent were women--and only 10 percent of them
were married. It's tempting to write off this vast relocation gap to
women being passed over for relocation opportunities, but that's only
part of the problem. A recent poll of unemployed executives showed that
men are three times as likely to pick up and move for a new position than
Why, in this era of increasing egalitarianism at work and at home,
are women continuing to trail their husbands's jobs, yet unlikely to move
for their own? If relocation is often the ticket to job advancement,
aren't women paying dearly for their immobility? And what makes men
immune to the family pressures to stay in one place? Do the pioneering
men who follow their wives pay the same price as their female
counterparts? The answers are complex but the questions fundamental. The
relocation gap may well be a subtle refuge of gender inequality, where
men and women sacrifice themselves to norms they openly disavow.
For the Love of Money?
Some economists would have us believe that a family's decision to
move for work is simply a matter of maximizing family financial
well-being. Wives, they assert, are over-represented in the "trailing
spouse" category just because women make less money than men. But in
actuality it's not that simple. Even when wives have the potential to
earn substantially more than their husbands, they are still more likely
to decline a move for their own work if it disrupts their husband's
A study by Mobil Corporation found that a man generally will follow
his wife only if she earns at least 40 percent more than he does. Other
research indicates that she must earn at least twice what he is currently
earning. In contrast, even when a woman is earning more money than her
husband, she is still likely to discontinue her employment and move for
Obviously, the relocation gap can't be explained by salary and
stature. But don't think that the gap is filled only by women who turn
down opportunities to relocate. Many women are never given the option.
Susan Anderson, a 30-year-old division manager for an insurance company,
is anxious to relocate, but no one is asking her. After seven years with
her company she is frustrated by her lack of movement:
"I missed out on two good promotions because they both required
moves to the home office in Southbrook. In both cases, I had more
experience than the person they chose, but men move men around here.
Everyone knows it. It's really kind of a dub. They all get together at
lunch and chronicle their move stories, comparing mortgage differentials
and movers, and school districts and neighborhoods in Southbrook.
Everyone at the top here has been to Southbrook at least once, but I
doubt I'll ever get a chance."
Indeed, "men move men" may well explain why 95 percent of foreign
relocations in international businesses go to men. Perhaps, since most
managers are men, they promote or relocate people they trust and feel
most comfortable with--other men.
Yet even well-intentioned managers may purposefully overlook women
for relocation out of reluctance to create problems for their marriage.
Other managers may be projecting their own stereotypical beliefs about
dual-career marriages and relocation. Imagining the upheaval that might
ensue if their own wives were asked to move, some managers simply
suppress the option of relocating married women.
Still others are completely ignorant of today's work-family
realities. They are the 90 percent of CEOs whose wives have never worked
outside the home and whose rise was enabled by a marriage devoted
exclusively to his career. (That family dynamic is reinforced in the
workplace: Studies show that traditional fathers whose wives don't work
earn up to 20 percent more than men with working wives.) To them--still
the top decision makers in corporate America--female employment, much
less following a wife for it, may be inconceivable.
The decision to move for work is shaped not by salary or title--his
or hers--nor by office politics. Rather, it is the product of gender-role
ideology. The roles husbands and wives play in the household are built on
each spouse's conception of their own gender. These beliefs are rigid and
take root early, starting when parents deride whether to swaddle you in
pink or blue, and are solidified at every stage of life.
Those roles determine the mutually recognized right or authority to
exercise power within the relationship, say Denise and William Bielby,
sociologists who recently studied the couple dynamic in move-for-work
decisions. A man with traditional gender-role beliefs sees himself as
primary provider and decision-maker--and would likely refuse to let his
spouse's job or children's lives interfere with his own job advancement,
say the Bielby. And a woman with traditional beliefs of herself as
homemaker/wife would likely sacrifice job advancement if it means asking
her husband to leave a job or uprooting her kids.
Here's the sticking point: Even though more women have infiltrated
management and the executive office suite, they are still likely to
subscribe to traditional beliefs about the male provider role. In fact,
they go out of their way to support that role--they may take on half the
business work, but they take on all the housework as well.
In The Second Shift, her now-classic study of the division of labor
in the household, sociologist Arlie Hochschild found that many people
ideologically support the idea of egalitarian roles, yet in carrying out
those roles the principles get trampled. There are great contradictions
between what people say they believe about marital roles and what they
seem to feel about them. Many couples who moved for the husband's work
were "outwardly egalitarian" but couldn't override the traditional gender
roles ingrained within them. And their behaviors reflected this
traditionalism; women would rather pass up a career opportunity than
upset their deep-seated, culturally programmed gender roles.
Awkward Sex-Role Reversal
Following their wives for work, men would be challenging those same
culturally prescribed roles. The assumed head of the household would have
to take the passenger seat, forfeiting the power and control traditional
roles bequeath him. And such men may be worse off as trailing spouses
than women have been because they are charting new territory, with no
cultural means of support.
Regardless of their psychological fortitude, couples must endure
formidable external pressures individually and together. Not all couples
can withstand these societal constraints. They often pay a high price in
the negative response from others. Reactions of family and friends may
well be the most trying part of the upheaval. Listen to this trailing
"Their first reaction was to assume that my own career must be
falling apart, when in reality it was going quite well. But I was
confident that I could do this job anywhere. I knew I could get another
job, and did. But sometimes I was embarrassed about it. I hated telling
people why I moved because I never knew how they would respond."
Another male spouse-trailer, a former high-school teacher, said
that he had always earned less money than his corporately employed wife,
so moving for the spouse with the higher earnings seemed to make good
family economic sense Yet it did not stop co-workers and extended-family
members from questioning why he would move to further his spouse's
career: "It has never bothered me on a personal level that she makes more
money than I do. But the reactions we have gotten are beginning to bother
me. They act as if I am lazy or incompetent."
Women who uproot their husbands for their careers have their own
social repercussions to contend with. Even though countless men have done
it before them, suddenly, moving the family for work is "cold" and
"calculating." It seems that the rules for corporate relocation have
changed--the new version confirms the stereotype of the cold and
aggressive successful woman.
Take Nina Webster. When she was offered a new and "terrific"
position in Arizona, her husband, Rob, supported her desire to pursue the
job. For her the pressures imposed by family and friends were
"incredible." Nina recalls: "Feelings of guilt were being imposed upon us
from all sides."
Some couples would sooner try commuter marriage arrangements to
cope with dual career demands that draw them in differing geographical
locations. But they too pay a price. "My mother thinks I am being
selfish," says one woman of her derision to move for her own job--and
leave her husband behind. "After he was transferred to California, I had
been warned that the job market was not good for my area. But I followed
him again anyway because I didn't feel that I could refuse. So we built a
great house on the coast and we all settled in. Unfortunately, I couldn't
find a job.
"After two frustrating years, I felt like I had to move to work. I
really like my job here, but now everyone acts like I was the one who
abandoned him. My family and his are constantly telling me how sad it is
that he has to live in that big beautiful house by himself. They forget
that I moved eight times all over the country for his work, and now I am
the one who feels guilty because of the commuter marriage. He won't move
for me, and I couldn't wait any longer."
Resist the temptation to attribute this woman's experience to
personality--hers or his. The very existence of the relocation gap and
the societal consequences for those who bridge it are rooted in American
culture, not individual psychology. In fact, the male trailing spouse is
bound to be left dangling as a cultural anomaly until social mores change
in boardrooms and living rooms alike.
Once companies begin to dole out promotions, raises, and
relocations with a blind eye to gender, then more couples will at least
be forced to test whether their beliefs in equality translate to real
decision-making power in their marriage. Either way, a battle will ensue:
first an internal war with culturally prescribed roles, then an external
dash with those who strike against people who break the rules. It will no
doubt be a painful process that will get easier only as more couples take
Nevertheless, the relocation gap will likely taunt a generation or
two until enough wives are even given a chance to stand on its