Updated: May 29
This diplomatic life is tough on relationships.
It's a fact that some don't survive.
It’s time to start a conversation about what can happen when a relationship – in the sense of a romantic relationship with a significant other – ends due to separation and/or divorce when on a posting.
This is another tough article to write. Where to start? I wonder: Perhaps it’s tough to write because we don’t have the language to talk about breaking up, separation and divorce ‘properly’, so we avoid the subject. Perhaps there’s a stigma and shame associated with a breakup and we fear not having the right language to support others or ourselves through the process. Is it because we don’t have the right words to say that we simply avoid the issue out of fear of saying the wrong thing and causing offence? Is it that we cultivate a façade of perfection and a breakup is a dramatic way to announce that we’re not as perfect as we appear? In a similar way that we don’t know how to talk about death or comfort the bereaved because we’re reminded of our own mortality, does talking about divorce or separation hold up a mirror to the state of our own relationship and freak the shit out of us? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s all of this. Suffice to say that there’s definitely a stigma to breaking up, separating and divorce in the diplomatic world.
In what could be a dramatic understatement: for all the opportunities and glossy highlights, diplomacy and the diplomatic life can place immeasurable stress on a relationship. The employing agency is a constant third party in our relationships (see gif). This can be written ad nauseum, but it must be experienced to be genuinely appreciated. Relationships breakdown for a whole variety of reasons: infidelity; ‘growing apart’; unmet physical, mental and/or emotional needs; physical, mental and/or emotional abuse and countless more. Whatever the reason, a breakup is deeply personal. Emotions and feelings are raw. We want to hide away. We can feel shame or made to feel ashamed.
Breakups can supply all the ingredients for a perfect shame storm:
- Fear of judgement
And as diplomats and those living the diplomatic life are humans and are subject to the human condition, we will do almost anything to avoid the feelings of shame.
Well, not here at The Lonely Diplomat. As my intellectual crush Dr Brené Brown writes: ‘shame cannot survive being spoken and being met with empathy.’
As is my way, we’re going to start a kind and honest conversation about what relationship breakups can mean when living this diplomatic life.
We live in small communities
While we move around the world every few years and live in some large global cities, we still live in small communities. We’re members of a small team at work. We’re members of a community built around our diplomatic mission. We’re members of wider diplomatic community and an expat community. Sometimes we’re very visible members of all these communities owing to our position in the diplomatic mission (for example, an Ambassador is well known in all these communities).
For all the support that small communities afford, they can become gossipy, negative spaces in which to live. It can feel like nothing is kept secret for long as events and motives are casually dissected and retold over some drinks.
And because we diplomats and those who live the diplomatic life are always on, it can feel like our private lives reflect on our country. We fear that any ‘wrong’ move will destroy our country’s reputation (something I explored in a previous article on being ‘on’ – see below). And this fear is well-founded. Our place in the community is referenced as ‘x from the y embassy’ or ‘married to x from the y embassy’. Consequently, it simply doesn’t do to have your name dropped in a sentence like ‘I heard from Jill that Jim saw John from the Martian Embassy at a bar on the weekend with his arms around a skimpily dressed young woman who was not his wife. Poor Jan.’
A reminder: Gossip is fun and a great way to feel like we’re connecting with those around us (we’re really not); until we’re its subject. To avoid being the subject of gossip – and to avoid judgement – we can work hard to project the image of perfection inside our relationships. This rarely ends well.
Breakups are always emotional
Without doubt, the circumstances leading to the end of a relationship and the end of the relationship are always emotional. It’s a time when we need the support of our family and close friends, but they’re often far away and cannot give us the hug that we need when we really need it. We may have friends where we are who do their best, but sometimes we just need to have a hug and cry with our Mum. This absence can make us feel lonely and very isolated.
Breaking up as the diplomat
If we’re the diplomat who’s going through a breakup, we process these emotions while working. And we can process these emotions in any number of ways. I suspect that there are two common approaches: distraction; and making like everything is fine.
Work can provide a great distraction and we throw ourselves into it to avoid – or numb – the pain in another part of our lives. We can feel like we have more control over work than we do over our personal life. Longer hours at the office and more work can feel like an attractive option during a breakup. In a time of great change, work is known. It’s safe. It provides a respite.
The breakup can so affect us that we can’t really function for a while. We can wrestle with our emotions and our fear that we’ll be perceived to be unable to meet the demands of the job while living our lives. We fear the perception that we’re not resilient enough. For many reasons, we can be reluctant to ask for help and support. We put our heads down and work hard to show that we’re able to handle the job and made of strong stuff. Perhaps the competitive environment that characterises many of our workplaces can feel like it compels us to make choices that really do not serve us: keep calm and keep working.
Of course, when this happens, we respond in the way that is typical of ourselves – whatever that may be. Suffice to say that, as inconvenient as it may be sometimes, diplomats are humans and are subject to the human condition. It would be a callous workplace that doesn’t afford some leave for those needing time away to process, grieve and recover.
Generally, if we’re the posted diplomat experiencing all the emotions of a breakup, we’re still being paid and still have accommodation to come back to at the end of the workday.
Breaking up as the significant other
As a diplomatic spouse or partner (you’ll have noted that I’ve been using the term ‘significant other’ as the collective term here), the breakup experience can be markedly different. Let’s explore this further.
On top of feeling and processing a range of difficult and uncomfortable emotions, the practical reality of a breakup when we’re the significant other can sting. And ‘sting’ is a mild understatement. It can feel like we’re being walloped about the head with a large, dead and smelly fish. Everything changes.
The practical reality is that, for many former significant others, our legal status in a country depends on the relationship to the diplomat. When that relationship ends, so can the visa. There may be some grace period offered by the host country, but the former significant other must change their visa. They could do this without leaving the host country, but chances are that they must leave. Navigating an unfamiliar bureaucracy is rarely a comforting experience for anyone.
Additionally, the support given to the diplomat and their dependents by the diplomat’s employer also ceases. While understandable on a rational level, the ejection from the support provided by the diplomatic mission can rub salt into some very raw emotional wounds; especially if the former significant other feels like they’ve given up so much for the diplomat and the diplomat’s employer in their life already. Experiencing the reality can lead to feeling extreme resentment as another layer of support has been removed.
And where does the former significant other live? Accommodation is provided to the diplomat and their accompanying dependents. So, the former significant other is not entitled to live in the accommodation provided by the diplomat’s employer once they cease to be a dependent. If the ex-significant other wishes to remain in country – for example to remain with any children – the costs to stay are borne by them. This is as it needs to be, but local residential costs can range from cheap and reasonable to prohibitively expensive. This sheer practicality confronts the parties with a stark choice: leave or stay?
Should the former significant other return home, this can be done in a rush and any accommodation available to them (and any children) can be temporary until they find something more permanent. Further, any children may need to be taken out from their familiar schools in the host country and enrolled in new, perhaps unfamiliar, schools at home. The swift change at a highly emotional and troubling time can be disruptive and be a formative experience in their lives.
Then there’s the matter of shipping belongings back home. The expenses quickly add up and become considerable. As we’ve seen in ‘Diplomatic spouses of the world, unite!’ and ‘On being a male diplomatic spouse’ and ‘Being gay and living the diplomatic life’, the significant other may have not had continuing employment for the duration of their relationship with the diplomat. Indeed, almost all diplomatic significant others must give up their careers – or at least put them on hold – when they commit to accompanying a diplomat.
The ex-significant other may have a qualification, but has not been employed in that field for many years. While diplomatic significant others do learn many other skills over the time of living the diplomatic life, it can be hard for potential employers to hire someone with such unique skills and experience. They just don’t know what to make of us.
When the initial emotional and logistical turmoil of a relationship breakup has passed and we adapt to our new normal, we realise that the job continues to be the not-so-silent third party in the now-former relationship. For if there are children involved, custodial arrangements can become even more complicated if there are parties in two different countries. The demands that the work puts on the diplomat continue to be felt by all parties long after the ink on the divorce papers has dried.
I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface, and perhaps you’re yelling at the screen with even more factors that I’ve not considered or mentioned too briefly. I’ll simply say that all the practical factors – let alone the emotional factors – that parties to a breakup when living a diplomatic life must consider can be overwhelming. Couples, and individuals therein, can weigh up the practical and emotional factors of breaking up while on a diplomatic posting and decide to wait until some point in the future (such as the end of a posting or once any children are old enough). Couples make an adjustment to their arrangements and continue on, perhaps presenting an outward façade of perfection to the world to avoid judgement. This is for the couple to decide, knowing all-too-well that every decision comes with its own costs.
However, I shudder when I think of someone in an abusive relationship who is far from home, living in a community in which they don’t speak the language and their only means of support is through their abuser. This is simply horrendous and the isolation experienced must surely be traumatic.
What are we to do?
Without doubt, all these words can’t convey the physical, mental and emotional impacts of a breakup while living the diplomatic life. Simply, a breakup can be awful for all parties involved.
I want to be very clear: These words are not meant to start a round of competitive breakup stories nor are they intended to convey that diplomats and those living the diplomatic life have it better or worse when it comes to breakups than any other people in society. Nor are my words meant to dissuade anyone from entering into a relationship as a diplomat or with a diplomat. Far from it.
My words are intended to recognise that - just like in the non-diplomatic world - relationship breakups can happen while we’re on a diplomatic posting and otherwise living the charmed diplomatic life. My words are also intended to generate kind and honest conversations about how we – individually and collectively – can openly approach the subject and break the shame, silence and the taboo of breakups and divorce in diplomacy.
So let’s have that kind and honest conversation.
Working in diplomacy is a joy and an honour, until it’s not. While we get to see and experience the world and make great things happen between nations, the job demands its pound of flesh from both the diplomat AND anyone accompanying them in a unique way. We must acknowledge these challenges and discuss them at an institutional level and, when needed, at a personal level.
I am not a relationship counsellor. Indeed, I’m going through my own issues. If you’re feeling challenged by my words, I invite you to reflect on why and seek the advice of someone who’s earned the right to hear your story and, if needed, seek some professional help.
Knowledge is power. And I’m happy to say that two supporters of The Lonely Diplomat are working hard to empower and support the global expat community.
Both in her blog ‘On setting up a portable business as a diplomatic spouse’ and in her chat with me for episode 17 of The Lonely Diplomat podcast (see links below), my friend Amel Derragui shared that she started her company Tandem Nomads (link below) to empower accompanying spouses to build their own portable careers and give them some financial safety at least in the event of a relationship breakdown.
Additionally, my friend Katia Vlachos (who is an expat transition coach and the author of ‘A Great Move: Surviving and Thriving In Your Expat Assignment’ and who joined me in episode three of The Lonely Diplomat podcast – links below) has started a conversation on how we – as part of the global expat community – can support those going through a relationship breakup. I’m thrilled that Katia will be joining me for a chat on the topic of breakups for an upcoming episode of my podcast. In the meantime, I want to share four outstanding articles that Katia wrote and published on the esteemed Huffpost blog. Read them all here.
I encourage you to read through these articles, for Katia has articulated the dilemma of many former expat – and diplomatic – significant others in a very eloquent and powerful way.
It’s all well and good that I pronounce that we must have a kind and honest conversation at the collective and individual level about the stressors that this diplomatic life put on our relationships and what can happen when they end. But how do you start one?
You start by opening your mouth and saying something. You could reference this article and the podcast episode in a book club, team meeting or informal coffee with a friend. You can reference Amel’s and Katia’s work. You can write about it in your embassy’s newsletter. Anything to let people know that our diplomatic relationships carry a lot of stress, that breakups are terrible but we’re not alone as we navigate our ways through this diplomatic life as best we can. And ask – no, demand – that the mental and emotional support services advertised internally to diplomats in their workplaces is provided directly to the significant others so they can access the help and assistance without going through the filter of the diplomat.
You’re not alone.
Want to know more?
Amel Derragui, www.tandemnomads.com
Phil McAuliffe, ‘The Lonely Diplomat: reconnecting with yourself and the world around you’ (amazon.com)
Katia Vlachos, ‘A Great Move: Surviving and Thriving In Your Expat Assignment’ (www.katiavlachos.com).
This post centred on the themes of diplomacy, competition, resilience, loneliness and connection.
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Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.