Updated: Apr 17
Diplomacy demands much of us and our
loved ones, doesn't it?
Love is such an emotional topic, so let's start with some facts:
Diplomats are people.
People long for meaningful connection with other people.
Diplomats are people who wish to serve their country and advance its interests internationally.
They are people with a sense of adventure.
Diplomacy is a job that requires people to move and live away from their home countries.
There are fewer topics that concern us more than the welfare and well-being of our loved ones (I hope that this includes yourself). We love what we do and the experiences we live, but we are always aware of how our work affects those we love most. This is a huge topic, so I'll be taking a quick look at how the job affects our romantic relationships through three perspectives:
Before a posting
Relationships during our postings
Falling in love during our postings
Before a posting
What happens when the requirement to move happens at a time when we have just fallen in love with someone? This applies to my wife, Sophia (Soph), and me. For this, I’ll share our story.
Soph and I met in Canberra during our graduate years. She was at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and I was at the then Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. Being Canberra (i.e.: very small), we met through mutual friends and started dating.
We quickly fell in love (well, I did), but the whole posting 'thing' hung over our heads like the Sword of Damocles.
After a few months, Soph was able to apply in a posting round. The options on the list included Berlin, and as a German speaker, I lobbied hard for it. However, we’d only been together for six months and Soph factored me in but, very rightly, based her decision on what she wanted to do. She chose Caracas as she’d always wanted to go to South America and to learn Spanish. Soph got her choice and soon started Spanish language training. She also moved in with me, as this would be easier for us to have DFAT recognise our relationship to allow me to accompany her on the posting.
Note the reason for moving in together there?
This was our first experience with the artificial relationship deadlines that being a diplomat puts on couples. Rationally, I know that our employing agencies want to be as sure as possible that a non-married diplomat and their accompanying partner are in a genuine relationship. Having to prove our relationship through statutory declarations, joint bank accounts, cohabitation and joint holidays meant that the decision for me to accompany could not be made lightly.
I well understand the need for these checks. It is tremendously expensive to send a newly-dating couple overseas, only to have the relationship break down just weeks into the posting. That said, the checks are a great example of how our jobs intrude into our private lives.
For those readers who aren't diplomats, let me put things into another context. Imagine meeting your love interest’s parents who then give no indication that they like you or support your relationship until they’ve duly considered the documentary evidence before them and let you know when they’ve reached their decision. Or, if your new spouse or significant other is from another country, the possible interview with an immigration official as part of the partner visa application process.
People – diplomats included – are wonderfully diverse and fickle creatures. We meet and, perhaps, fall in love with all sorts of people. What happens if a young diplomat, on the brink of living their dream and about to embark on their first posting, falls for someone who is kicking goals in their own nascent career? How exactly does the conversation go about how the diplomat’s nascent career is more important than theirs? Does the other person quit their job and follow? Could they get leave from their job? Three years is a long time for an employer to keep them on the books. Can they work remotely from the city in which they’re being posted? Does their visa allow them to work in the country they’re going? If not, what do they do for three years? What if they feel that the relationship isn’t to the point where they could confidently follow? Do they split up? Do they try the whole long-distance thing? How often will they get to see each other? Every three months? Six months? Annually?
You get the idea. This is life-changing, serious stuff.
As for me and Soph, having concluded that pausing my career, accompanying Soph to South America and jumping through the administrative hoops was worth it to be together, I found myself the holder of an Australian diplomatic passport and a one-way ticket to Caracas.
Relationships while on posting
This part will be the subject of another post in the future, but I’ll touch on it quickly here.
Moving house is a well-known stress inducer – no matter if it’s around the corner or around the world. We’ve moved nine times for our jobs since 2001 and while we are getting better each time, it’s never easy.
A diplomatic posting places great stress on relationships. Once the excitement of the move, saying goodbye to people at home, meeting new people at post and moving into a new house has passed, relationships need to be strong in order to survive, much less grow.
There is support for newly arrived people (and their families) at posts just as often as there is not. Where it is provided, it is a lifeline in those overwhelming first few weeks as it provides some opportunities to meet others and for the accompanying partner to meet other partners.
During these first few weeks, the diplomat can work long hours and/or travel frequently (sometimes this is self-driven to make a positive first impression. We must compete for those promotions and opportunities, after all). This can leave the accompanying spouse alone with or without children. Often times in a country in which another language is spoken. The accompanying partner may wish to work, but the terms of the diplomatic visa may or may not allow the accompanying spouse to work. If they can work, there may be language issues that make finding work difficult. Before long, resentment can build over the career that the accompanying spouse has left behind. Indeed, many accompanying spouses have left their careers behind and become financially dependent on their spouse.
To be clear, this is all known before starting at post. However, the theory cannot be fully understood until it has been lived.
And while diplomats and their families are generally an intrepid bunch of people who are keen to see and experience the world around them, a posting can introduce more stressors than a relationship can handle, especially the isolation and distance from an individual’s support network.
It can be a lonely place to have relationship issues.
Falling in love while on post
What happens when a diplomat meets and falls in love with someone while on their posting? Postings have fixed terms and present much the same artificial timelines as those couples who meet prior to the start of a posting. These imposed deadlines mean that couples are confronted with a series of questions almost from the time that things get serious. Where do the couple want to live? Does the diplomat seek leave or quit from their job and stay in their partner’s country? Do they return to the diplomat’s home country? If yes, how do they apply for a visa? Can they work on that visa? How long does it take to get that visa? What if the diplomat’s love wants to stay in their own country? Do they split, saying it’s all too hard? Do they try the long-distance thing?
Again, you get the idea.
Moreover, diplomats in this situation sometimes need to consider if they are actually the prize in the relationship, or if the other person is after the visa and passport that can come from a relationship with that diplomat?
The following story was told to me by Steve (not his real name) in researching my book:
One of my junior officers came into my office one day and asked to speak with me. He closed the door and then told me that he’d been dating a local woman and they were getting close to marrying. He seemed to really like the woman, but he shared his self-doubt with me about her intentions. He wasn’t sure if she wanted to marry him because she loved him, or for the visa and passport marrying him would give her and, eventually, her family.
It’s one thing to have questions when making a commitment, but this takes them to a whole new level.
Every diplomat I know has had to face this dilemma at some point. Every one. Some on multiple occasions.
Reconciling one’s job as a diplomat and one’s relationships can require massive personal awareness and sacrifices. We can grow to resent the job for the choices we felt we were forced to make earlier. For those that decided to end a relationship before starting a posting or ending one, the ‘what-ifs’ and the ‘could-have-beens’ can really haunt us throughout our lives.
This can bring out many different responses, from some leading quiet solitary lives where they are married to their jobs, to others filling the emotional void by sleeping their way through the local population.
Similarly, a partner who feels like they’ve made the wrong decision by accompanying the diplomat on their posting/s can be miserable and plagued by the same ‘what-ifs’ and ‘could-have-beens’ and have the same range of responses.
On reflection, this could be why we know both many divorced diplomats and other couples like ourselves: both with careers that can take us overseas as diplomats. This is understandable: both people share the same employer and the employer understands. Indeed, for Soph and I – working in separate employing agencies within the Australian Public Service – there are generous rules allowing accompanying spouses to have long-term leave for the duration of their spouse’s diplomatic posting, for which I’m very grateful.
For everyone, love and relationships provide a rich source of personal analysis, anguish and compromise. For diplomats, the overlay of additional requirements and deadlines and the knowledge that loving a diplomat can mean adventure but certainly means moving internationally makes it all the more complex.
We love our jobs and the opportunities they bring, but they can demand a lot of us, can’t they?
This week, we are going to start conversations with those we love at home about this diplomatic lifestyle: the good, the bad and the ugly.
So if you are – or will be – accompanied on your posting, put the kettle on or pour a glass of something nice and then talk openly and honestly with those around you. What do you love about what you're doing? What do you miss? What frustrates you? What can be done about it?
If you’re unaccompanied, have that some conversation with yourself. Truly. If that’s a bit weird, call someone who you know will listen with empathy.
Then, have that conversation with colleagues at the office. Appropriately, of course.
In all cases, speak honestly, listen with empathy and speak with kindness. There is no conversation that cannot be made better than with an abundance of kindness and honesty.
Want to know more?
Phil McAuliffe, ‘The Lonely Diplomat: reconnecting with yourself and the world around you’ (amazon.com)
This post centred on the themes of diplomacy, 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.