Updated: Mar 23
I often get asked the question about who gets lonelier: the diplomat or the accompanying spouse?
Let’s have a look at both cases.
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As someone who’s experienced my diplomatic life from both the perspective of the diplomat and an accompanying significant other, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked the question about who gets lonelier: the diplomat or the accompanying spouse?
Let’s have a look at both cases.
- There’s almost always so much work to do. The amount of work and the expectation that it’s delivered well and on-time time and again can make the diplomat feel like there’s simply no time to invest in relationships outside of the office. Even if there was time, the work can leave us so exhausted that it can take a huge effort to socialise outside of work.
- Diplomats are always on, even when they’re not at the office. This fact means that we can have doubts about why someone wants to socialise with us: ‘Are they wanting to hang out with me or the diplomat and what I know?’ Even the mere thought that we are possibly simply worth knowing for the position we hold at the office rather than the person we are inhibits genuine connection.
- Diplomats can work in ultra-competitive environments with a corrupted interpretation of psychological resilience. This can make it feel like every decision, every action, every success and every failure can have an impact on our careers. Any wrong step, or having a less-than-stellar reputation for being able to handle it all, feels like it will be the end of any chance of promotion, the next posting or the big opportunity to shine in front of the right people. In an environment like that, it’s best to chip away at those flaws within yourself and become the perfect and model employee. I’m not sure if there’s a surer recipe for disconnection from our authentic selves than this.
- Diplomacy, by its very nature, requires diplomats to move away from home and live and work in foreign countries with their different cultures. Diplomats are constantly meeting new people and living and working within a different environment. This is thrilling and a real highlight of the diplomatic life – most of the time. Sometimes we want to be surrounded by those friends and family who’ve known us for years. We can be a far away when we need a hug from Mum.
The accompanying spouse
Many of the same issues about living the diplomatic life described above apply to the accompanying significant other just as much as the diplomat.
- Living in another country and being surrounded by its different and interesting culture is wonderful, until it’s not. An accompanying significant other can feel like they’re not allowed to complain when it becomes too much: the complaining can reflect poorly on the diplomat; and the life of a diplomatic spouse is one of cocktail parties, luncheons and charity auctions, right? Keeping quiet about the frustrations of being an accompanying significant other and then carrying on doesn’t make the frustrations go away, does it?
- As a significant other, you’re likely as educated – or even more so – than your diplomatic other half. It’s also likely that you’ve had your own career. You are your own person. But the world around you sees you as the accompaniment to your diplomat. Indeed, you find that you introduce yourself as the husband/wife/partner of your other half’s position at the diplomatic mission: ‘Hi, I’m [insert name here]. I’m the [insert relationship status] of the [insert diplomat’s position] at the [insert name of diplomatic mission].’
What a way for some of us to feel invisible, to cede our identities and disconnect with our selves.
- The example above is not only relevant for losing our identity but losing our sense of purpose. What’s our purpose when we’re living this diplomatic life? If we feel that our life is devoid of a purpose or has a purpose with which we’re not aligned, then disconnection from ourselves and the world around us is sure to follow.
- We love our diplomat and we love our life together, but we just wish that their work wasn’t the constant third wheel in our lives. Our lives seem ruled by the job and the bureaucratic machinations within the employing agency. We don’t see our diplomats for weeks on end when there’s a crisis, an important visit or a big meeting coming up. And crises, visits and meetings are ALWAYS coming up. We see what the job does to the person we love and we do our best to pick them up, dust them off and make sure they’re fed, watered and rested before sending them off again. We are all living this life according to the employing agency’s good graces. It’s difficult to connect with the world around us when a decision taken within the machine can alter our lives in a moment and we have no say in it.
I’m certain that there are more. Indeed, I have over 40 blog posts and 25 podcast episodes devoted to the mental and emotional wellbeing of diplomats and those who live the diplomatic life. You get the idea.
The winner is…
No one. Absolutely no one.
While the question is asked innocently and out of concern (I hope), the question about who gets lonelier frustrates me more than any other question I get about my work here at The Lonely Diplomat.
When we compete for who gets to be the loneliest or engage in comparative loneliness, we’ve lost sight of the issue.
The truth is that we who live the diplomatic life are all subject to the human condition. All humans feel lonely, just like we all feel joy, pain and all the other wonderful emotions. Loneliness is one of the worst emotions because it simply feels awful and has connotations that we’re somehow a failed human. Loneliness – and entertaining the notion that we may be lonely – raises questions about our worthiness to be loved, seen and belong.
There are many, many reasons why we humans get lonely. Grief, divorce, the absence of other humans around us, moving away from friends and family and living our life behind the carefully constructed masks we wear and losing sight of our authentic selves are all ways that we can arrive at loneliness.
We all arrive at the same destination at point in our lives. We all move in and out of loneliness. Some stay in the state for longer than others. Why are we discussing how we got there, and which way is more legitimate or deserving than others?
Are we so consumed with competition in our diplomatic lives that we seek to deny the experiences of others who we feel have no right to be as lonely as ourselves? I hope not.
Intended or not, this is really what the ‘Who gets lonelier?’ question means. By asking the question, intentionally or not, we can deny the thoughts and feelings – indeed, the very voice – of those who somehow classify themselves as less lonely.
If you feel lonely, then you’re lonely. Full stop.
Rather than focusing on who has the right to feel loneliest, I want to acknowledge that, for all its amazing highlights, diplomacy can make for a tough life. I want to move the discussion to how I can support you and how we, as a global diplomatic community, can support each other in a real, authentic way when we inevitably feel lonely. After all, only diplomats and those who live the diplomatic life know what it’s like to live the highs and inevitable lows of diplomacy.
I often hear you say that other people deserve help more than you, because, after all, someone always has it worse than you. This is dangerous and untrue. That you’re lonely, disconnected and frustrated as you live your diplomatic life is enough. You’re worthy to receive help and support as you live your diplomatic life.
Can you allow yourself to get the help and support you need? I’m here if you want to discuss your loneliness, disconnection or frustrations with your diplomatic life. I have a team of experts who are living – or have lived – their diplomatic lives waiting to serve you, challenge you and inspire you.
I see you. Let yourself be seen, too.
Want to know more?
Phil McAuliffe, ‘The Lonely Diplomat: reconnecting with yourself and the world around you’ (amazon.com)
This post covered the central themes of diplomacy, competition, resilience, loneliness and connection.
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.