“Never take a damaged marriage overseas,” they told me at the spouse orientation the year my husband joined the Diplomatic Security Service.
Diplomatic Security, or DSS, is a little-known branch of the State Department that is responsible, as the name suggests, for keeping diplomats and other Americans safe overseas. DS agents like my husband are posted to Embassies overseas, sometimes alone, sometimes with their families. It’s a high-stress, high-stakes job (think Benghazi) involving long hours in strange cities, doing things you can’t necessarily tell your spouse about.
So this marriage advice, coming from a veteran DS spouse, made a lot of sense. Even way back then I knew that the constant moves required in the Foreign Service, the strange hours, the secrecy required of the job, would take a toll on the strongest marriage, so I could understand that a damaged marriage might not survive a Foreign Service career.
But that was back in the last century, before we’d had a baby. Before we’d had four babies, to be more exact. Before we’d suffered two miscarriages. Before we’d seen one baby through a serious illness. Before we’d been PNG’ed (that means “kicked out,” for all of you non-diplomats) from one country, and medically evacuated from another. Before I lost my hearing to a mysterious virus in China. Before he was selected for an unaccompanied tour in Iraq, leaving me and the four kids behind to fend for ourselves in Amman, Jordan.
Back then, a century ago, our marriage was as close to perfect as it is possible to get, with lots of hand holding and talk of “the future,” that shiny, happy unknown. Advice about damaged marriages had nothing to do with my reality, though I could certainly understand how it might apply to others. I nodded my head as she spoke, like everyone else in the room, but really, I was in a hurry to move on to more pertinent information, like how to host a dinner party, or how to ship a car overseas.
Now, though. Now, when I’m 16 years into the Foreign Service and 20 years into married life, I’ve had loads of time to contemplate that advice, and honestly, it’s the only advice I remember clearly from that day. Hosting a dinner party is the easiest part of the lifestyle. Staying married? Not so much.
In the end, it turns out that every Foreign Service marriage is damaged in some way. All of our marriages have places where they have been bent, bruised and maybe even broken over the passage of years and tours. The strain of the constant moves, the stress of constantly reinventing yourself, the feelings of inadequacy brought on in each new country, where you have to learn to talk and cook and drive anew – all of this weighs down our families, threatening at times to crush us.
Many of the broken bits I find in my relationship with my husband suffered their damage at the hands of the Foreign Service. My married life flashes before my eyes, and I see that time I was so very angry – over what, exactly, I can’t remember now – that I wanted to storm out of the house… but I had nowhere to go, no friends at all to run to, because we were brand new to the city. I remember the time I raged internally because I was stuck driving around our new middle eastern city, trying to find the emergency room, when he was nowhere to be found. I think back to the day they loaded me onto a tiny medevac plane, when I was soaked in blood from the waist down after a misdiagnosis led to a miscarriage – I’d only been in Central Asia for 13 days, and there was nothing he could do to help me except pray I didn’t bleed to death before we got to a country where they could operate on me. I remember when he was home from Baghdad for a brief visit, and I just sat sobbing on the bed, blubbering about how I couldn’t do it, and I wasn’t going to do it anymore, whatever “it” was. He looked on, scared and helpless, not quite even sure what was bothering me.
Yet here we still are.
All around me, I see friends giving up on crumbling marriages – not just in the Foreign Service, but in the regular world, too. Sometimes, when a friend or colleague announces her separation, I’m not surprised – from the outside, it was obvious that the relationship had moved irretrievably beyond the breaking point. Other times, though, I’m shocked – if it could happen to her, what’s to keep me safe?
Here’s the thing. Being sent to a new country with your same ole spouse can be a sort of living hell if you let it. Because you’re forced to rely solely on each other: no grandparents, no old friends, no aunts to rely on; nobody to come rescue you from each other. It’s just you and him, alone against the Foreign Affairs Manual. And at each new post, your relationship changes, in big ways and small. Sometimes I find work: an equal partner! Other times, there is no work to be had, and I have to rely on him to turn in the work orders, to cash the checks, to sign up for internet service. And he has to rely on me, too: to figure things out on my own without too much anxiety, to find the stores and make the friends and enroll in the schools. To be happy, no matter what craziness surrounds me. Because, like it or not, as the “trailing spouse,” I’m the backbone of the family. If that backbone snaps, well, it’s all over. And that’s a terrible, intimidating responsibility when you arrive in a new place, with not a word of the local language, a nasty case of jetlag and four lonely children. It’s hard to be the backbone when your husband is posted in a war zone and you have sick kids and a full-time job. It’s hard to not blame him for getting you in this mess.
I look back at the ravages wrought on my marriage by the Foreign Service, and yes, some of it will always seem awful. Some of it seems funny, or even ridiculous, in hindsight. But all of it – the whole collection of dents, the tarnished spots, everything ugly – all of it together has built this marriage, this crazy life of ours.
So yes, you could say that a decade and a half after that opening day lecture, I now recognize that my marriage is as banged-up as everyone else’s. It’s definitely not the same marriage I carried – carefully, hopefully – into the Foreign Service all those years ago.
But, you know what? We may have argued on that humid summer day about how exactly we should get to the top of the Great Wall of China, but we got there, and back again, together. I gripped the armrest and told him to slow down as he wound down that hill toward Tel Aviv, but he got us there safely in the end, and we held hands as we looked at the broad expanse of the Mediterranean, rolling our eyes as the kids argued about who was the first to touch the water. When I sat sobbing on the bed during his visit from Baghdad, he had no idea what the problem was. But he sat with me and let me finish, and then he kissed me and set about figuring out how to make it better. For me. For us.
We’re damaged, sure. But we’re damaged in the best possible way, together.
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