Looking from outside, most of the time the diplomatic world seems privileged, glamorous and at the same time, quite restrictive. Not many people are aware what happens behind the ‘fancy curtains’, and that’s often a source of clichés, misconceptions and even envy...
I entered this world when I was around 30 and I married a diplomat. Little did I know that my life was going to change drastically and not much of the experience I had before would still matter in the diplomatic circles.
Diplomatic world is highly hierarchical, and most often, the ranking system that rewards the public servants of the Foreign Service applies also to the spouses. Sometimes you are judged and appreciated more or less, depending on your husband’s title and rank. This is not very pleasant, especially if you are new to this and the husband is just at the bottom of the diplomatic hierarchy... I tell you this because I’ve been there, years ago... and I know how it feels. Besides the fact that you leave all your old life behind, you move away from your family and friends, you also lose your job, so you suddenly are in a situation where you have to find your meaning and new ways to prove yourself and gain appreciation for your own merits, as you once had.
Moving is, as experts often say, the third most stressful situation in life, after death of someone dear and divorce. This enormous amount of stress, that any expat wife or diplomatic spouse felt at least once, can either break you, or make you stronger.
During my years of diplomatic adventures in Austria and Germany, I have heard numerous stories about broken marriages or deep depressions, all caused by the inability to adapt to this lifestyle. I’ve also been almost in depression and tried to do anything in my power not to fall into it. When we move we are alone at first, no family gatherings and no cheerful friends around. We test our social skills from day one and not all of us are strong to handle the pressure.
We are trailing spouses, as we are often called. Many people see us just as housewives, some envy us for our free time and lifestyle (real or imagined by their own projections) and some disregard us for not being professionally fully accomplished. Most of the diplomatic spouses, though highly educated, don’t have paid jobs (as this is accustomed and sometimes even strictly regulated by laws in the country of residence), some try hard to reinvent themselves, as bloggers, influencers or doing volunteer jobs. I chose this path myself, I got involved with UNICEF and other NGO’s that do well and try to change the life of the less fortunate. This type of activity is enormously rewarding and besides the free help you give to others, you feel good about yourself and find a new sense of meaning and belonging to a group, which is terribly important for your mental well-being in the long run.
Moving is never easy. I figured that it usually takes around six months to start feeling comfortable about your new life, your new home, in the new city of residence. It is always important to keep some old routines (or establish new ones), in order to feel emotionally more secure.
I wrote about these in my book, 'Just a Diplomatic Spouse'. I wrote about deep feelings and a roller-coaster of emotions, about my adventures as a trailing spouse, the life I had in Vienna and Berlin and also gave some tips, a plan to adapt to the diplomatic/ expat experience as smoothly as possible. I also read recently other priceless suggestions to ease your way into expat world here, in The Expat Magazine. The more people talk about it, the better. However, it is never easy for both diplomats and expats in general, it takes time and diligence, you will not be always understood by the people you left home, you will lose connections but also make new and dear friends and eventually will start to blend in with the locals and feel yourself again. But, in our world, most often when you get comfortable, it is time to move again...