Surviving Divorce in the Foreign Service
Divorce is difficult enough when you’re living a “normal” life in the States. What happens when you’re posted overseas?
BY DONNA SCARAMASTRA GORMAN
They were only a year into their third overseas tour when he broke the news: he wanted a divorce.
The next day, while she was trying to process the news, he told her he’d found a mediator and was ready to start divorce proceedings via Skype. “My head was spinning,” she says. “I was nowhere near where he was in the process.”
According to the Family Liaison Office, nobody in the State Department tracks the numbers, so it is impossible to say for certain how many Foreign Service spouses face divorce while posted overseas. But overnight, Jennifer [all names have been changed] had become one of this unknown number of spouses in crisis. And what she found—as did a half-dozen other EFMs interviewed for this article—was an embassy and an institution that were wholly unprepared to support her through the process.
Life Turned Upside Down
“It was so mismanaged. I felt like there was no one at the embassy on my side,” she says. Although everyone at the small embassy knew what was going on, she says nobody contacted her in an official capacity: not the community liaison office coordinator, not the regional medical officer, not the deputy chief of mission.
Looking back now, she says, “I felt so estranged from everything normal. The divorce rate is higher in these kinds of jobs. And no one talks about it. I had nobody to connect with, nobody who understood what I was going through.”
A friend at post tracked down a packet about divorce that was published by the Family Liaison Office, and she read it cover to cover. It was helpful, she says, but she still didn’t know where to start. The questions seemed impossible to answer: How would she set up her new life, and where? Where would the children go to school? How would she book a flight out of post? How would she rent an apartment or buy a car, without any income of her own? How would she find a job after all of her years with a patchy EFM resumé?
Nobody in the State Department tracks the numbers, so it is impossible to say for certain how many Foreign Service spouses face divorce while posted overseas.
“You’re dealing with: My marriage is over. My life is upside down. But his life just goes on. He wakes up in the morning, and he still has his job. He has his house, he has his girlfriend [a local employee at the embassy]. But his family has nothing; we’re spinning out of control.” She was resentful, she says. “I gave everything to his career. You give up so much of your control. You just give that away. I felt like I should’ve done more to protect myself. Why didn’t I think more about the what-ifs? I felt like a 1950s housewife.” She pauses, then sighs, “Way to be a Foreign Service cliché.”
Another EFM, Jean, says she started the divorce proceedings herself when her marriage began to disintegrate while they were posted in the Caribbean. Says Jean, “It was the worst moment of my life. I was terrified of leaving my kids—no career prospects, and nowhere to live, plus their being settled meant they would stay with him.” Jean also read the FLO handbook, where she learned that she needed to sign a “Statement of Mutual Consent,” a form stating that she was leaving due to an agreement with her spouse, and that it didn’t constitute abandonment of her children.
She left post 48 hours later and flew back to the town where her mother lived, where she met regularly with a therapist and eventually enrolled in school. “I didn’t want to go somewhere where I had nothing,” she explains. “I had never gotten a degree, so my experience was all I had. I planned on going to D.C., but after looking at what I would make (not very much) compared to where I could afford to live, I decided that it wasn’t a feasible solution. Especially if I didn’t get a job.”
Legal Counsel Is Important
Two years have passed since Jean left post without her children. Looking back, she says that “the biggest mistake I made, that I would tell every EFM to avoid, is not getting a lawyer. My ex and I wanted to do it amicably. I did fight hard for the things I wanted, and I got most of them. But I was in a now-minded mentality. I didn’t think too hard about the future. ... I wish I’d done things differently for the custody agreement. I’m living now with my mistakes, trying hard to change things that I don’t have much power over. Divorce papers are very final.”
Jennifer agrees that good legal counsel is important, because there are many significant financial and custodial decisions to be made together. She also moved back to her hometown, hoping for support from old friends and family. Her ex-husband supported her financially while she made the transition. Without financial support from the FS employee, she says, “I don’t know what you’d do. You’d have to lawyer up immediately.” She has spent more than $15,000 on legal fees since she moved back to the United States from South America.
Each spouse needs to have separate attorneys, and both attorneys need to be licensed to practice in the state where you plan to seek a divorce. Make sure your attorney has experience working in the Foreign Service community. (For a list of places that provide legal referrals and mediation services, see “Where to Go for Answers and Support” below.)
Can Embassies Step Up?
Divorce overseas is seldom discussed. The family leaves the country, the employee keeps working, and life at the embassy moves forward as if nothing ever happened. But it leaves behind an undercurrent of worry within the community. “It really shook up a lot of the wives, to see a whole family gone overnight,” says Jennifer, especially when the woman involved in her divorce kept her embassy job and was frequently seen staying overnight at Jennifer’s old house with her former husband.
Good legal counsel is important, because there are many significant financial and custodial decisions to be made together.
And while she lauds the help FLO gave her throughout the transition, she believes that embassies need to take on a stronger supporting role. “People at post knew my situation, but it was all very hush-hush. No one even acknowledged that it was happening. It would be nice if there was someone at post—the RMO? the CLO?—designated to check in with the family, to see if there is anything they can do to help them through a difficult time.” It would also help, Jennifer adds, if the RMO, CLO or someone else at post contacted FLO as soon as they learned of the situation at post, asking FLO’s crisis support team to reach out to the spouse directly. This would give the spouse a neutral person to turn to for initial support and expert advice, and maybe that way, she says, spouses wouldn’t “feel so all alone.”
While Jennifer felt isolated, Jean felt as though the entire community was watching her marriage disintegrate. “Getting divorced in the fishbowl that is the FS was horrible,” she says. “I never want to be in the FS again. I miss some benefits, like travel, household help, the challenge of living abroad.” But, she says, “I wouldn’t give up my life now. I love it. And I never again want to live in the fishbowl.”
What to Do When Facing Divorce
Contact FLO. According to Susan Frost, director of the Family Liaison Office, “FLO encourages employees and family members considering separation or divorce to reach out to our office, either in person or by phone or email. We will walk them through resources and options based on their specific scenario.” The Family Liaison Office has an extensive database of divorce-related documents online (bit.ly/FLODivorceResources).
FLO also maintains a detailed list of things you need to do before leaving post, such as requesting “Advance Return of Family Travel Orders” and notarizing a joint property statement so you will be able to access your belongings in storage. You will also need a “Statement of Mutual Consent,” signed by both partners, stating that neither of you is abandoning the other.
Don’t expect much embassy support. Embassy support is not guaranteed, say the women—mostly women—who have been through it. “We’re so used to relying on the embassy,” says Jennifer, “and all of a sudden it’s not my embassy, it’s his embassy. My support system fell out from under my feet.” Look instead to friends at post, who can help you figure out what needs to be done. Do contact your CLO. Like FLO, says Frost, they “adhere to a policy of confidentiality” and “can serve as a listening ear regarding the stress of family concerns.” One former CLO reports that her embassy worked with several couples to find separate housing at post so they could delay the spouse’s departure: This doesn’t always happen, but you can request housing assistance, and the embassy is supposed to work to accommodate the family where possible.
“We’re so used to relying on the embassy, and all of a sudden it’s not my embassy, it’s his embassy. My support system fell out from under my feet.”
Pick a new home base. Figure out where your support is going to come from in the United States. You’ll show up there with no job, no car, no house and lots of baggage, both emotional and literal. If you can, plan to go to a place where you have supportive friends or family to help you through this first part. Break down tasks. It was overwhelming, says Jennifer, but “I broke it down into individual tasks that needed to be done: Buy plane tickets. Find a school. Find an apartment.” Open your own bank account right away, advises Jean. Make a list of specific tasks that need to be completed so you can start to gain some control over your situation.
Get therapy. Jean’s mother found her a hometown therapist, whom she met with the day her plane landed. Jennifer worked with an online counselor through the Truman Group, which specializes in expat issues. Both women continue to see their therapists to this day, as they work through the lingering pain caused by their divorces. FLO has a crisis management officer who can “provide confidential guidance and referral,” according to FLO’s website. FLO also recommends that you contact Employee Consultation Services—email MEDECS@state.gov for a list of licensed clinical social workers.
Know your rights. Find a lawyer who is licensed to practice in the state to which you are moving, as every state has different custody, filing and residency requirements. Both FLO and AFSA maintain lists of D.C.-based lawyers; contact someone at the State Department’s WorkLife4You program for lawyers outside of Washington, D.C. Make sure you understand what you are entitled to before signing anything regarding the employee’s future retirement benefits and health insurance coverage.
Remember your strengths. “I have a job now, with benefits,” says Jennifer. “A car. A house.” Looking back, she recalls weeks and months of pain and confusion; but, she says, “I was a Foreign Service badass like all spouses are, and it helped. EFMs are faced with so much change, adapting over and over. You learn from that; you get strong from that. Getting through this divorce, well, it’s just like we do when we move. We’re looking for the grocery stores, learning to talk, trying to find new friends. We learn how to solve problems in the Foreign Service.” That resilience helped her get through her worst days.
EFMs give up so many things when they follow their spouses overseas, from steady employment to close relationships with life-long friends and family. And they do this even knowing that their sacrifices aren’t necessarily appreciated or even noticed by post management or the State Department as an institution. When things go badly, as they sometimes do when families move from post to post, the State Department has a responsibility to step up and help these spouses, who have sacrificed their careers, their financial independence and their emotional health in service of our country.
Where to Go for Answers and Support
Family Liaison Office maintains a wealth of resources for family members going through a divorce. All of their documents and links can be accessed online at bit.ly/FLODivorceResources. Among these resources is “Divorce and the Foreign Service,” a detailed guide that will walk you through the necessary steps to take at the beginning of the process and explain what documents you will need.
FLO’s crisis management and support team can answer questions and refer you to legal, mental health, employment and other resources. Email them at FLOAskSupportServices@state.gov or call them at (202) 647-1076.
Employee Consultation Services provides confidential, short-term counseling and referrals for both employees and family members. Email them at MEDECS@state.gov.
The Retirement Network of the U.S. Department of State (RNet) has information related to former spouse retirement benefits at https://rnet.state.gov/index.cfm?pg=dfsb.
AFSA maintains a resource collection on divorce at www.afsa.org/divorce, as well as a list of attorneys who have worked with Foreign Service families. The list, which includes family law specialists, can be found at www.afsa.org/attorney-list.
The October 2014 Foreign Service Journal published an article about managing the child custody issues that frequently crop up in Foreign Service divorces. Additionally, in December 2013 the Journal ran an FS Know-How article about divorce written by two Foreign Service officers who went through the process themselves.
Brilliant Exits provides coaching and counseling services. They also run the Second Saturday program on a monthly basis in Fairfax, Virginia.
Dads at a Distance supports fathers who are parenting long-distance, either due to divorce or because of their chosen careers.
Northern Virginia Mediation Service helps families mediate and manage conflict including divorce/separation and co-parenting.
The Truman Group specializes in psychological care for expats, including remote therapy sessions.
The Women’s Center provides mental health, legal and career counseling.