Here is a medley of perspectives on what it is like to be single and serving at a U.S. mission overseas.
BY MIKKELA V. THOMPSON
The Family Liaison Office supports “all members of the Foreign Service ‘family,’ including single employees overseas, most often in the areas of crisis management, evacuations, unaccompanied tours and, of course, through our worldwide CLO program.” You can reach FLO at—
Webpages: Foreign Service Life; Crisis Management Services; Unaccompanied Tours Support.
What is it like to be single and serving overseas? According to the Family Liaison Office, about one-third—or 7,000 out of approximately 22,000—of direct-hire employees from all agencies serving under chief of mission authority overseas are single.
There are many types of singles—the young, unmarried, gay entry-level officer; the specialist with a Member of Household retired parent; the middle-aged entry-level officer; the divorced or separated mid- or senior-level officer, with and without children; and other combinations and permutations. Each type and, indeed, each different personality tends to have a different view of their situation.
As one senior-level FSO sees it, it is more “difficult emotionally, socially, logistically—and also less safe—to be single in the Foreign Service. You have to be a braver, heartier soul.” That is a broad statement, but there is certainly some truth in it. Speaking for myself, as a single person in the Foreign Service I feel most acutely lonely when I’m left alone in my new home. The best way I deal with this is to have internet connectivity so that I can Skype, WhatsApp or email with my family and with my friends, who are like family.
To explore this issue I asked a few dozen colleagues from different agencies and bureaus and of various ages and marital status to share their thoughts. What follows is a compilation of some of the responses I received. Comments have been edited to protect privacy and for clarity. Meant to be neither comprehensive nor definitive, they offer a variety of perspectives on the unique challenges and joys of being single and serving at a U.S. mission abroad.
I joined the Foreign Service single in 2002. My wife and I met in A-100, but didn’t start dating until she was in Bogotá and I was in Mexico City, about 10 months later. We dated long distance for two years, then went to Baghdad; the only reason we went there was that we wanted to be posted together, but didn’t want to get married after only dating a year (when we were bidding). After that, we got married and had kids. My wife has done an out-of-cone assignment and been on leave without pay for five years cumulatively out of the past 15 in order for us to be posted together.
–Mid-level management FSO
Most of my friends here, I think, would agree that PSPs (priority staffing posts) are not the hotbed of romance people often think they are. Due to the gender imbalance, this might be a little different for women. It can be easy to meet people in the Foreign Service, as that is often part of our job. But due to how often we move, it’s often hard to find a partner, as you have to meet someone fairly quickly once arriving at post to have enough time together before you move on. People who are in relationships but not actually married fall into a sort of gray area where they aren’t really single, but they also aren’t married in the department’s eyes. Being LGBT or a woman can add another layer of challenges due to the conservative nature and cultural norms of a lot of countries where we serve.
Some posts put a lot of resources into keeping EFMs and kids happy and entertained, and exclude singles from things like giving input to creating commissary wish lists (often, single people do not put their personal email on the ‘spouses’ list, so they do not get asked what they might want at the commissary). Or they conduct Community Liaison Office events like cooking classes or hospital visits when single working people can’t take off.
Preferences go to families to take vacation during the holidays (when, if the most important thing is to be “together,” it can be even more important for the singles to travel to be with their families, as those who have family at post have each other). Posts focus on families having good schools for their kids or families having housing that they “deserve.” For the State Department, single officers with no children are not as expensive. They do not have as many allowances.
–Mid-level USAID FSO
When I worked in the management section, I watched the morale of my post closely. Being single, I tried to make sure that other singles felt like part of the mission family, so I organized outings around the city, making sure to include the singles at post without excluding the non-singles. I was surprised to see that for Christmas, both years, the single entry-level officers were denied leave.
That said, some of the singles who were left at post over the holidays organized an “orphans’ Christmas” for the rest of us. The best part of being single in the Foreign Service is the freedom to go on this adventure alone.
–Mid-level FS specialist
As a single parent in the FS, you are in a sort of abyss that is not exactly viewed as single by the singles and not as a family by married couples. That makes it an awkward category.
I find that the single FSOs will coordinate events with each other and will assume that since I have a child, I would not want to attend. The married families will coordinate events with other families and not invite a single parent (me) because they think I would not want to attend. So as a divorced, single parent I am an anomaly; however, I own it entirely.
I seek out and create bonds with like-minded souls who don’t judge me, label or make presumptions without getting to know me. That is the internal dynamics of the FSO world. Conversely, outside the embassy no one cares, and that’s where I find solace and freedom.
My life is not ordinary, and that’s why I like it. I am never boxed in. I have an amazing life, and I can’t complain. Life is what you make of it: single, married, divorced or complicated... just live, laugh and love.
–Mid-level USAID FSO
Oh, living single while in the Foreign Service...what blissful torture for lots of people. I moved abroad single and was able to date while being abroad, both inside and outside the embassy. I see it this way: You can make the most of your time anywhere, or you can choose to be miserable. Is it a challenge to be single? Absolutely! But there are also benefits that I experienced. I didn’t have to check in with anyone, I didn’t have to combine my plans with anyone. I didn’t have anyone tugging at my time and my energy.
I’m also a certified life coach, and what is disheartening to me is to see the people who get on these “marriage” tours when they feel they are done with being single, only to settle with someone who may not be equally yoked with them, but they serve the purpose of following them around, providing them with a family and keeping them company. I wonder how many people are actually truly happy with their spouses in the Foreign Service, because a lot of people definitely don’t walk around as if they are.
I find that there is beauty both in being single and having a partner. In my book, whichever point you are at should be fully enjoyed, which is what I did—and I don’t regret a second of it. I would also say that having dated a local was a great experience. Had it not been for that person, there are places, things, food and people I would never have enjoyed. Open yourself up, give the county a chance; enjoy all the great things the people have to offer. That way the question will be less about whether you’re alone or not, and more about all the amazing things the Foreign Service life has afforded you.
–Entry-level Department of Defense employee
I’ve spent about half of my 15-year Foreign Service career single. My first two tours overseas, I was as happy as I could be—socializing after work five or six nights a week, traveling constantly, accepting every invitation I received. I really made some great friends, both among locals and within the embassy, and sucked the proverbial marrow out of my experiences. When I returned to Washington for several years, I reconnected with long-time friends from college who lived in the area and spent considerable time investing in those relationships. I started to dread the thought of picking up and rebuilding my social network, once again; the idea actually tired me out, when it had once invigorated me.
Honestly, if I hadn’t gotten married around that time, I’m not sure I would have stuck with this career. At the very least, I likely would have spent considerable portions of my career in Washington, a place that feels very much like home and where I have a well-established group of trusted friends. However, having a partner to navigate this topsy-turvy career has made subsequent transitions much smoother. In addition to having someone by your side to discover a new country, it’s now just plain easier to create a social network. For me, making transitions together with my husband alleviates some of the stress caused by the constant change.
–Mid-level economic officer
Right now I am back in the United States about to go to court to get divorced. I have observed that the Foreign Service can uncover problems in a marriage. When overseas, the non-working spouse has to find their own way. It is a difficult problem for many to have too much free time. Being posted in countries where there are few job opportunities, especially in the last year with the hiring freeze, can be very difficult for both partners.
My marriage was unhealthy prior to joining the State Department, so my divorce is not really completely related to serving in the Foreign Service; but serving overseas certainly hastened my decision to get out of it. There is much joy for the employed spouse living the life of a member of the Foreign Service. The job allows one to do many unique and interesting things. But when the non-working spouse has trouble making friends and fitting in, the excitement is one-sided.
I’m much happier now. When I was in my marriage, I daily thought how much better it would be to be living alone. Marriage is not the solution to everything. I believe that a person needs to love themselves first. You should not be dependent on another for your happiness.
–Senior-level FS specialist
I love the empowering exercise of mapping out a trajectory of next stops in my career that need no further internal “clearance” on the homefront beyond my own.
And although it is true that being single in the Foreign Service may mean no traveling support system, digital technology enables the virtual immediacy of friends and family, whatever my coordinates.
Linguistically, being single also offers an opportunity to progress in a foreign language as intensively as one’s curiosity dictates.
–Mid-level public diplomacy officer
As a single woman in the Foreign Service, I’ve faced an uphill battle to start a family. Like an increasing number of American women, I decided to pursue motherhood on my own when I found myself still happily single in my mid-thirties. Having spent my pre-FS career helping abused and at-risk children, I set my sights on domestic adoption from foster care as a natural way to build my family.
While still in A-100 I began my search for an adoption agency and found one company—only one—that was willing to help me attempt a domestic adoption as an expatriate. Yet when I called the agency after Flag Day I was devastated to hear in no uncertain terms that they would not be sending American children to my new post in Africa. Unswayed by the stellar international school, affordable domestic help or large housing post had to offer, they were convinced it was irresponsible.
Disappointed, I waited for two years for my next assignment, this time a coveted post in Western Europe. I immediately restarted the adoption paperwork. Though I submitted my home study for dozens of waiting children, social workers balked at the constant mobility inherent in an FS career—they said it sounded unstable. In the end I wasn’t matched to any.
I decided that the logical alternative was to get pregnant myself—only to discover that as a single person I was not legally allowed to pursue fertility treatments in my host country. There, single motherhood by choice is considered immoral.
Eventually, I received my next assignment. While in training I’ll have a few months to try fertility treatments before I’m off again, this time to a country where the Zika virus is endemic, where any pregnancy would put my baby at risk of devastating birth defects. (Or risk my career if I curtail, accept a short-term Washington, D.C., assignment or take leave without pay during the pregnancy.)
My story doesn’t yet have a happy ending, but I am still trying. I believe that despite its challenges this lifestyle is one of the greatest things I can offer a child. I want children who know the world even better than I do; and I think the world needs more citizens who embrace the diversity that exists not only within their own borders, but in every corner of the planet. In spite of the sacrifices I’ve had to make so far, that still seems like a goal worth fighting for.
–Mid-level consular FSO*
*This comment was submitted separately, directly to the Journal.