Sexual Status and Marriage Maintenance Overseas

(Archived from “Personal and Confidential,” an advice column that ran on this website for two years.)

Dear Personal and Confidential,

So how do you cope with a husband caught up in the local culture? Of hitting the girlie bars because it feeds his ego to have all of these beautiful women hanging on to his every word and treating him like a god? And then has the nerve to get mad at me when I say something about his behavior? What do you think?
— Name and Post Withheld

Dear NPW:

Thank you for this very personal and serious question. It raises issues that many Foreign Service couples face at some point, but may not talk about.

First of all, how do you deal with the increase in sexual status that may result from an international move?

Going abroad, a middle-aged, middle-class Washington bureaucrat is suddenly transformed into a glamorous American diplomat. And in a poor country, both of you not only appear fabulously wealthy, but also as possible sources of something very valuable: visas to the United States.

Of course, the flattering and flirting may remain harmless, but it can also easily reach the point where it interferes with your marital relationship, as it seems to be doing in your case.

The “girlie bars” you mention (do they involve strip shows, lap dancing, or worse?) sound like an additional issue on top of the “attractive American diplomat” problem, and one that couples can face anywhere, not just abroad. Erotic enjoyment of beautiful bodies is one thing, but if touching is involved, or your husband is being approached by prostitutes in this situation, not only your marriage but also your health could be at risk.

Even if your husband’s actions are much milder than this, you clearly feel that his behavior is inappropriate and hurtful. And then it is easy to fall into a vicious circle in this situation – his behavior makes you feel resentful and angry, so the distance increases between the two of you. This lets him feel more justified in seeking sympathy and affirmation away from home. Since he reacted to your complaint with anger, it sounds like there is resentment on both sides right now.

What is the state of your marriage in other areas? Would you consider yourselves affectionate and close? Is your sex life satisfying? Do you do enjoyable things together on a regular basis? Are you both in agreement about your respective roles in a Foreign Service marriage?

If the answers to these questions are negative or unclear, I recommend that you work on strengthening your marriage (as all of us should do from time to time, I think).

If your anger and resentment have been building up for a long time, it may seem impossible to make your marriage really good again. But it certainly can be done, if both partners are willing to put some work into it — and if both of you are relatively psychologically healthy.

Even though your husband’s behavior may have triggered this crisis, it may fall to you to swallow your pride and take the first step toward improving your relationship. (Waiting around for him to change isn’t likely to bring results, and you have already found that complaining didn’t either.)

I’d suggest getting started with some books and websites offered by professional marriage therapists. These usually present questionnaires and checklists to help you identify problem areas in your marriage, as well as giving you ideas about how to improve them.

I like, by Dr. Willard Harley, who stresses the importance of making sure both partners’ emotional needs are being met within the marriage. According to Dr. Harley, individuals (and men and women in general) have different emotional needs and priorities, and marriages often deteriorate because the partners don’t recognize each other’s needs.

A good general book on the issues and problems faced by couples moving abroad is A Moveable Marriage: Relocate Your Relationship without Breaking It by Robin Pascoe.

In the area of marital sexuality, I recommend the book Hot Monogamy: Essential Steps to More Passionate, Intimate Lovemaking, by Patricia Love, M.D. and Jo Robinson. In spite of the rather silly title, the book is not just about sex – it also focuses on increasing romance and intimacy within marriage. Even more advanced (and spicy) is Passionate Marriage: Love, Sex, and Intimacy in Emotionally Committed Relationships, by David Schnarch, Ph.D.

A bit of surfing on the Internet and at will lead you to many more resources with widely varying approaches to marriage improvement, so you can choose the ones that seem to fit your situation and relationship.

And if and when you’re ready to talk to a counselor (preferably together), your options are not limited to the State Department’s regional psychiatrist. Consider any of the following as well:

  • A local therapist who speaks English.
  • A counselor affiliated with a local English-speaking religious community.
  • An American therapist willing to work with you by phone and/or e-mail.
  • A therapist you can consult during a trip back to the States, who is willing to follow up by phone and/or e-mail.

If you don’t know where to start looking for someone like this, consider asking for a confidential referral from your post medical officer, Embassy nurse and Community Liaison Office coordinator.

I hope and believe you will be successful in your efforts, but just to be wisely prepared, I also encourage all overseas spouses to read Ruby Carlino’s well-researched article on Foreign Service divorce in AAFSW’s Realities of Foreign Service Life book.

Many couples go on for years in a stale relationship, their familiar routines letting them avoid dealing with underlying problems. Moving abroad (or back to the U.S.) can bring these problems to the surface and force both partners to deal with them. I can say from the experience of a 21-year marriage that this can ultimately be a good thing – if both sides are willing to save the relationship and make it work, it can emerge stronger than ever. I hope this will be true for you and your husband – please write back in six months and let me and our readers know how it goes!

With concern and optimism,
Personal and Confidential

Longtime AAFSW member Patricia Linderman is co-author of The Expert Expatriate: Your Guide to Successful Relocation Abroad, with Melissa Hess, and co-editor of the AAFSW book Realities of Foreign Service Life, likewise with Ms. Hess. She is also Editor-in-Chief of Tales from a Small Planet.

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