Anger Management and the Trailing Spouse

Moving is stressful. I think we can all agree on that. If there is a trailing spouse out there who thinks it isn’t, well, I want to know what she’s smoking, and where can I get some. 

I’ve written before about Moving Brain: how even a very experienced and organized person becomes temporarily ADD for a few weeks (or months) around every move. It’s a common syndrome among expats: here’s another good blog post on the subject, comparing moving to puberty!

A friend who has been doing this even longer than I have describes her current, pre-packout mental state as  “…brain fog, general anxiety, overeating, and wanting to stay at the computer ALL DAY JUST LEAVE ME ALONE IF I STAY HERE AND PLAY SPIDER SOLITAIRE I WON’T HAVE TO MOVE…”

At least I’m doing better than four years ago, when I played hours of Angry Birds to try and make the world go away.

ADD and hyperfocusing at packout time are pretty normal, but they aren’t the only things going on. Behind all that therapeutic dark humor in trailing spouse circles (and they are a hilarious bunch!) is some real anger.

It might be just a little bit: maybe this time you are only angry at the embassy travel agent who screwed up your airline tickets, or the boss who wouldn’t give your husband time off to help with packout. Maybe all you need is a good bottle of wine and a few episodes of The Bachelorette (my aforementioned friend) or True Blood (me: there, I’ve said it!) to get through that day’s aggravations.

But, unless you are either a saint or an amnesiac, the combination of minor and major aggravations plus the broader lack of control over your own life can accumulate over time. And really piss you off.

Yesterday, the moving curse kicked in and we experienced one of those aggravations. Without going into any detail, the short story is that the State Department’s usual lack of information and practical support led to a major hassle for us. And I just about lost my shit.

Because, you see, it wasn’t about that one hassle. It was about 27 years of hassles. It was about wanting to do a perfectly normal thing that, you know, normal people do, and my husband’s employer leaving me up a creek without a paddle. It was about those times that our shipments were simply forgotten and left in the warehouse. It was about bad housing board decisions and ugly furniture. It was about pointless layovers because of the Fly America Act. It was about all those times my emails were ignored because I didn’t have a address. It was about well, everything.

While officers do deal with some of the same issues, it’s not quite the same. No officer will ever truly understand how frustrating it is to have your life controlled by this big, dumb, bureaucracy that quite often won’t even communicate with you directly. Especially when you are contributing hours and hours of free labor to the whole effing enterprise. That’s one reason that moving is the worst phase in that dysfunctional, up-and-down, relationship we have with State.

Also, this simple equation: more contact with State = more aggravation.

There are various ways to deal with this anger. Divorce would be the most extreme. But if we love our spouses, and feel that there are compensations for ourselves in this lifestyle (as I do) then we eventually have to find another way to manage the anger.

Some spouses feel a sense of mission about the Foreign Service. They believe they are contributing to diplomacy, world peace, whatever, by accompanying their diplomat. They may be right. I do not personally feel that way: I am pretty sure my husband would do a good job whether I was there or not. I am not involved in his daily work because he is the one who wanted to be a diplomat, not me. We are both pretty independent on that way: we just want each other to be happy and don’t have to share every single activity or interest.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this arrangement from a marital point of view—in fact, under normal, not-moving-all-the-time, circumstances it works pretty well—but I do think if I were more invested in his job, I’d be less annoyed about the downside. However, that’s unlikely to change at this point!

Alternative ways to deal with the anger while staying married include: drinking too much, having revenge affairs, and overdoing the prescription meds. I’ve seen all these unhealthy methods employed by spouses overseas. And then there’s the whole time-honored becoming bitter thing.

For myself, there are two things that help. One is avoiding EFM employment with its additional level of aggravation. Two is allowing myself to blow my top on occasion. It’s not so comfortable for the husband (sorry, dear). But see the alternatives, above.

I try very hard to make clear that I own the decision to do one more tour. It was a joint decision, and I truly believe it was the right one, even though I’d much rather be sitting on my own porch right now than in an empty corporate apartment stressing about pet export paperwork and the next ridiculous plane flight.

At least I am pretty sure it was the right decision. Mostly.

I try to be a grownup about it all, I really do. And I know that as soon as we get settled things will be much better, at least until the next move. But, in the meantime, I’m just going to lose my shit sometimes. Don’t take it personally. Sit back, pop some popcorn, and enjoy the show. One day, when we’re old and boring and sitting on our porch, we’ll laugh about it all.



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