Dad, I’d just like to tell you…

April 21, 2011 — Leave a comment

It’s a funny old day today. A year exactly since my father died. A year filled with family sadness and family excitement. A year of life, sorrow and joy.

My reflective mood has been brought about by a couple of recent conversations; one in person about an imminent repatriation prompted by retirement, and an on-line one about the end of a marriage. There is a definite correlation between the two.

Why mention my father? Because he was a classic example of both. My father after forty-five years abroad retired ’home’. A word that his entire life embodied England, but an England as he knew it in 1947, romanticised at that. A land of green and pleasant pastures, of warm beer, cricket on the village lawn and gentlemen politicians.

The reality is very different for many. The village might be there but commonalities with the villagers few, their interest in a life abroad cursory. But more important the commonalities perceived to be in the marriage are not there either.

The ‘virtual’ conversation asked the question why do so many expatriate marriages end on assignment? I was surprised because in fifty or so years of expatriate life I have known remarkably few end in divorce. Certainly while on the global trail. Living in a foreign country has its own stressors but on the whole it tends to bring the family closer. Almost an us against the rest of the world frame of mind, certainly in the early days of an assignment.

Reading the comments was interesting but offered no new magic elixir to manoeuvering the labyrinth of marital disharmony, separation and divorce whether a nomadic or a settled marriage. If the desire to stray is there the availability is irrelevant.

We are the same people wherever we live, so must use the same techniques to keep a marriage alive, to keep the lines open, to have independent thoughts and activities yet remain interested in, and interesting to, each other. In essence to care enough to make it work, even with the inevitable blips that need to be negotiated in any marriage.

A lot is written about the STARS – Spouses Traveling and Relocating Successfully: about retaining feelings of self-worth; about encouraging volunteer work or enterprises where viable; about supporting multiple moves and school choices and the myriad of things that surface on every relocation. We all know the adage if the wife ain’t happy then nobody is! Like all sayings there is an element of truth.

Just sometimes though that busy life of work, or supporting a spouse, or ferrying children, or volunteering sometimes limits the actual time of ‘together’. It is easy to get caught up in the whirl of expatriate society – this weekend it would be the St. George’s Ball – or the museum opening or the hash house harriers. The list is endless. The bubbles wafting out of the champagne flutes can easily capture us in a cycle of busyness that can do little to protect the precious bubble that surrounds a marriage. The social gaiety can be contagious – the blemishes appearing surreptitiously.

The ‘actual’ conversation was one I had this morning with a woman whose husband is retiring soon, and therefore repatriating to England. It triggered thoughts of my parents and of other people known, who when the realisation of empty nests and / or repatriation hits so to does the realisation at the lack of community in the marriage.

Suddenly the independent yet co-dependent lives led as an expatriate couple are now inexorably entwined in a bucolic idyl of sitting in the garden on a soft summer evening listening to the mourning doves, and if they’re very lucky a cuckoo heralding the end of the day. This is bliss, they say as they sip their gin and tonic and admire the hawthorn, but as the fingers of winter start creeping under the door the closeness of the hearth seems suddenly very close. Maybe the longed for rhythm of life aboard a yacht gets lost in a litter of lines slithering over a deck as the close and constant proximity, and the gentle slap of waves on the hull, starts to grate after those first few free months.

That bubble wrap protecting the marriage has popped without you noticing in the scurry of expatriate life, and what is left is a flat sheet, dull with disinterest when there is no audience to participate in the marriage.

A busy important life abroad does not always transform well into retirement. The nurturing required is the same yet different, rather like looking after a garden in Asia and and a garden in Europe. The same principles but different watering habits.

My parent’s retirement, repatriation and subsequent separation shocked me when it happened. In retrospect they should have split up many years earlier but it was the fabric of their expatriate society that kept them together, though apart.

But it has only been with those wonderful things called age and distance that the issue has been clarified, and I wish I’d told my father.

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