Married but living apart due to employment opportunities, the educational needs of your children, or the demands of a sick or elderly family member back home? Involved in a relationship, but unable to live in the same city, not to mention country? The term "geographic single" is often used to describe persons who live apart from those they love. This paper is intended to provide some suggestions for members of the Foreign Service facing a geographic separation from their mate.

Plan for the Separation

  • Be honest with each other about your concerns and fears. Being committed to the relationship and to one another during the separation is important.
  • Talk about the upcoming separation and how you will cope. Share your expectations about being apart from each other so there are no misunderstandings. Also share your expectations when you are planning to visit each other or take a vacation together.
  • Set up a communication system. How will you keep in touch on a daily / weekly basis? Marriage counselors tout that communication is key to a healthy relationship. The new millennium offers more ways to communicate, in addition to fast air travel across continents. International phone calls, video teleconferencing through one's computer, web sites, international mail services, and electronic transmissions of words, cards, music, photos, and video connect loved ones together in a cyberspace second.
  • If you are in the Washington, DC, area, take the Transition Center's course, Maintaining Long Distance Relationships. Many people in the Foreign Service find themselves separated from spouses and family for extended periods of time due to separated tours or temporary duty travel. This course identifies behaviors that strengthen often-apart or long-distance relationships. For more information, contact: 703-302-7268 or email
  • Explore eligibility for Separate Maintenance Allowance (SMA). SMA is categorized into two types - voluntary and involuntary. An agency may authorize involuntary SMA when adverse, dangerous, or notably unhealthy conditions warrant the exclusion of family members from the area, or when the agency determines a need to exclude family members from accompanying an employee to post. If the employee initiates a request for involuntary SMA based on medical reasons, supporting data must include a statement from the attending physician and a ruling by the ranking medical officer attached to the agency or by such other person or group as the head of agency may designate. In other cases, individuals may elect voluntary SMA. While this decision is a private one, the employee is required to state on the SF-1190 application (Revised 1/98) the reason for the separation and provide supporting data as cited in DSSR 264.2. SMA typically is granted for career, health, education, or family considerations of the spouse, children, or other family member. SMA may be requested on behalf of one or all of the employee's family members up to the age of 18. FLO's resource paper no. 22, Separate Maintenance Allowance, outlines the details of the allowance, as well as non-eligibility instances.
  • Practical considerations:
    • Establish separate bank accounts (can still be joint) to keep records clear.
    • Set up a power of attorney for any expected (and unexpected) financial transactions. The Overseas Briefing Center at FSI has samples. Email
    • Review wills of both parties and make any necessary updates.
    • Establish areas of responsibility (who will pay what, contract for what, etc.), keeping in mind that the spouse in the United States will probably have more responsibilities.
    • Depending on circumstances, the family might consider some of the following:
      • Share your skills with your spouse by teaching them what you know! Both should know how to put film in camera, fix loose wires, change fuses, sew on buttons, maintain financial records, and prepare food.
      • Divide kitchen utensils, cookbooks, rugs, furniture, books, and anything that will be needed in both locations. Make copies of favorite recipes.
      • Prepare family pictures, special books, music cassettes of favorite selections that will have psychological importance.
      • Heighten awareness about income tax requirements, i.e., collection of certain receipts, invoices, and other financial considerations.
  • Discuss how to make decisions about children.
  • Say good-bye. Plan appropriate parties and events. Remember that one spouse will be leaving even if the other is staying. Be sure to include the children in these important good-byes.

During the Separation

Remember that this experience is time-limited. Put on paper the reasons for accepting this separated assignment and refer to it periodically, as a reminder.

  • Although you are apart from one another, make time for each other. Make time to communicate using those means you have set up for doing so. If you do not have an opportunity to have a telephone conversation or write an email, spend time thinking about your spouse. Some suggest keeping a journal that you can share when you are together.
  • Plan to see and call each other as often as finances allow. Plan something fun to do when you get the opportunity to spend time together.
  • Work on creative ways to communicate! As mentioned above, international phone calls, video teleconferencing through one's computer, web sites, international mail services, and electronic transmissions of words, cards, music, photos, and video connect loved ones together in a cyberspace second. Instant messaging is a great way to have a conversation online. Since you can not read one another's non-verbal communication, use symbols or words or happy faces (whatever you like) to illustrate your thoughts. Play backgammon online together!
  • Surprise your mate once in awhile with an unexpected phone call.
  • Send care packages with personal notes.
  • Cultivate a mentality of "the less hassle the better" for each spouse. Find help for lawn care, bill paying, house cleaning, shopping, if necessary. Find a reliable plumber, electrician, carpenter, and auto mechanic to call in emergencies.
  • Take pictures of post, quarters, surrounding area, Embassy office, friends, so that spouse in the U.S. can visualize what it's like at post.
  • Each partner may find it helpful to keep a journal , especially at the onset of separation.
  • Talk about ground rules for what sort of information and emotions, especially emotions, can be shared and in what manner.

The End of a Separated Tour: Return to Normalcy

  • Allow time for the returning spouse to get reacquainted and adjust to being back home. Also allow time to re-adjust to shared decision making and responsibilities.
  • Talk about the experience.

Resources from the Department of State

Contact Offices

The Family Liaison Office
Support Services Officer
Tel: (202) 647-1076, 800-440-0397
Fax: (202) 647-1670

Employee Consultation Service
Staff social workers are available (all discussions are confidential).
Tel: (202) 663-1815
Fax: (202) 663-1456

FSI Transition Center Training
Tel: (703) 302-7268
Fax: (703) 302-7452

Other Web Resources

Information provided by the Family Liaison Office
Contact the Family Liaison Office