It has been one year since I moved to Brussels as (first time) spouse of a diplomat. The experience as a +1 has been both fascinating and disappointing at the same time. I don’t seem to be the only one having difficulties adapting to this way of life. A couple of papers mention the challenges of Brussels in particular. Let me take you through the characteristics explaining why Brussels is not like every other expatriate location.
Belgian flag under the Cinquantenaire Arcade: 100th birthday of the Military Museum
Lack of Representational Entertaining
Representational entertaining is about hosting events that provide guests the opportunity to experience the country’s culture: meetings, activities, as well as formal dinners and receptions.
The approach towards representational entertaining differs between multi- and bilateral representations, as they have different functions to fulfil. One of the main responsibilities of bilateral posts is to be an enabler of cultural exchange. At smaller and geographically focused embassies, promoting national culture is like being on a parade: regular events with all kinds of obligations1.
At multilateral delegations, not so much. Most of Brussels diplomatic bubble is bound to EU institutions and other international organisations. All with a common goal that exceeds the national level. Especially, the EU is about promoting the European thought, resulting in the suppression of national differences2.
Therefore, the amount of representational entertaining is low in Brussels. Especially after the financial crisis of 2008, spouses are expected to participate in even fewer events. Meaning that they are being free most of the time. As this is an important part of the role of a diplomatic spouse, some feel excluded, diminished and isolated2.
Low Esprit de Corps
Esprit de corps, or morale, is about the capacity of a group to believe in an institution or common goal. At smaller embassies, the relationships with others take on the pattern of a kind of extended family. As spouses rely on their environment for their identity3, this is especially important for subjects where spouses cooperate. Think of ensuring the well-being of other spouses and welcoming newcomers1.
Representations in Brussels are mostly large and fragmented. The lack of a common goal, being scattered around the city in huge offices, makes it difficult to feel a strong esprit de corps. No camaraderie results in spouses feeling cast out on their own.
Some countries, such as the UK and the US, introduced the paid role of community liaison officer in Brussels to fill this gap1. A position that is responsible for the welfare, well-being and morale of staff and dependents. A role that is generally fulfilled by a spouse.
Poor Work-life Balance
For diplomats, a role in Brussels is far from easy going. It is a stressful environment as capital cities keep a close eye on what happens in Brussels. With 60-hour work weeks not being uncommon, there is little room for a healthy work-life balance or quality time2. On top of that, military representations work with classified material, which makes working from home hardly an option.
Such an environment attracts ambitious hard-working diplomats, often without an accompanying partner or family. This contributes to the effect of the lack of camaraderie for spouses even more.
Too easy to live
Living in Brussels is easy from a practical point of view. As it is so close to other capital cities (The Hague, London and Paris are all reachable within two hours), it keeps it possible to visit friends and family back home on a regular basis.
Moreover, for many diplomat families arriving in Brussels there is no severe culture shock or feeling really different, whatsoever1. Nobody is really forced into building a new social life or finding your way in a new culture.
But what’s good about being the spouse of a diplomat in Brussels? Apparently, there is something attractive, as a lot of diplomats tend to return to Brussels at some point in their career.
I think that Brussels is especially hard in the beginning if you start without a network and without a social circle. Some seasoned diplomatic spouses, however, refer to the points mentioned above as an advantage. Coming from a city where you were expected to join a party almost every day of the week, having some privacy and tranquillity in Brussels could be the right choice.
Feel free to reach out to me if you have comments or suggestions. I am open to discussions at [email protected].
Gudmundsdottir, S., Gudlaugsson, T. O., & Adalsteinsson, G. D. (2019). The diplomatic spouse: Relationships between adjustment, social support and satisfaction with life. Journal of Global Mobility: The Home of Expatriate Management Research, 7(1), 103-122. ↩