The following section will present the findings of the study, detailing the particular relational demands and challenges reported by participants when invited to reflect on the impact of their work on their relationships. Five major themes emerged across the narratives of all six participants: (1) A radical split in their lives on both an external level, between home and the field, and on an internal level, between different parts of their personality; (2) a conviction that the split was irreconcilable; (3) the long-standing search for belonging; (4) repetitively unproductive relational patterns; (5) a sense of not knowing.
A radical split
From the interviews, one could conclude that life for expatriate humanitarian workers is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they are privileged cosmopolitan professionals whose “transnational lives” (Fechter 2007) afford them a “world right to circulate unhindered” (Croucher 2012). In stark contrast to “disadvantaged travellers” (Redfield 2012b) such as migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, the people who undertake to provide assistance to these populations stand to accrue a range of personal and financial benefits from their work, including frequent travel, an interesting lifestyle, the opportunity to save money (Fechter 2012a) or the cultivation of personal meaning (Thomas 2016). They are, of course, also potentially sustained by altruistic motives, even if those are inevitably mixed with self-interest (Tassell and Flett 2011; Vaux 2001). At the same time, however, humanitarian workers are separated from their family units and home friendship groups (Fechter 2012b), while often living in unusual proximity with co-workers in the field (i.e. confined to a compound under curfew). So, while the separation between work and home life is almost non-existent in the field (“You can hardly escape your colleagues,” according to Julian), the participants in this present study spoke unanimously about the challenge of coping with the much wider gulf between their professional and personal lives.
Participants cited a range of concrete, external challenges generated by this split, including finding and maintaining an intimate relationship, maintaining a circle of friends, establishing and maintaining a physical home base and managing the amount of time spent in the field versus time needed at home. In terms of finding a partner relationship, the two male participants had found apparently stable but different solutions. Julian had married a local woman in the African country where he was first assigned. Thomas, the oldest of the participants, had found the answer in agreeing to an “open” arrangement with his partner back home. Both men expressed satisfaction in the stability that these relationships provided them amidst the frequent travel of their working lives.
The picture for the two women in long-term partnerships seemed more complicated. Jane barely mentioned her husband, either in positive or negative terms, raising a question about the strength of his presence in her life. It was hard to tell if a long-term relationship did in fact help her. Anna reported a stable and supportive relationship with a partner at home who did not work in the sector, but disclosed having a relationship with someone else in the field as a coping strategy in the aftermath of a traumatic incident a few months previously. Unlike Thomas, who felt that extra-marital relationships were entirely acceptable, Anna appeared more conflicted by behaviour that she viewed as “360 degree of who I usually am”.
The two single women interviewed approached the issue of partners somewhat differently. Emma spoke favourably about her support group of single female humanitarian friends, but worried that the group had set up a “kind of self-fulfilling cycle” of singleness. At the same time, she seemed to assiduously avoid talking about men, indicating a continuing difficulty in fully encountering the issue and associated feelings. I wondered also if it felt challenging for her to name this difficulty to a male researcher. Whether or not that was the case, the avoidance seemed to reflect the overall difficulty in the sector of naming discussing widely prevalent, yet deeply personal concerns.
Sara appeared to have less difficulty in referencing the search for “the love of my life” but was unsure if moving back to the UK would help. She said friends were advising her “to put down roots, in order to be able to meet someone and sustain it over the long-term”, but said she felt “you can meet someone anywhere”. At the same time, she noted the “very shallow” nature of relationships in the field, losing coherence in a way that seemed to imply, but not quite name, the sexual promiscuity that many field workers report as standing in for more sustained relationships.
All participants stressed the importance of maintaining friendships, but there was variation between them as to whether those friends were inside or outside the humanitarian sector. Both Sara and Anna talked about the importance of “personal” friendship circles back at home, noting the intensity but transience of friendships in the field. Jane and Emma on the other hand felt very wedded to friends within the sector, looking to them for validation and support. For the men, Thomas referred to a circle of friends but seemed much less intentional about maintaining those relationships and Julian spoke somewhat poignantly about a wish to spend time with close friends that “of course is not going to happen.”
All of the participants felt it was important to maintain a physical home base, either in their country of origin or in an adopted homeland, which ranged from owning a house to maintaining a room in a friend’s apartment. They all also spoke about the need to balance time in the field with time at home and most were intentional about ensuring that several months a year were spent away from the field. Emma, for instance, had decided to spend an extended period of time in the UK in response to a growing concern over what she saw as the impoverishment of her personal life resulting from so much time in the field: “I think it has been very important for mental health (to return to the UK), I kind of was craving that sense of normality.”
While every participant reported proactive measures to manage the external split between home bases and field locations. Most participants (5/6) described a far more complex struggle to manage a perceived internal split between different parts of their personality.
Julian: “I have become a split personality. One person who lives and moves in this world, and one person who lives and moves in that world.”
Anna said that she found it easy to switch between field and her “very, very different life” back at home, but immediately pointed to a split so complete that “I even look different” in each place, suggesting quite a radical separation. Almost every participant wondered which part of them was “real”. Emma indicated a similar concern, describing the feeling of a “work mask” coming back on in the field. It was striking how tiring it felt at times to listen to these narratives, which triggered memories from my own career of just how emotionally and physically draining it is to live with this kind of fragmentation, a reality supported by Horney (1972) in her classic psychoanalytic study of the emotional toll of inner conflicts.
However participants framed this split, the majority (5/6) expressed the view that it confronted them with a sense of contradictory and apparently irreconcilable demands in their relational life. On the one hand, they expressed a sense of vocation, engagement and satisfaction in their work as humanitarians, including powerful feelings of camaraderie and shared understanding with colleagues. On the other, they also expressed deep-seated needs for continuity, belonging and connection in their home settings. For many though, these two equally valid realities could not be reconciled with each other, leaving them in what the pioneer of systemic family therapy, Bateson et al. (1963), described as a double bind. Bateson and his colleagues initially coined the term in relation to the onset of schizophrenia, describing the collapse of any ability to establish a sense of order in the world (Gibney 2006). It has subsequently been extended as a framework for thinking about impossible dilemmas and the distress they cause, “a choice between two states which are equally valued and so equally insufficient that a self-perpetuating oscillation by any active choice between them” Wilden and Wilson (as cited by Redfield 2012b, 1976). Given the impossibility of the double-bind, participants in the present study expressed feelings across the board of stuckness, not knowing, and even despair at ever being able to find a solution.
Jane, for example, described a deep conflict between her love of the work and her wish to be with her children at home, but also expressed the fear that this left her feeling as if she had some kind of “personality flaw”. This reflects Gibney’s assertion (Gibney 2006) that the experience of double-bind is literally “crazy-making” (p. 48). Having decided to spend some time back in the UK, Emma joked that she could be driven to becoming “that crazy angry person who may just want to go back to the field”, masking what seemed like a genuine concern with humour.
Search for belonging
If participants expressed frustration at how stuck they felt in this double-bind, they also almost universally (5/6) spoke about the way in which the humanitarian sector had initially seemed to promise a deep sense of belonging and connection that it had ultimately failed to deliver.
Both Sara and Emma referred to their colleagues in familial terms. (In the author’s experience, both as a field worker and a clinician who supports field workers, humanitarians often speak of their teams as surrogate family units.) For Sara, the shared experience of working for her team had enabled her to build “quite strong relationships”, “basically you kind of have a ready-made family and support network when you are away, because they are in a similar situation to you”. Disappointingly, however, relationships forged in the field could ultimately “feel very shallow”. Emma, also talked about finding a “family”:
“I found my true tribe, these are my people!”
As time had gone on, however, she said she had found herself feeling increasingly depleted, rather than supported and nourished. “By year four and five, you are like, ‘Now I am really fed up by this’.”
The idea that humans engage in an on-going search for relationships that feel reliable and enduring lies at the heart of attachment theory (Holmes 2014). Bowlby (1988), its pioneering thinker, believed that if children grow up an environment where caregivers are responsive, reliable and consistent in their care, they will develop what he called a secure base, namely a sense of inner stability and confidence that emotional and physical needs can be met. In adult life, humans continue to engage in secure base behaviour (Holmes 2001) at times of stress in order to calm and soothe themselves. Whether through positive and beneficial actions such as talking to friends, resting and reading or negative and self-defeating strategies such as substance misuse, disordered eating and self-harm, people will seek to maintain a sense of security, whatever the consequences (Holmes 2001). Viewing the narratives in the present study through this lens, then, raises the idea that participants initially felt that the people and places accessed through humanitarian aid offered a reliable secure base. Their widely expressed (4/6) view, however, was that the promised sense of security turned out to be less reliable than initially thought.
Alongside the disappointment at not being able to sustain a sense of belonging, a feeling that was expressed by half the participants was that this was a problem that was somehow self-perpetuating. Although participants were able on the face of it to identify the dilemmas, incompatible demands and unfulfilled hopes, they also spoke as if they were stuck in a repeating pattern from which they could not extricate themselves.
On three occasions, Emma used the term “sucked into” to describe her sense of being pulled back into work environments, indicating powerful forces acting seemingly against her will. In terms of how this works in practice, she described an “echo chamber” created by her group of female colleagues that reinforced the compulsion to return to the field. Sara suggested that the humanitarian world actually attracts “people who do not belong”. The sense of inner displacement that they are already carrying then “gets replicated” by the perpetual movement. Her perspective points to the possibility that the repetitive sense of dislocation reported by participants may not, in fact, have been caused by working in the sector, but be driven by personal factors that brought them into it.
Freud (1914/1957) was one of the first to identify the way in which experiences in childhood that are experienced as overwhelming or traumatic in some way are pushed into the unconscious mind. Instead of remembering the unbearable memory, then, the individual goes through life simply repeating something of that experience instead Freud (1920/1957). While on one level this can be seen as an attempt to master the original trauma Freud (1957a), it can also be a mechanism that simply condemns the individual to repeat and reinforce it (Van der Kolk 1989). In the context of the present study, the theory of repetition compulsion suggests that rather than becoming passively stuck in a chronic struggle to connect, there may be something in the participants’ lives that drives them to actively and repeatedly seek that experience out. This idea will be discussed at greater length below.
Amidst the many challenges cited by participants, a recurring theme (5/6) was quite simply the absence of answers, a sense of not knowing what to do. At different points in her interview, Emma described almost every group of people in her life as either not knowing anything or not wanting to know anything meaningful. Her family, she said, “have not made an attempt to try and understand more”. Friends back at home seemed only interested in trivia. A therapist that she tried to see had appeared overwhelmed by the content and context of what she was bringing: “She could not professionally handle the conversation”. Things were not much better in the field. During the Ebola crisis, she said she felt “no one had a clue” and during another deployment in central Africa, “you really did not know what was going on”. In connection to the relational dilemmas that she faced, Anna was similarly despairing:
“No one really has a solution, and you just kind of hear a lot of sad stories about people just jumping from relationship to relationship, or from friendship to friendship, so like no one really has a solution for it.”
In most cases, it was striking how categorical participants were about not knowing. There was a concrete quality to not having answers, as if these were challenges that one could not be curious about in a way that might yield possible solutions; as Allen put it, a problem of “too little imagination” (Allen 2013) when it comes to possible solutions. Anna, for instance, said that the only possible answer in the future would be to leave the sector. Julian too, was certain that if humanitarian workers began a relationship with each other, one if not both would have to leave for the relationship to survive. It could be argued that this apparent certainty represented a mental stance knows as psychic equivalence, in which inner thoughts and feelings are equated with external reality (Allen 2013).
In this instance, the fact that answers do not seem available is taken to mean that answers do not exist, indicative of a collapse in so-called reflective functioning, or the “capacity to reflect on internal mental states such as feelings, wishes, goals, and attitudes, with regard to both the self and others” (Fonagy et al. 2016). Difficulties with this kind of reflecting—also known as mentalizing—are known to be associated with vulnerability to depression (Lemma et al. 2011), but can also lead to a variety of psychological problems (Bateman and Fonagy 2012). It can then be argued that the sense of not knowing represents not just a distracting annoyance for participants, but a significant risk factor to levels of on-going resilience.
On a broader level, the view expressed by participants that—to borrow from Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman (2012)—“no one knows anything”, seemed to be a source of continuing anxiety. In psychodynamic terms, this could be framed as an almost complete absence of containment (Bion 1962). Participants were clearly expressing anxiety, but they were also clearly describing a sense of there being no one around (individually or institutionally) who could help them make sense of it. As Anna said: “No one really has a solution”. In fact, at least half the participants seemed to be saying that a reason they had volunteered to take part in the research was a hope that the conversation itself might in some way serve to shed some light on these dilemmas.