Case 10 – FIFO

The FIFO Couple

Sandra was a work at home mum, a human rights lawyer with a profitable consultancy in the Law of the sea. Her husband David was an emergency nurse, currently working for Médecins Sans Frontières out of Munich, posted in Africa and the Middle East. Sandra was considering taking a human rights job in Brisbane city. They had three grown up boys, two living out of home, and two girls still in high school. The boy at home was moderately autistic.

With 48% resident tax in Germany, David chose to pay tax on his overseas earnings in Australia, and so maintained his Australia residency coming home at least every two months. The kids described him as a part time Dad. The eldest daughter, Marigold, sixteen, had changed over the previous year to not telling her mother everything that was going on in her life as she had previously. This was a gradual change, and one deeply upsetting to Sandra, who had relied on her in David’s absences. It was accompanied by increasing dark expressions whenever Marigold was in the house, and overt anger toward her father when he was at home. It was at this point in their journeys that the family became clients of ours, myself and Tamar.

We learned that David’s commitment to work in Germany was a significant event in the family. It had required long hours learning to read German medical texts, and later to speak it. He had no German ancestry and had never learned another language. He had to become proficient in German in order to sit the nursing exams for registration in the EU. At the time Sandra couldn’t comprehend why he would put himself and the family through the agony of that process. He was in addition, severely dyslexic. It was a herculean effort, which as he explained to us, was a means of proving to himself that he could overcome his academic handicap. Dyslexia had prevented him from gaining University entrance to the University of Queensland’s medical school. His teenage dream had been of becoming an emergency medical specialist. Nursing was an easier second choice than dentistry.

All this seemed completely reasonable to Tamar and I, but we had a gut feeling that this wasn’t all there was to Marigold’s unhappiness. Of all her siblings, she was most like her father and closest to him, at times being a confidant in his personal and marital struggles. Marigold was, unhappily, triangulated by both parents. But these dysfunctional intimacies had dissipated almost as soon as David began studying German. The impetus for his study had been a conference he attended in Paris, where he first became aware of the possibility that he could work for MSF. But why Germany we thought, why not Canada, France or England.

Tamar and I discussed this at length in our weekly partnership meetings. We both felt loathe to speak our minds in the therapy sessions, until we had more information. We considered family secrets that might involve Marigold or one she had intuited in the unspoken spaces between her parents. If it was either incest and an affair overseas, it was likely to presage either police involvement and a marital tragedy. So we decided to meld into this family slowly and softly.

Over about ten sessions of couple therapy (without the kids direct involvement) the truth surfaced in agonisingly small stages. David had met someone at the Paris conference, an emergency medical specialist originally from East Germany, who was a team leader for MSF’s operations in Africa. It was at first just chats over the internet. Later, after he began working in a probationary capacity in Munich, it evolved to greater and greater intimacy. To Sandra, he had always described his relationship with his boss as distant and very professional. But in fact there were long afternoon walks, and after work drinks at the Lighthouse brewery, while he practised his German and she helped him with his upcoming exams. In the tenth session, David finally disclosed that he had known from the minute he met her in Paris that she was his future. Within a couple of hours of returning to Brisbane after the conference, with that epiphany in mind, Marigold had point blank confronted him with “Dad, are you having an affair?”.

This so shocked David that he pulled back from Marigold, and that coincided with the change in her behaviour. A change that only worsened we guessed, each time he came home smelling, as it were, of another woman. Sandra had been oblivious to the scent and this breach of her knowing David, later rolled on into a loss of trust in her own professional judgement. That disrupted her confidence in re-entering the human rights work force.

At this point in our sessions Sandra, who had had the presence of mind to hold her cool from years working as a lawyer, completely fell apart. She felt gutted, utterly betrayed, and realised that the loss of her daughter had been directly the result of Marigold keeping this secret to protect her parent’s marriage and her own family from breaking up.

For better or worse, Sandra was not prepared to give up on David by handing him a get out of jail card, free to enjoy a second life in Europe. When she got home from our tenth session, the first thing she did was burn his passport and then went online and cancelled the next six months of flight bookings. She then wrote a resignation letter from his email address, alleging that he, David, had been sexually harassed by the named team leader. She then searched MSF’s on-line complaints procedures until she came across an indication that fraternising, especially between senior and junior staff, medical and nursing, was verboten. The eleventh session was explosive and it was all Tamar and I could do to keep it within the time frame and from frightening the neighbours.