How to keep your marriage going when you're in the CIA

Mar 14, 2012

Robert and Dayna Baer, now retired CIA operatives, fell in love with each other while working for the agency. In their book, The Company We Keep, they discuss the hardships of Agency life on their previous marriages -- Bob had been married to a State Department secretary, and Dayna had been with a judge in California. Bob has written extensively about the CIA, including authoring a memoir "See No Evil" upon which the George Clooney movie "Syriana" was based.

Chat with Robert and Dayna live at 1 p.m. ET. They will be joined by Post reporter Ian Shapira.

Hi - this is Dayna Baer. Thanks for having us today.

Hi and good afternoon. Thanks for having us.

this is bob baer, co author of the company we keep

The central theme of the complaining witness seemed to be that during her five year marriage, she and/or her baby were used as part of her CIA husband's stunts he would pull with his operatives. Could that be true? Not sure how that's not compromising his identity to carry along a baby.

Hi, welcome to the chat, everyone. Before I answer the question, let me just say that this story was meant to explore the more human aspects of what it's like to work for such an important and secret government agency. Of course, plenty of couples with a spouse in the CIA do just fine and don't end up in divorces. But others still feel the strains of the secrecy. We all talk about work with our spouse -- it's an important part of most people's marriages, I'd suspect -- but what if your spouse is bound by secrecy, and is bound to a job that could involve danger, a danger that you will never truly know? We often write about the lives of those in the armed services, and how couples handle multiple deployments with the Army or Marines. But I have always wondered what it's like if you're in the CIA. Anyway, to answer the question: yes, sometimes children do get involved. In fact, Bob Baer discussed this with me in our interviews. To woo a potential informant,  you need to befriend him or her, and show him you share similiarities like children, and so forth. 

I wonder if secretive types of jobs attract people who have trouble connecting intimately anyway. I wonder if anyone my husband works with has been able to stay married (I asked him and he said he had no idea, they don't talk about things like that at work). My husband had difficulty connecting emotionally in general, worse so as mortgages, kids, and the normal stresses of married life came up. But when his job became more secretive he totally disconnected from me and wants a divorce. I'm assuming this is very common and that the employer knows it and should have some resources available to help, but I haven't heard of any. Or maybe the employer prefers it that way...? What could I have done or should I do to try to keep a connection when my secretive husband has shut down?

bob here. i've always found it difficult to make and keep long-time friends. living in alias, working in an assumed identoty certainly compounded my problems. also any personal tendicies to deceive were strengthened. how could they not when you're asked to live a lie everyday/ the CIA understood this and did it's best to help its people

It's just so difficult. It's not the way families/relationships are meant to be. Usually that's the point of being married - sharing your day, your work, what you do  - your fears, your sucesses. when you can't do that it just takes a huge toll. I don't know what you can do...

I do know that there are people who make it work. Mostly in families where the whole family goes overseas and really makes an effort to stay together - i.e. no separated tours.

So do you guys talk shop at home?

Yes - when we were both in the CIA we were able to talk about most things we worked on...even if we weren't working together. 

What spy-thriller TV show best portrays real life in the CIA?

I know it's a movie but - Charlie Wilson's War - the Character Gus was pretty realistic!


Does the CIA provide marriage counseling and, if so, do you have a sense how good it is?

When you actually got the nerve to go in and present your problems I found the CIA to be great, bent over backwards to help.  They once set my wife up in a job in Brussels when their was a threat, and soon posted me neraby.  Psychiatrists were on duty. And always available

While some organizations discourge internal relationships, might you, or might you not, advice CIA employees to look within the CIA for marriage possibilities?

I think that although it is not ever said internally... having a relationship/marriage with another CIA employee is encouraged. It just makes it easier all around. 

if you're gonna make a clandestine career in the CIA it's better to have a CIA spouse. you can gossip at night over a glass of wine and not be anguished you're spiling a secret


How difficult was it to maintain a life outside the agency ? Were there times you wanted to open up but could not?

i found it difficult. friends want to know what you did during the day. your choice is to clam up, or lie. no i take that back - just stop seeing them. before long all my friends were on the inside.

Yes it definitely encourages you to keep your friendships among those people you work with. And you do lose track of friends outside. You are gone a lot anyway and then can never say where you went, what you do, etc. It makes all relationships tough and can be very alienating to both friends and family.

I presume there is more stress in marriages involving a CIA covert employee than a non-covert employee. Do you know if this is correct? Does anyone collect data on divorce rates among CIA employees and analyze which types of occuations are more vulerable to divorce?

Good question. The CIA does not keep stats on divorce rates. In my article, former CIA director Michael V. Hayden says that he looked into divorce rates there because he had suspected the agency's clandestine division was having marital problems. He and his wife Jeanine Hayden began trying to think of ways to help employees and their spouses out. Jeanine helped launched a voluntary training program for new spouses that they said helped ease couples into their new new lives. The Saturday sessions, called "Living and Managing Cover for Spouses" involved role-playing exercises that gave the non-agency spouses tips to prevent them from inadvertantly exposing their husband's or wife's true occupation. Also, the former director told me that he pushed agency employees not to keep building up vacation time and not using it -- he required employees to use their vacation time, if not, they'd lose the extra days. The agency does do a lot to look out for its employees and their families. 

How much at additional risk of spouses of CIA employees? Do other agencies often try to get spoues to divulge information, thus making spouses more ill at ease in the lives?

i think spouses in the CIA are always at risk. they're left in the dark - mas they must be - which means they're faced with the unknown.

To both of you: Obviously many jobs in the private sector are travel-heavy, and those can be tough on relationships even though the partner always knows where their loved one is going and what they're doing. How does the secrecy of some of the things you had to do change that? Would you say the travel, the secrecy, or those forces combining was the toughest part of maintaining your marriages?

It just compounds it immensely if you are gone and then can't say where you went or what you were doing. This is why I mentioned earlier that the best chance for a marriage to survive in the CIA where one spouse is not an agency employee is if the CIA spouse doesn't take an assignment where the non-spouse can't go. Stay together as much as possible. 

What happens in cases of divorce between a CIA covert employee and a spouse? Does the CIA get to review the legal briefs and make deletions of anything considered sensitve, or does the Judge get to see the sensitive materials yet may not disclose them? Is there a right to appeal a CIA decision to delete materials?

yes absolutely. the cia cannot afford to let secrets spill in a divorce proceeding. lawyers have to look at filings, and prevent a spouse in anger exposing secrets she might know. it's a real problem, and frankly i take the CIA's side on this

Bob, big fan of your books. I know this is off topic but do you want US intervention in Syria? (Arming rebels, covert action against Asad) Take care! Matt

i think when a regime uses armor against its people it's time to think about knocking that armor out. i find the syrians wonderful people, and this is all a terrible tragedy


Do you have a sense if the husband in the story sought out a partner and married her with no intention of romance, but simply as cover? And not just necessarily as a prop in his job, but also as a cover to appear normal to his family and acquaintances.?

I don't think so. The wife certainly wondered about that after she got married to him. I just think their marriage unraveled because his job required a high level of secrecy and she couldnt' know a lot about what he was up to. 

What general public impression do you find that the public has about life and marriage in the CIA which is incorrect?

Well, it's not all wheel-kicking and car chases and ninjas! There are many adrenaline filled moments but there is also tons of beauracracy and tedium and boredom. But it's also filled with a lot of camraderie. And that is part of the difficulty for marriages to people outside the CIA. It can make those people feel really left out.

I'd like to add my two cents. these wars are taking a terrible toll on our military, State, the CIA and everyone else serving there. and especially on marriages. people don't wait around forever

What is your opinion of the movie Syriana? Were there things about the movie that you felt gave the public a false portrayal? I do realize Hollywood is not concerned with reality but entertainment.

my it was terribly complicated, wasn't it?  the part i liked best was that the barnes character had been around the block but was still naive. stupid at times. just as i was. he saw things not there, and missed others.  the best line was from the director, if the characters don't know what's going on shy should the audience

With so many secrets, are there any things you did regularly to foster trust?

i'd do it all over again, but having left the CIA I do everytghing i can to foster trust - make up for the years of living a second life. no long nights out, no unexplained absenses, check in on the phone a couple times a day, raise problems early


I think it is one of the things we worked on really hard...the tendency with your work is always to clam up and not talk about it and this can spill over into other areas. We try very hard to talk about everything and anything that effects either of us in order to keep communication open all the time.

Thanks for posting my question! I read your article with great interest. Basically, it sounds like there's little that can be done to "keep your marriage going" other than bring your family along on your tours, take advantage of the marriage counseling, and get your wife a job with the CIA. Since most husbands, and especially these, are leery of talk therapy, are there any publications written by or recommended by the agency to help both spouses understand what's OK to talk about and what's not, how to deal with the expected challenges, what resources are available, and truthfully how much counseling or other family help from the agency will affect their job prospects and career? My guy would probably rather just get a divorce than ask his employer for help.

The CIA offers a lot of help to non-agency spouses when their partners come on board. The agency's Family Advisory Board and Employee Assistance Program offer all kinds of assistance, from briefings on missions to mental health counseling, and so on. In the case of the woman getting divorced from her husband, she told me she was not aware of those services. But the agency made it clear to me that they let their employees know about these services. The wife did tell me that it can be tricky for the employee to ask his own employer for help -- they might be concerened it could hurt his career. In McLean, Elizabeth Sloan, a marriage counselor, has worked with dozens of CIA couples over the years, and so many have gone to her and others.


Do you miss it? Have you guys decompressed enough since your retirement "to be normal" married folks or are there still "dominoes" of agency life that inhibit present married life?

I made my best friends at the agency. I miss them, and the people I worked with there. On the other hand having a family life is a new frontier, a steep learning curve. 

As for the work of course I miss it. There are case officers and analysts out there who should be very proud they caught up with UBL

I miss it too  - when you travel and work with people in that sort of environment you can't help but become closer to them than you would to people normally. And then it is bittersweet because when I left I could no longer stay in touch with those people I had really lived and worked with for so many years. They couldn't talk to me anymore...

Do you guys miss the life or have you found present things to replace it?

there's nothing like the excitement of being on the razor sharp edge of a conflict, knowing that you're doing something for the country. i know i sound like a bit of a boyscout, but there you have it


I miss it but wouldn't trade it now for the stable family life we have and the ability to be together. 

Mandy Patinkin's character in the recent TV show Homeland was losing his wife to the job because as a sr. ops guy he was always busy fighting the latest terror crisis. Covert ops aside, do you think the "married to the job" problem different for couples in other industries or areas of gov't?

maybe it was that i was just a bit slow. but to do anything useful in the job i had to be at it day and night

Does the agency use folks like you guys to help/advise present employees/situations? From Bob's first book, I remember he had some rough exit situations with the agency, but do they still tap the wealth of experience or simply leave it to memoir writing? If so, that seems such a waste.

i know the CIA has a lot of retirees are helping. but when you put yourself out in the public like i have, it's prudent for the CIA to go elsewhere - and get better assistance

thanks for reply, and thank you, Ian and Dayna for your service.

Ian, two questions: Did you ever want to be a spy? And why did you do this story?

What a great question. I am not sure I ever wanted to be a spy because I was too fearful of the dangers involved. But I grew up in love with movies -- comedies, dramas -- and literature about the spy world. In fact, my brother Adam Shapira and I loved watching "Spies Like Us" when we were kids. We'd watch it over and over. My father also loved all the James Bond movies and, as a family,we'd always make a point of going out and seeing the latest James Bond movie that would come out over Thanksgiving or Christmas. Now, with my wife, we always watch spy movies. (I can't tell you how many times we had to stop and pause "Syriana" so my wife could help explain stuff to me -- great movie, btw Bob!) Ultimately, I decided on a career that is very similar. Journalism involves the collection of intelligence. And since I admire the CIA to a great extent, it's a fun place to write about because you get to write about people who go to great lengths to get information ---lengths that we journalists could never do for obvious reasons. Why did I do the story? The Washington region is full of intelligence operatives. I figured that many of them -- even if they are not technically divorced -- could relate to the strains of secrecy imposed on their marriages. I felt like it was a universal story with very broad themes -- themes we explore routinely when it comes to armed services members. And this divorce case was a rare chance to get into the nitty gritties of it all. Of course, the major difference between the CIA and the military is that we do not name undercover officers. This matter is very private so fortunately for the couples, they aren't going to be subjected to public scrutiny. I also did the story because several former CIA employees told me it was an important story to write, something that would highlight issues for the agency. I've been to the CIA many times. I am awed by the Wall of Honor, where fallen operatives are remembered with engraved stars. I think stories about people who work there -- whether the stories highlight their heroics or their personal struggles -- are important for the public to read. 

great questions.  signing off here.  bob baer

Thanks for having us - great questions  - presented a side of life in the CIA that is usally not out there in public so thanks for the article Ian!

Dayna Baer

In This Chat
Robert and Dayna Baer
Ian Shapira
Ian Shapira is a features writer on the local enterprise team. He joined the Post in 2000 and has covered schools, youth culture, criminal justice, and technology. In 2007, Shapira was on the Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings. Recent articles have been about one local woman’s Facebook posts that narrated her pregnancy and illness; and, children of CIA employees coping with the mysteries left behind after their parents’ deaths. Ian has an English degree from Princeton. In 2011, he earned a master’s degree in interactive journalism from American University.
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