September 11, 2001, changed the way we view the world. A rise in enlistment numbers following 9/11 reflect that many men and women felt compelled to answer the call to serve their country. For military couples or families, the aftermath of 9/11 meant longer and more frequent deployments increased the challenges of separation and homecoming, putting a unique strain on marriages and families. Today that situation has improved and yet, according to Blue Star Families (a nonprofit that provides resources and support to military families), the demands of military service still present exceptional challenges for service members and their families.
The 2015 Blue Star Families Military Family Lifestyle Survey, completed by more than 6,200 military family members including active duty servicemembers and veterans, identified issues related to uncertainty including military pay and benefits, changes to retirement benefits, military spouse employment, and veteran employment, as well as service member and veteran suicide as the top concerns. (Blue Star Families, 2016)
We spoke to two military couples about their experiences and found that, for the most part, they are very resilient and prepared for the unique challenges they face. Additionally, speaking to these two couples reminded us that in a relationship or family affected by military service, the sacrifice for a ‘normal’ life is not solely that of the service member, but rather, a sacrifice both partners and their families make together.
Avery and Andrew
When Avery was a sophomore at the University of Colorado in Boulder she met her brother’s roommate, Andrew, a senior at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He was dating someone else at the time, but once that relationship ended and Andrew was able to see Avery as something other than his friend’s little sister, they knew they were meant to be together. Right from the start, long distance was part of the arrangement, and in the four and a half years since, that hasn’t changed. They’re getting married this summer, and both have accepted that this is simply a fact of life for them and are fully prepared for this lifestyle, and together they will face any challenges that may come up along the way.
“Maybe I was being naïve. I didn’t let Andrew’s military service factor in. I just wanted to be with him,” Avery says. “I knew I was choosing to be a military wife and the military comes first. But I chose to be with him. He’s my best friend.”
When Andrew started pilot training and their relationship became serious, new challenges emerged. From then on, they were always in a state of transition. “We never know when he’s going to be home, or where we’ll be in five years,” Avery adds.
Air Force deployments are typically shorter and more frequent than other branches of the military. Andrew is generally deployed for about half of the year and he can be anywhere in the world. When he’s home, he has an office job. Avery’s job as a medical device sales rep requires travel as well, but also gives her flexibility. She arranges her trips so that she is home when Andrew is home.
While they are used to being apart, they don’t take their situation or each other for granted. They agree that communication (letting the other know what’s going on) is key. “Facetime helps,” says Andrew, explaining that seeing the other person gives you more information than just hearing them or communicating through writing.
“Being apart keeps us in a honeymoon phase,” says Avery. She’s a planner, and makes sure they have a balance of structured and unstructured time, with each other and with friends. They make an effort to do things that they might not do if they were together all the time. Avery doesn’t particularly like baseball, but she goes to games with Andrew because that’s something he enjoys. And Andrew doesn’t love shopping, but he’s happy to go with Avery, because it’s something she enjoys. They are aware that if they don’t make these concessions, they may find themselves living separate lives. “It’s easy to get used to doing things on your own,” Avery adds.
Avery says she’s learned from others’ experiences as well. “I’ve become friends with a lot of people of different ages. I watch how they deal with things, what they do to keep their marriages alive.”
Andrew is committed to staying in the Air Force for the foreseeable future. While they don’t know what the future will bring once they are married and start a family, they are enjoying their time together, accepting their time apart, and staying open to whatever changes will come.
Mary and Michael
Mary had a plan for her life from the time she was about five years old: join ROTC in college, eventually become a JAG attorney, then go into politics. After attending a tiny high school in New Jersey, she had an opportunity to sit in on lectures at Penn State, but found the experience overwhelming. There were more students in a single class than in her entire high school. She briefly changed her mind about college, but eventually found a school that better suited her and earned a 4-year scholarship. She joined ROTC, but when the war started, she dropped out of school and enlisted in the army.
Over the course of her military career she was deployed to Saudi Arabia, Korea, and Alaska. During that time, she met and married her first husband, had a daughter, and got divorced. She was medically discharged from service after shattering both her knees. In 2012, she met her current husband, Michael, who was recently discharged from the Army and is now serving in the Army Reserves. They’ve been married for three years and have three children, including Mary’s older daughter. Mary eventually graduated from college, earning a B.A. in political science and a B.A. in history, and then an M.B.A.
“Being a military spouse is easier than most people think,” Mary says. “You get a break from each other, and then come back together. It’s kind of nice.” Despite the stereotype of military marriages that is often portrayed in the media, she finds that most military spouses she meets feel the same way. Deployments in the Army are often six to nine months at a time. For Mary, having been in or around the military since she was a teenager, this feels quite normal and manageable. “A big difference now is that deployments don’t mean war anymore,” Mary points out. Nevertheless when spouses are apart for that long, she says, it is important to understand the challenges of merging your lives back together.
One issue is that spouses who are away on active duty can easily lose touch with the day-to-day goings on at home, and miss seeing their kids growing up. Then when they are back, there is a lot to catch up on. Mary would write a letter to her husband every day, sharing what happened that day. At the end of the month, she’d bundle the 30 letters she’d written and mail them to him. “It allowed him to not miss 100% of everything.”
Mary advises at-home spouses not to expect the returning spouses to jump right in, but rather give them time to adjust and take on home responsibilities gradually, as they are ready. “We have an expectation of how the house is run. You just have to be patient, and talk with the returning spouse,” she says. For families with young children, she recommends sharing the responsibilities, such as bedtime routines, until everyone is comfortable having returning mom or dad take over.
“A lot of people end up changing their routines when their spouse leaves,” Mary says, explaining that because her older daughter has special needs, their routine is very important and doesn’t change often. “If something does change, I would just include that in the letters, so Michael would be prepared. He is very go-with-the flow, though. He adapts easily.”
Mary adds, “Transition is hard – not by any means easy – but when [your spouse] comes home, the honeymoon period starts again. Just be mindful of the stress they are under. Know what works.”
Relationships of any kind – spouse to spouse, partner to partner, parent to child – take effort to maintain balance. Sometimes that effort can seem quite like work; maintaining balance in any relationship can be a challenge! Add the circumstances of military service into the mix, and maintaining balance in relationships with your spouse or your family can require effort very unique to couples and families where a spouse, partner or parent (or both partners/parents!) serves their country. For couples and families who need help coping with the challenges of marriage and family life in the military, counseling services can be a solution. For more information, feel free to give our Access Center a call at 303-867-4600.
Maria Droste Counseling Center recognizes that both women and men serve our country through military service and deployment. Often it is the woman serving and the man who remains at home, or, both partners who are serving. It is with sincere gratitude that Maria Droste Counseling Center thanks military members for their service to and for our country, and their families for the sacrifices it takes on their part to make that possible.
If you would like to speak to a therapist about this subject or about any other issue you may be experiencing, contact the Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.
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Blue Star Families (2016). Military Family Lifestyle Survey 2015. Retrieved on May 25, 2016, from https://bluestarfam.org/survey/