When I met my first husband, I was 19 years old. He was in his third year at the Naval Academy, and I was a sophomore in college. We dated long-distance for six years and then were married for nine years. During that time, we navigated our relationship through graduate school, flight school, multiple military moves, having children, multiple hurricanes, a house flood, and three nine-month deployments (including two back-to-back ones).
In the end, we couldn’t sustain our marriage, and unfortunately, we’re not alone. The divorce rate for military marriages is higher than the civilian divorce rate, and combat experience is related to a 62 percent increase in the risk of divorce.
Several years later, I am remarried to a Marine veteran, and it has been an eye-opening experience for me. I have learned about many commonalities in military relationships (because even after leaving the military, it is always still a big part of someone’s life and personality), and about how I can approach marriage in a more enlightened way. Here are some of the things I’ve learned:
It’s okay to be vulnerable.
Often, military spouses are expected to be almost unnaturally strong. They’re expected to “hold it all together” in the face of a lot of challenges – from handling a move alone to single parenting. Even when deployments are over, the effects of deployment and combat linger for decades. Brene Brown, thankfully, has made vulnerability acceptable, and I think it’s important for women married to military men to know that it’s okay to be vulnerable.
It’s okay to have bad days, and it’s okay to ask for help (whether that means counseling or asking someone to help you mow your lawn). Don’t try to navigate everything on your own.
Defensiveness never works.
I am the queen of defensive arguments. It’s a difficult truth I’ve come to see over the years. Military men can be strong-minded and even critical; they have very high standards and expect a lot. It’s also hard for them to transition from what I call “military mode” to “husband mode”–a challenge most people face in military marriages. My advice for military spouses who feel criticized is to take the lead in orchestrating a more mature style of resolving conflict. Instead of defending yourself, acknowledge the point your husband is making and let him know you want to make the marriage work. At a later time, you can address the topic of criticism, but not in the heat of the moment.
Learn the the art of letting go.
It’s easy to build up resentment in a military relationship. I’ve never met a military spouse who hasn’t at some point held a little resentment for being left alone to handle major issues, forced to move at the last minute, or expected to handle too much at once. But chronic resentment can build into anxiety and even physical illness, and it doesn’t serve any greater purpose. I highly recommend the book “Letting Go,” by David R. Hawkins, M.D., Ph.D.
Don’t expect love.
Of course, your spouse should love you. But desiring it and expecting it are two very different energies. You should never need love in order to show love. Make your love for your partner unconditional, and give it even when you’re in an argument or you’re not feeling loved in return. Never expect love, or loving actions, in order to give love. Happy marriages are built on loving without conditions.
Ask for what you need.
This is a big one: Your partner can’t read your mind. Expecting your military spouse (whose mind is full of a lot of other things, all the time) to know what you want or need is just a waste of time. I’m guilty of passive-aggressiveness, where I get quiet or sullen when I’m upset, instead of just saying what’s on my mind. Tell your spouse what you need. It will make everything much easier.
You are enough.
Always remember you are, innately, enough. You don’t have to compare yourself to that other wife who always has a home-cooked meal on the table, or that one who works out an hour seven days a week, or that mom who homeschools five children and never seems frazzled. What you offer in your relationship is enough. When you feel that deep down about yourself, your partner will feel it too.