Young and in love, my husband and I married in 2002, shortly after our respective college graduations and my husband’s commissioning into the Air Force. We spent the first two years of our marriage following my husband’s dreams of becoming a pilot, which took us from our wedding in Texas to duty stations in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and New Mexico. Our goal was to get through all the moves associated with pilot training (quite a few in the span of two years!), then we hoped to stay put for a few years and I planned to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. The plan seemed fairly simple (if you overlooked all the moving and re-settling). I was even accepted into the graduate school program of my choice (the one that was located in Las Vegas, which is where we expected the Air Force to take us next). Just when we thought we had everything “on track” to turn our career dreams into reality, we learned a difficult, but valuable lesson about being a military couple and making plans. I accepted a position in the UNLV Clinical Psychology Doctoral program and my husband received orders to NAS Keflavik, Iceland.
As a young Air Force wife with some big goals of my own, I felt like everything was falling apart. I believed that the opportunity to attend graduate school would disappear if I didn’t accept the position offered. But how could I possibly move to Las Vegas on my own and send my husband all the way to Iceland? How would the time apart affect our marriage? In hindsight, four years of long-distance dating during college had prepared us fairly well for that next year-and-a-half apart (and for subsequent deployments and other separations). That isn’t to say there haven’t been challenges during the course of our military marriage – and I’d be hard-pressed to find a military couple that wouldn’t admit to encountering their fair share of obstacles.
As a faculty member with the Center for Deployment Psychology and a clinical psychologist, I’m afforded the opportunity to work on a range of really interesting projects. Right now, one my projects involves collaborating with a talented group of professionals (many of whom are also military spouses) to develop webinars on working with military couples in therapy. As such, I currently spend a lot time thinking about what it means to be a military couple – the challenges and blessings that come with military life. While the webinars we are developing pertain largely to helping couples who are experiencing relationship distress, I believe there is also significant value in focusing on military couples that are thriving (particularly those long past the honeymoon stage of marriage).
What do the researchers and the professionals have to say about relationships that prosper even when faced with significant challenges? Marriage experts, such as Dr. John Gottman, Ph.D., and colleagues, have put forth considerable effort towards understanding the habits of couples and additional influencing factors that can make (or break) a marriage. According to Dr. Gottman, successful couples share mutual respect, genuinely enjoy being together, know the intimate details about one another, demonstrate their fondness consistently, work to maintain their friendship and love, make decisions together, find ways to stay connected despite barriers, have a strategy for problem solving, and develop a sense of “shared meaning” (Gottman & Silver, 2015). Existing research literature suggests that, particularly for military couples, having supportive familial and social networks, strong organizational strategies, successful communication, and a shared sense of purpose or pride in military service are factors that also contribute positively to relationship success (Riggs & Riggs, 2011; Meadows et al., 2016).
I reached out to some additional, “real life” experts (military couples who have been around the block a time or two – most having been in a military marriage for a decade or more) to learn from their experiences. Collectively, their marriages have seen hundreds of deployments, PCSs, TDYs, and other major military family events – they have experienced ups, downs, and in-betweens – and they have some amazing stories to tell. I asked them to share the greatest challenges they have faced as military couples and the survival strategies that have kept them going.
For many military couples, the greatest challenges of military life relate to instability and unpredictability. At times, almost everything seems up for grabs - the timing and length of deployments, the “when’s and the where’s” of a PCS, even basics, like whether or not one member of the couple will be home before dinner or in time to help with a bedtime routine. Not being able to plan, or knowing that your plans can and often will need to change unexpectedly, is often experienced as pretty stressful. This is particularly true when some of the “moving pieces” involve deployments that are potentially dangerous and often come with additional uncertainties such as where and when they will occur, and how long they will last.
One couple I heard from described moving to Japan with two young children, only to have the Service member deploy a few days after their arrival. When the Service member left, his family was still living in a hotel room; by the time he returned, his wife had moved the family into their new home and unpacked (all while wrangling the little ones and navigating a foreign country). Another couple celebrated the birth of their third child, then said goodbye five weeks later as the Service member departed for an unaccompanied tour in Korea. As they prepared for their reunion almost a year later, they learned that the Service member would be starting six months of training in another state, a mere three days after returning to the US. It’s not hard to imagine how living with uncertainty as the rule might eventually tax the resources of even the most adventurous or laid-back couples.
Unsurprisingly, many military couples also indicate that the frequent and often lengthy separations from one another present considerable challenges. On a very basic level, separations tend to result in one half of a military couple regularly missing out on important family events (e.g., birthdays, graduations, children’s sports games, etc.) and the other half dealing with more than his or her share of the day-to-day responsibilities (e.g., solo parenting, chauffeuring, cooking, laundry, errands, bills, yard work, vehicle maintenance, etc.). When apart, couples are less available to provide one another with emotional support; maintaining a sense of connectedness can become more challenging. Differing time zones, limited access to phones, spotty internet connectivity, and a range of other factors can negatively impact communication when a military couple is apart – often contributing to frustration, miscommunications, and the like.
A personal example comes to mind. My husband deployed to Iraq a few months after our first child was born. The deployment was challenging for many reasons, including the fact that my daughter rarely slept for more than a couple of hours at a time during the first six months of her life – I was lonely, overtired, and struggling with balancing graduate school and solo parenting. Our phone conversations were precious, short, and rare. Skype had just entered the picture as a way to be in touch with my husband more regularly, but the option (unreliable at best) often seemed to cause more distress than anything. On one occasion, my husband and I scheduled a “Skype date” so he could read to our daughter on her very first Christmas Eve. I really built the event up in my mind, so I was not happy when the Internet connection cut out repeatedly and we eventually had to give up. Not my finest moment, but we learned a lot from those early experiences!
Given the myriad of challenges encountered by military couples, you might wonder how any military couples ever stay happily and successfully together. I loved hearing from some of my favorite, long-lasting military couples about the secrets to their success.
Success for some couples truly comes from working on communication – not just during times of separation, but with respect to all of the experiences a couple has with the military. Being able to communicate effectively with one another can be particularly helpful during times of stress, but often requires considerable effort and practice. One of my favorite examples from a long-married military couple is the development of a secret code of sorts – a special way the couple is able to share things without saying much, in a language that has evolved over the course of their marriage (and deployments!). Another couple reflected on the importance of being open and genuinely striving to hear and understand the other person’s perspective (“even when it isn’t what you want to hear”) – actively and perpetually striving for mutual understanding and compassion. Most couples acknowledged that times when communication is limited and unpredictable are especially hard to endure. They highlighted the value of developing a communication plan that is realistic, with many military spouses emphasizing the value of frequent communication (and understanding that sometimes things change in ways that are impossible to prevent or predict).
Embracing flexibility appears to be another pillar of the successful military relationship. In some cases, flexibility means learning to embrace each PCS as an adventure. Flexibility can also mean deciding to be apart one more time so your child has a chance to earn a starting spot on the football team and the opportunity to graduate alongside friends. Flexibility is apparent in military couples who reimagine their goals, plans, and careers until they are able to make military life workable. One military spouse described flexibility as essential for both halves of a couple and “paramount to [not blaming] the Service member when inevitable changes come down from the top, ruining plans you’ve been looking forward to for days, weeks, or even months.” She provided some great suggestions for maintaining flexibility and a teamwork approach, including: always purchasing travel insurance; having a sitter on stand-by; having Plan A, B, and C; understanding that Christmas and birthdays happen once a year…at some point; and knowing that leave granted does not always equal leave taken. Successful military couples have learned the value of flexibility because experience tells them that change is coming – so they learn from their experiences and are proactive. They plan for the future and do their best to make the most of the present.
With almost 15 years of personal experience as a military couple and countless examples of truly impressive military relationships to inspire us, my husband and I have come a long way from the first years of military life that seemed so overwhelming. Like so many other military couples, we are ever-evolving and learning how to make it all work. Effective communication does not always occur naturally and being flexible takes considerable work (for some of us more than others!). Over time, it has become clear to me that successful military couples work hard to maintain their existing strengths and even harder to develop new ones. They value what each half of the couple brings to the table, recognize one another’s sacrifices, celebrate victories, learn from mistakes, and find shared value in the “mission” of military life together. They make time for their relationships and strive to make the most of times when they are together. They maintain a sense of humor, they remember to enjoy life’s little moments, and they turn challenges into opportunities to grow in their relationships.
If you are interested in hearing more about military family life, be on the lookout for Dr. Lisa French’s blog on military spouse perspectives coming up soon! The CDP also has upcoming webinars on evidence-based approaches to assessment and intervention with military and veteran couples, as well as an intervention model for working with military couples who have experienced infidelity.
L. Caitlin Cook, Ph.D. is a Deployment Behavioral Health Psychologist for the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, HI.
Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country's foremost relationship expert. New York: Harmony.
Meadows, S., Tanielian, T., Karney, B., Schell, T., Griffin, B., Jaycox, L., . . . Vaughan, C. (2016). How military families respond before, during and after deployment: Findings from the RAND deployment life study. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. Retrieved from http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB9906.html
Riggs, S. A., & Riggs, D. S. (2011). Risk and resilience in military families experiencing deployment: The role of the family attachment network. Journal of family psychology, 25(5), 675.