Let me start by saying, being a military spouse has its challenges, but it also has many rewards. November is Military Family Appreciation month, where we as a nation honor all military family members (mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, spouses, etc.). It is a time where we can recognize military family members for their many contributions and the commitment that they make to the military and our nation as a whole. I want to kick off the month by taking a closer look at military spouses.
Hopefully many of you read my colleague’s blog 2 weeks ago. Dr. Caitlin Cook wrote about military couples, where she discussed both challenges and survival strategies for military marriages. She did an excellent job capturing some of the obstacles that military couples have to overcome and creative ways that they have survived the ups and downs. Being in the military can be tough, challenging, rewarding, and exciting! Being a military spouse can be all of the above and more.
The focus of this blog is to look at some of the specific challenges and rewards of being a military spouse while at the same time addressing some of the available resources. I chose this topic for several reasons. First, I want other military spouses to know they are not alone and that there are a lot of resources out there for them. Second, I know many behavioral health providers read our blog and I want to help inform them of some of the challenges and rewards of being a military spouse, as well as provide them with resources they can share with military spouses/families who they work with.
What does the literature/research say about military spouses?
We know that there are more military family members (spouses, children, adult dependents) than there are military personnel. Just over 50% of Service members are married, with 46.4% being married to civilian spouses and 5% being in dual military marriages (Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Military Community & Family Policy, 2015a). Although much of the literature on military families (including specifics on military spouses) has been anecdotal in nature, several attempts have been made to quantify data via larger, more-structured surveys.
One example is the Blue Star Families’ annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey, which collects data on the top issues facing military families. In the 2015 survey, military spouses were asked about their biggest stressors related to their time in the military. Not surprisingly, 60% noted deployments as a top stressor, as well as employment/work stress. In addition, 57% reported financial issues/stress, 54% reported relocation issues (adjustment to new locations, living overseas), and 52% reported isolation from family and friends.
In addition, in 2010, the DoD began the Military Family Life Project to better understand how military families are impacted by military life events. It is the first large-scale, representative, longitudinal DoD-wide survey of military families. Some of the key findings from the project related to military spouses were: 1) The military lifestyle (e.g., frequent moves and deployments) disrupts spouse employment and negatively impacts families’ financial and emotional well-being; 2) Financial and emotional well-being are both related to spouse support for Service member retention; and 3) Spouses who become unemployed are less satisfied with military life (Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community & Family Policy, 2015b).
Across the literature, one of the biggest stressors reported by military spouses is related to pursuit of employment/career. Moving every few years is definitely disruptive to everyone in the military family and can negatively affect a military spouse’s pursuit of employment. Given Service members’ work schedules, temporary duty assignments, and deployments, spouses often have to be more readily available to assist with family/home related tasks. In addition, in one study, some spouses reported bias by employers against hiring military spouses due to the perceived temporary nature of their employment (given frequent relocations) and potentially having weaker resumes compared to those with more stable career experiences (Castaneda & Harrell, 2008). In the Blue Star Families’ Military Family Lifestyle Survey (2015) mentioned above, 75% of employed spouses reported that the military lifestyle negatively impacted the pursuit of their career, and 58% of unemployed spouses reported that they would like to be employed.
Spouses may also struggle with finding an identity outside of being a “military spouse,” a role that can sometimes feel overly consuming. Even the term “military spouse” versus spouse, wife, husband or partner can feel overly-defining, focusing on the connection to the military/Service member rather than who they are as an individual. This may even be truer for spouses who are unemployed. In addition, military spouses are often referred to as “dependents,” which can be interpreted negatively. In the 2008 Survey of Active Duty Spouses, spouses were surveyed regarding their feelings about military life. While 85% of spouses who responded indicated that they were intensely proud to tell others they are married to a Service member, only 25% considered being a military spouse as fulfilling personal needs (Defense Manpower Data Center, 2009).
And what about male military spouses? Military OneSource (n.d.) reviews some of the challenges of being a male military spouse in their online piece, Life as a Male Military Spouse. For example, male military spouses may feel more isolated and potentially experience role/identity clash. This may be exacerbated by others assuming the male spouse is the Service member and them needing to correct/explain to others that they are the civilian. In addition, consistent with research on males in general, male military spouses may be less likely to seek out support making them less likely to engage military/community programs or other military spouses (who are more likely to be female).
What do military spouses have to say?
As much as I appreciate the efforts to quantify data related to military families/spouses, I also wanted to make my blog more personal by reaching out to several military spouses who I know since they live and breathe the military lifestyle every day. I asked them about some of the challenges of being a military spouse as well as some of the rewards and benefits. I also asked them about their favorite resources for military spouses and what advice they have for other spouses.
Some challenges of being a military spouse:
When asked about challenges, many spouses shared that the challenges vary depending on multiple factors: geographical location, whether you live on or off base, number of years in the process, if you live near family/support system, if you have children, etc. Other factors mentioned as contributing factors were: how connected the spouse feels to other military spouses, the Service member’s rank and job, and if the spouse understands the mission the Service member is supporting.
Almost everyone talked about the constant change and the need for flexibility (Semper Gumby, right?). Several things mentioned were frequent changes in duty station, repeated deployments/temporary duty assignments, and changes in duty hours/work expectations. Having to be a “single parent” during extended separations/deployments can be very challenging. In addition, many of the deployments can be dangerous, which adds an additional layer to the stress. Although military spouses learn early on that when the military calls, the Service member must go, it can still lead to feelings of abandonment, resentment, and frustration.
Several spouses shared that the frequent moves are more than uprooting your family every few years, but also the little things such as having to find new services every time you move (e.g., hair stylist, dentist, etc.) as well as trying to make each new house feel like a home. Even finding new babysitters in each location can be challenging. One of my military spouse friends and I joke about how you become much less picky about babysitter standards with each move.
Consistent with the literature/research, multiple spouses mentioned work stress and difficulty maintaining a career as one of the biggest challenges. There were a myriad of work challenges mentioned. Some individuals shared that they chose early on to not pursue work outside of the home because they knew it would be a challenge. Others shared that they had been working for years in a profession/with an employer prior to becoming a military spouse, making it even more challenging to adjust. Another challenge mentioned was being able to find employment that is commensurate with their level of education. I remember being stationed in Germany with several spouses who had professional degrees and chose to work administrative or clerical positions to have employment.
And it is not just employment challenges; several spouses also mentioned educational challenges. Enrolling in/maintaining educational goals can be difficult when you are moving every few years. I have multiple friends who had to start and stop schooling, as well as transfer colleges/universities, as they moved with their Service member spouse across the States and overseas.
Several spouses shared (and I agree) that a move can actually be somewhat exciting. Getting to move to a new location and experience new adventures is often fun and exhilarating. However, once you are there and more settled, you can also feel very isolated and alone, especially if living off-base. This can be even more challenging for spouses who do not work outside of the home. It can also be challenging for some spouses to try to mesh with the local community and to find a new support network. I have had so many friends/family members ask me with each move, “Have you made any new friends yet?” I feel like a first grader who is attending a new school…“Not yet, Mom, but I’m working on it.” Sometimes you feel like the creepy person, stalking neighbors on the street…looking for who has kids, who would be up to have a drink with you, who is not going to judge you for being part of a military family (not all communities are as welcoming as others). My new neighbors were shocked to hear we are only here for 20 more months.
Another challenge shared was moving overseas. Again, for most, it is often exciting and is frequently stated as one of the reasons Service members join the military – to see the world. And as exciting as that can be for spouses, there are also challenges. All of the challenges listed above can be even more challenging overseas (e.g., the ability to find or keep employment, the ability to find a network of friends). And on top of that are the other challenges such as figuring out the culture, overcoming language barriers, and even setting up banking and utility services (if living on the economy).
Several spouses also shared some of the feelings they have about what their kids are going through. As challenging as it is for adults to transition every few years, it can be even more challenging for children. And although the research shows how resilient military children are, it can still be a struggle as a parent to watch your child/children have to start over with every move. We moved this summer due to military orders and as we were driving across the country my 6-year old says to me with tears in his eyes, “I’m really going to miss my friends and school, Mom. What if I don’t find new friends?” As much as we know how our children can benefit from aspects of growing up in the military, it still can lead to feelings of sadness and guilt when military service affects them.
Some rewards/benefits of being a military spouse:
It’s interesting, with almost every response I received, there was a discussion about how many of the benefits and blessings are tied to the challenges. We often see that in life and with military life, that is no different. If I was to create a Wordle (you know, those cute little word clouds) based off of the responses I received regarding rewards/benefits of being a military spouse, here are some of the words that I would include: accomplishment, rewarding, security, adventure, diversity, new experiences, friendships, family, independence, and pride.
Most who responded shared they loved the adventure of being in the military. Being able to see new parts of the world and experience different cultures, both for them and their child/children. Many spouses talked about that sense of accomplishment in being able to move their family across the States or even the world and start over, time after time. I have to tell you, it was empowering to hear other military spouses talk about how quickly and efficiently they can move and set up their new home, and that sense of independence that comes with doing so.
Several spouses shared that they are really good at getting rid of belongings that others may hold on to and acquire over the years. My family jokes with me that I am really good at letting go of “stuff,” so it was refreshing to see others mention this as well. It is not that I don’t care about items the way that others do, but the more you have the more you have to pack, unpack, and store with each move. And many of us are just used to seeing our household items a little banged up from all the moves (my husband and I use the term “Air Force furniture” for our scratched, dented, and more than gently used household items).
In addition, multiple spouses discussed the pride of having a spouse who is in the military and choosing to do something bigger than themselves as well as the pride in his/her contributions. Consistent with the literature above, most military spouses indicated that they were intensely proud to tell others they are married to a Service member. One individual shared how it can also add to patriotism and added respect for those in uniform.
And last, but not least, almost everyone who responded talked about the amazing community that they get to be a part of. You cannot always rely on family depending on where you are located and having extended military “family” has been such a huge benefit for me and many others. Knowing that you have a group of spouses who would help you in an instant is such an amazing feeling. Having that person who understands what it is like for your child to be so upset about leaving friends behind each move. Spouses shared about helping other spouses out with sick kids, supporting each other through deployments, and having someone to call and talk to/cry to and know that they truly get it. Additionally, it can be very rewarding being able to help others when needed. Several spouses stressed how that has helped them feel more connected. They have been there too and know what others are going through. There is a special bond that is formed and that can lead to some amazing lifetime friendships.
Advice to other military spouses:
Almost all of the responses I received had statements that were consistent with embracing change. In military terms we would say, “Embrace the suck!” Oh trust me, the suck has been embraced. Military spouses are all too familiar with juggling too many balls, wearing a multitude of hats and at the same time, trying to be resilient to change. It is not always easy, but they persevere and encourage others to embrace the good, the bad, and the downright ugly!
Along with the idea of embracing change and the not so good, spouses shared that even though you have to accept the change that is inevitable with military life, also remember that you have a voice. Even though there is so much that is out of a spouse’s control (e.g., deployment orders, duty location, short order taskings, etc.), embrace the decisions that you do get a say in. Make sure to talk to your spouse and let him/her know your desires so they are at least taken into consideration. Get familiar with the military system and the resources available to you.
You are not alone! Another piece of advice that most, if not all, shared was to connect with other military spouses. To find that group of individuals who’ve got your 6 (i.e., your back). Not only do they get what you’re going through, but they can be some of the best resources EVER! I learned early on the need to ask for help more and to offer up help just as readily. As mentioned above in rewards, relationships developed as a military spouse are priceless and one of the greatest benefits of being part of the military community.
Several people mentioned making sure to respect military traditions and command structures, but not letting them overtake being a genuine person (e.g., Enlisted/Officer, etc.). For example, don’t choose not to interact with someone simply because their spouse is Enlisted and your spouse is an Officer. Yes, there are rules and guidelines that need to be followed, but common sense and courtesy are just as important.
Now, having said that, spouses also highly recommended that spouses meet/connect with locals who know the area. They encouraged spouses to be willing to explore the new areas they are assigned and to seek out information about local activities (not necessarily tied to the installation). For some spouses, separating themselves from the military community at times may help them find their own identity, outside of the military.
Resources for military spouses:
Spouses shared a variety of resources that they find helpful. First of all, several folks highly recommended Military OneSource (www.militaryonesource.mil) and one person even added that it is the number one resource they share with other spouses and Service members. Military OneSource offers 24-hour services to all active duty, Guard and Reserve members and their families. They offer free face-to-face, online, or phone counseling options as well as a myriad of other services (e.g., financial counseling, health and wellness coaching, relocation counseling/transition assistance, education counseling, spouse career exploration/assistance, etc.). My spouse and I even utilized their document translation services while living overseas when we needed a repair estimate translated from German to English.
Several spouses recommended utilizing the installation family support programs (Fleet and Family Support Centers, Marine Corps Community Services, Airman and Family Readiness Centers, and Army Community Services Centers). Most installations offer new-spouse orientation programs such as Air Force Heartlink, Army Family Team Building, Marine Corps L.I.N.K.S. (Lifestyle, Insights, Networking, Knowledge, and Skills) and the Navy COMPASS program. One spouse shared that she wish she would have heard about the Air Force Heartlink program sooner and that it continues to offer her amazing nuggets of information each time she attends. The orientation programs allow spouses the opportunity to learn about all the resources available to them while meeting and networking with other spouses.
In addition to installation support programs, Family Assistance Centers (FACs) are located in every state with a focus on helping geographically dispersed military families and retirees by providing a variety of referral based services. You can find the FAC nearest you by going to the Joint Service Support website (https://www.jointservicessupport.org) and selecting a location under the “Service Provider Network” tab.
For professional support, one spouse shared that In Gear Career (http://ingearcareer.org/) has been very helpful. In Gear Career is a non-profit organization that focuses on connecting career-minded military spouses, providing professional development, and helping military spouses build their professional network. You can connect online or even join a local chapter (there are multiple stateside as well as several overseas locations).
Several spouses commented that they felt like they should be listing more official resources, but that ultimately the best resource for them has been fellow military spouses. Other spouses tend to know and want to share their experiences about the local area whether that is regarding the best places to live, the best schools/daycare programs, who the best local dentists are, what hair stylist to try out, as well as all of the best activities for families and children. In addition, several recommended finding military spouse Facebook (or other social media) groups as well as local social media groups.
I also encourage you to check out the National Military Family Association (NMFA) More Than a Spouse project, which is intended to encourage military spouses to take a closer look at themselves. They are encouraging spouses to share their accomplishments and what makes them special. They have posted a video montage of responses on the NFMA website: (http://www.militaryfamily.org/featured-news/more-than-a-spouse-1.html).
I want to give special thanks to the military spouses who responded to my questions and thoughtfully shared their personal experiences. In addition, I want to thank all of the military spouses out there, for what you do each and every day. As crazy and hectic as things can be, I encourage you to focus on the aspects that are unique and special. I asked one of the spouses if I could share one of her quotes to sum up my blog. Thankfully she obliged. She summed up her response to me and her advice to others like this, “It's messy, it's terrifying, it's crazy, but at the end of it all, it's beautiful chaos.” Well said…and you know what, I wouldn’t change a thing!
Lisa French, Psy.D., is the Assistant Director of Military Training Programs at the CDP
Blue Star Families. (2015). 2015 annual military family lifestyle survey: Comprehensive report. Retrieved from: https://bluestarfam.org/survey/
Castaneda, L.W. & Harrell, M.C. (2008). Military spouse employment: A grounded theory approach to experiences and perceptions. Armed Forces & Society, 34(3), 389-412.
Defense Manpower Data Center. (2009). 2008 survey of active duty spouses: Tabulations of responses (Report No. 2008-041). Arlington, VA: Author. Retrieved from: http://prhome.defense.gov/Portals/52/Documents/RFM/MCFP/docs/2008%20Military%20Spouse%20Survey.pdf
Military OneSource (n.d.). Life as a male military spouse. Retrieved October 18, 2016, from http://www.militaryonesource.mil/health-wellness/marriage?content_id=274612
Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Military Community & Family Policy. (2015a). 2014 demographics profile of the military community. Retrieved from: http://download.militaryonesource.mil/12038/MOS/Reports/2014-Demographics-Report.pdf
Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community & Family Policy. (2015b). Military family life project: Active duty spouse study: Project report. Retrieved from http://www.militaryonesource.mil/MilFamStudy