photo credit: chris cannida, 2012
A young military spouse I know just received the best Christmas gift ever. Her husband returned safely from deployment – just in time for the holiday season. It’s been a long deployment and while she’s survived at least one other, this one was even more tender because they now have a child. Thanks to social media, many of us were able to support her and share, albeit in a very small way, the pangs of deployment separation. She was gracious enough to also share the joy of his return. On both counts, nothing we witnessed from Facebook could compare to the experience she had in walking this year’s journey with her soldier. And to be clear, while he was the one off fighting a battle in distant lands, she did walk the journey with him from her place at home. The military spouse serves in a role equally as powerful as her (or his) service member. Much of my own service as a military spouse has been honed in learning ways to honor the needs of a soldier transitioning into civilian life. Now, as a civilian psychotherapist who works with couples, I accept the charge of bridging the civilian-military divide by further understanding how to help these couples stay connected while serving apart.
I’ve watched many military spouses endure the absence of their lover, their best friend, their copilot in parenting. Deployments, long or brief, can be overwhelming. If the tour of duty is into a combat or danger zone in the world, there is an added distress of worrying about safety. The reality is that wartime is not the only threat of separation for these couples. Military spouses are separated many times throughout the service member’s career when there is less risk of danger. Being called away to trainings and special schools, the service member is often absent from home for a few weeks to a few months at a time. Even without the risk of danger that war brings, these frequent separations are equally difficult for the union. I’ve often considered that the end of a military marriage is the other ‘casualty of war’. That’s why we must dedicate as much energy toward understanding the keys to securing marital bonds as we do in helping to heal a warrior’s invisible wounds of war upon return from deployment. The military has offered many good efforts to encourage the strengthening of the military marriage (Strong Bond retreats are one example). Thanks to gracious army chaplains and military spouses like my young friend, I have garnered valuable lessons in helping military couples grow in this mission of marriage. If you are a military spouse or service member seeking to hold sacred the attachment to your life partner, consider a few of these lessons:
- Define the relationship – In watching couples survive deployment, I’ve observed that the ones who fare better are those who knew who they were in marriage before the separation. When meeting with them prior to deployment, I ask them to consider defining what type of military couple they want to be. If they define themselves as being a strong, securely attached couple who will survive these separations, this helps them set an intention for endurance.
- Communicate, Communicate, Communicate! – While setting the intention to thrive, verbalizing that intention becomes a powerful adhesive for the union. Whether with the guidance of a chaplain or counselor, or having the dialogue in intimate privacy, voice to each other the desire to thrive and grow from the experience of surviving deployment together!
- Store up and Shore up – In between deployments and necessary separations, store up positive deposits into the union. This happens through the daily kindnesses offered to each other and by exercising the courage of vulnerability that leads to deeper conversations. The daily kindness is like an oil that keeps the union in constant positive motion. “Shore up” literally means propping against a structure placed to provide support. Those deeper conversations serve to strengthen the immunity of the bond. The chemical response our brain has to feeling deeply connected to another person creates a powerful memory of closeness that lasts throughout the time apart. This memory becomes the support that a marriage can lean on in times of duress generated by lengthy or frequent separations.
- Celebrate the Thrive! – Once reuniting takes place, strong military marriages continue the mindful focus on their connection. Some couples make specific time to connect again, and not just physically. They not only celebrate a safe return for the warrior, they celebrate the endurance as they held tight to the attachment even while apart. That is no small feat!
Not many of us can fathom being constantly separated from the one we love. Remaining connected to someone for a lifetime is hard work, even without being apart from them on a routine basis. Many couples who see each other every day of their lives struggle to maintain the meaningful bond most of us crave. Can you imagine how much more difficult it would be with frequent absences from each other? “Out of sight, out of mind” becomes a real threat. But, for the military marriage, there are ways to conquer the threat.
During this holiday season, I pray safe returns and gracious reunions for every military marriage. If you are a military spouse or service member enduring a deployment separation, there are great resources to help you with this mission. Consider some of the following:
PsychArmor Institute (www.psycharmor.org) – a free resource that offers support for our military and the caregivers who love them.
Give An Hour (www.giveanhour.org) – helping healthcare providers in the community ‘give back’ by offering free services to the military community.
Military OneSource (http://www.militaryonesource.mil) – Military OneSource serves the mission of helping our military families live the best military life possible.