My favorite movie is Good Will Hunting. I saw it for the first time shortly after the movie was released in January of 1998. I was 16 years old and found myself enjoying everything about the movie; pretty soon I was able to quote whole scenes much to the delight (and shortly annoyance) of my friends and family. One scene that stands out is the famous park scene between the late, great Robin Williams and Matt Damon. Robin, playing the embattled psychologist Sean, sits with Matt’s Will Hunting in a Boston park and tries to school him on some grown man shit; detailing his experiences with art, love, and war-time combat. I loved the language and imagery used when Sean described the idiosyncrasies and special nature of a marriage but, looking back, I really did not get it until recently. I have ten years of marriage underneath my belt and my perspective is different. Marriage is difficult but can be incredibly rewarding. I think that military marriages can be particularly difficult due to the unique nature of being a service member and, thus, I feel the rewards and strength of bonding are even greater when the couple has military experience as opposed to a strictly civilian couple. There are a couple of relationship cues for which military couples absolutely hold an advantage.
Military couples – even newlyweds – have to get used to the idea of being apart very fast. I got married during RR of my second deployment. We had our wedding, honeymoon, and before I knew it, I was back in the sandbox. It was such a whirlwind time that I could easily believe that I dreamed the whole affair … if not for the reminder that circled my left ring finger. A long term separation has the potential to destroy a relationship, or deepen the bond to levels that will help sustain the relationship for years to come. Granted, I’ve seen military marriages that have ended badly due to separation. More often than not, the marriage has been enriched due to the separation. You miss each other so much and look forward to the mundane details of a relationship that other couples gloss over; you get so little time together that you really focus on the important issues when you do have contact; you learn more about each other’s strength in the face adversity.
Communication is key in any relationship, military or otherwise. Because of the turbulent nature of military service, service members and their spouses, I believe, communicate in an honest and forthcoming manner that may be lacking in civilian relationships. There is no room or time for passive aggressive discourse, especially when a deployment is involved. Too many important matters hang in the balance when 50% of a partnership will be missing for a year and sadly, possibly forever. I believe the heightened stakes of military life lead to an open communication style that improves the military marriage in ways that can’t be duplicated on the civilian side.
Before I deployed to Iraq the second time, I granted my wife (at that time, fiancé) with power-of-attorney to handle business affairs in my name. I had people pull me to the side and question my sanity over that decision. “You’re not even married yet!” was the standard reply when I admitted my intentions. But, even then, I knew that trust was instrumental in making a military marriage work. I wanted to begin the process, sooner rather than later. Luckily, my trust in her was warranted and I began to realize just how important trust was in military relationships. Trust is a factor in every relationship but when a service member is involved and there are so many instances when a long-term absence is not an anomaly but considered the norm, there is a greater emphasis on having trust in your partner. This elevated level of trust enriches the military marriage and adds layers of meaning to the relationship.
If you want to put a strain on relationship, go to war. The Army is a similar to the John Grisham novel The Firm. The government is the mafia in control of the firm and your senior NCOs and Officers are the senior lawyers who are there to make sure that everything runs smooth and don’t you dare get any funny ideas about going anywhere. There is no single external adversary that will get in the middle of a marriage more than the entity that pays you – The military. Your spouse, especially if she/he has zero experience with the military life, will be left flabbergasted at the level of control the military has over their spouses (and now their) life. If you think I’m exaggerating I had a NCO tell me, after I mentioned doing something with my spouse that interfered with my military duties, “If the Army wanted you to have a wife it would have issued you one.” I can’t think of any other job that creates external adversity and disrupts one’s life more than being in the military. The strange thing is, it can create an “us vs. them” mentality in which a couple rallies together to thwart the everyday calamities that the military thrusts on people. It’s almost like being in Basic Training again. In order to build unit cohesiveness, Drill Instructors purposely create an environment in which everyone’s common factor is hating them, individually, and boot camp in general. The same principle applies when it comes to military marriages. Only in this scenario, relationship cohesiveness in the face of adversity is the outcome.
“Patience is a virtue.” is a common saying. But when it comes to the military it takes on an entirely different meaning. Another popular saying (amongst military folk) is “hurry up and wait.” Military life for the service member is a series of rushing to go somewhere or do something and then waiting … and waiting … and waiting for the right time to accomplish your task. For the enlisted soldier it can be infuriating but like many unpleasant things in life you eventually get used it. For the spouse who is married to the service member – but has no actual commitment to abide by the military’s sometime infuriating and archaic rules – continued experiences in this vein can get real old, real fast. In the civilian world most jobs follow a pattern of predictability that allows for planning and some semblance of normalcy. The military is anything but, and the spouse married to the service member must learn to roll with punches lest they go insane, particularly during deployment time. Trainings are implemented, dates and times for all sorts of activities are changed and everything gets chaotic. There are definitely civilian couples who have high-stress, helter-skelter jobs in which their spouse must have much patience. The military, however, raises everything to another level.
We’ve all heard the horror stories. Soldier leaves spouse for a year-long deployment which ends in divorce. I’ve seen it happen. But these stories get sensationalized because of the sizzle factor. There is no gossipy replay value for the majority of military marriages whose culminating deployment status is not divorce, rather, a strengthening of the bond that already existed. I’m not saying that these marriages have no issues or problems post-deployment – indeed, it would be strange if there were no hiccups after being separated for so long – but I find that most of marriages that survive a deployment become stronger than ever. A major reason for that is the loyalty between the service member and their spouse. Of course there are civilian marriages that are backed by loyalty but there just seems to be another level of loyalty between the military couple who goes through so many traumatic events such as a deployment.
A Common Purpose:
Service. This word has many different meanings in the dictionary but the one I’m most drawn to is “the performance of duties.” Each service member has taken an oath to perform his/her duties in order to protect the United States from enemies foreign and domestic. It may not be fair but the military member’s spouse, more often than not, slowly aligns their lives to match the purpose-driven activity of their significant other. I’m not saying that the military spouse is forced to give up their individual dreams, but, they find ways to incorporate their spouse’s service into their daily lives creating a dual purpose that benefits the community and the marriage. Civilian marriages can also revolve a common purpose, children perhaps, but there is something about military service, something about knowing you are serving a common good that goes beyond your own life, that helps unite two like-minded people.
It's unfortunate, but married couples tend to take each other for granted after a few years of marriage. The passage of time sometimes erodes what you consider special in a person. If you are or were in the military I want you to take some time to acknowledge what your spouse has done for you to set you up for success. I also want you to take the time to muse over the difficulty of military life and profess the ways that life has made you a better couple. So much is made of the individual service member who is hailed as hero in battle. Let’s take the time to honor our spouses who add so much to our lives. Let’s also take time to honor the relationships between the service member and their significant other and the trials and tribulations that help make their bond stronger.