On today’s episode of the podcast, we’re covering a topic that doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves: the unique challenges of maintaining a military relationship and how you can keep your military relationship healthy and strong.
If you or your partner (or both of you!) are service members, you know that the military can feel like a mistress, always meddling on the edges of your relationship… and sometimes high-jacking it completely. No matter how in love with each other you are, or how committed to your partnership you feel, it’s hard to be moved from place to place because of distant orders that you had little or no say in. It’s hard to have a career that takes you away from your partner and your children for long periods of time. It’s hard to take care of everything on the home front by yourself, especially if you’re stationed far away from family and friends.
And it can be especially hard to find a marriage counselor or long-distance relationship counselor who understands these unique challenges, and how to help military couples overcome them. Luckily, we have just such an expert joining us today. Jesse S., M.S, LMFT, is a marriage counselor and relationship coach here at Growing Self. He’s also a member of the military with over two decades of service, currently serving in the Connecticut National Guard as a First Sergeant in the 141st Ground Ambulance Unit.
In addition to treating bodily wounds, Jesse is passionate about helping other service members heal and grow as individuals, and within their relationships. Today, he’s sharing his insight and guidance with you. You can tune in on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen, or you can continue reading the article below!
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Military Relationships: Episode Highlights
Every relationship comes with its challenges, but military relationships have some unique obstacles built right in:
Demands on Time
Members of the armed forces can’t easily take a day off when there’s something important happening in their personal lives. They might miss holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and other big events. This can leave the service member feeling like they’re missing out, and their partner feeling neglected or lonely in the relationship.
Long-Distance Military Relationships
Depending on their role in the military, the enlisted partner may miss much more than the occasional birthday or anniversary. They may be deployed to the other side of the world for many months at a time, making it hard to maintain the close connection that healthy relationships need. The partner who’s left at home may have to function as the solo parent for long periods, or make important decisions on their own that they’d normally make with their partner.
Members of the military often have to move around from base to base, which can be especially difficult for their spouses and families. The non-military partner may become isolated and lonely if they have to move away from family and friends, especially during times when their partner is deployed.
Establishing a consistent career can be a struggle if you’re frequently uprooted by the demands of your partner’s career. The non-military partner may begin to feel like their own goals always come second, and that they’re lacking a clear identity or sense of purpose.
Conflict in Military Relationships
These obstacles and others can put greater-than-average stress on military relationships, and can lead to conflict for military couples. The non-military partner may feel resentful, and like their sacrifices for the relationship are going unrecognized. The military partner may feel like their hands are tied, and like their partner doesn’t understand military culture and its constraints.
What’s more, military training can affect the way service members approach conflict, which can be frustrating for their partner. A military member may stonewall, or “yes sir, yes ma’am” their way through an argument, as if they were dealing with a drill sergeant rather than their partner.
Communicating with someone who shuts down isn’t easy. It can leave your partner feeling emotionally invalidated and unheard. They’ll feel like they have to work harder if they want to get their point across, which tends to escalate arguments.
Military members may need to practice “removing their armor” and allowing themselves to engage with their partner’s feelings, and expressing their own feelings from a place of openness and vulnerability.
Keeping Your Military Relationship Strong
Whether you’ve been together for years, or you’ve just started dating, it’s a good idea to set realistic expectations for your relationship, especially when it comes to how you’ll maintain your connection while your partner is away.
Just like any couple in a long-distance relationship, you should have conversations about how often you’ll communicate, how you’ll communicate, and what would help you both feel connected, loved, and secure in your relationship. (If you’re not sure, learning about your love languages with our love languages quiz is a good place to start.)
And, keep in mind that just because you’re not physically together doesn’t mean you can’t work on your relationship. Many couples counselors offer long-distance couples counseling to help your relationship grow, even while you’re apart.
The non-military partner may be faced with some major decisions while their partner is deployed. What if they need to move? Or buy a new car? Or change their kids’ school? Have conversations about the kinds of decisions that are likely to arise while you’re separated, and try to get on the same page about how to handle them if you’re not able to make these decisions together.
It’s also a good idea to make a plan for “re-entry” once the military partner returns from deployment. It can be difficult to begin living together again after one partner has had the home all to themselves for a long period of time. If you have children, they’ll probably need some time to adjust to having both parents in the home again as well. If you can anticipate these challenges and plan for them, they’ll be easier to manage when they arise.
Getting Help for Your Military Relationship
Many military couples struggle to find effective help for their relationship. Finding a good couples counselor can be a challenge in any case, but finding one who understands the complex challenges of a military relationship is even rarer. Seeking out a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who has experience working with military couples and families is a smart move. Better yet, choose an LMFT who has served in the military themself.
It’s especially important to work with a qualified professional if you suspect there is a mental health component to the problems in your relationship, such as PTSD or substance abuse. This is no time to get involved with a self-branded life coach with no relevant training. You deserve real help — for yourself, your partner, and for your family.
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[03:27] Military Relationships and their Unique Challenges
- The demands in time, energy, and effort, whether it’s active or reserve duty, are substantial. It also depends on their role and their unit.
- Non-military partners may struggle with a sense of purpose and identity, especially if their life is organized around their partner’s career.
- Negative feelings like resentment may rise from unappreciated or unreciprocated sacrifices.
- Military members will sometimes struggle to make their partner feel like a priority in life.
[11:13] How Mental Health and Communication Problems Show Up in Military Couples
- You see the full gamut of mental health issues in the military. Common problems include PTSD, substance abuse, and depression.
- Military members may shut down or “yes, sir/ma’am” their way through arguments.
- Members of the military tend to not take off their “armor” at home.
[19:55] Long Distance Relationships in the Military
- Unmet and unset expectations cause a lot of friction in relationships.
- Re-entry can be difficult for members of the military who come back home. Their partners have set up routines, and they may feel like a stranger in their own house.
- Military relationships also have strength and resiliency to deal with topics or events that non-military relationships may struggle with.
- Strengths include having an identity outside the relationship and a certain level of independence for both parties.
[31:44] Lessons from Military Couples Counseling: Best Practices and Recommendations
- Determine the needs behind the frustrations of your partner. Ask questions with curiosity instead of judgment.
- Be curious about you and your partner’s responses and reactions.
- Don’t always assume what is not articulated. You and your partner are not mind readers.
- Conflict can also come from how you communicate.
- It takes practice to hit the brakes on your relationships habits and to be curious and intentional.
[38:10] Why Couples Counseling Matters to Military Relationships
- We develop relationship habits growing up. We establish them as norms without realizing they are harmful to our relationships.
- Couples counseling can be useful for anybody. It’s not just for couples who have serious problems.
- Active duty or former members of the military have a high risk of developing certain mental health problems.
- Working with a qualified couples counselor can help you resolve problems within your relationship.
Music in this episode is by Metallica with their song “Unforgiven.” You can support them and their work by visiting their website here: https://www.metallica.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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