Military Relationships

Military Relationships

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. 

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Grow, Together.

Our authentic relationship experts know how to help you learn, grow, and move forward into a bright new chapter.

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. 

Frequent Moves  

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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Military Relationships

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Episode Highlights

[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.

Lisa Marie Bobby: Jesse, thank you so much for your willingness to come here today and talk with me about military relationships. I really appreciate it. 

Jesse: I’m so happy to be here. Thank you for having me. 

Lisa: So if it’s okay, I’d love to start this conversation by just helping our listeners understand a little bit about your background and why people in the military or who are in love with someone in the military has turned into such a passion for you professionally.

Jesse: Absolutely. So yeah, I am in the Connecticut National Guard, I am a First Sergeant for the 1/41 medical company ground ambulance unit. I’ve been in the military now for 20 years, I actually was headed toward a career in medical in some way, being a military medic. While I was doing that, I got the opportunity to have a bunch of different trainings that the military thought were very important for medical providers to have, some of which being the suicide intervention program, assists through living works — I got trained as a trainer for that. I also became a master resiliency trainer in the military, the University of Pennsylvania School of positive psychology put together like this big resiliency program, which the military adopted version of for themselves.

The military thought it was very important that members of the military be equipped with tools for helping you deal with like stress and anxiety and all the different things that life throws at you. So I became a trainer for all of these things, and I really enjoyed it, like a lot, the getting the opportunity to deal with different types of wounds, if you will, as a medic. If somebody got hurt, I know what to do. I’m like, “oh, there’s a broken leg,” or “they sprained an ankle” or hey receive some other type of injury, or I got a plan, and it was due. 

But I feel like so many people have wounds that you can’t see as far as the mental health things. I was really intrigued by that, and then I started looking into actually changing what I was doing. I started looking at graduate programs to become a therapist, and, in particular, marriage and family therapy was the one that kind of drew me. I have a belief that our relationships are very foundational in our lives. If our relationship is going really well, right, it equips you to be able to deal with whatever life throws at you, whether it be work, things going on in our country, friends, family, etc. If our relationships aren’t very stable, and if they’re not going well, right after getting through with 10 rounds out in the world, going and doing 10 rounds at home, really, it’s just so much harder to deal with everything. I’ve seen a lot of that in the military.

As you can imagine, there’s a lot of stresses on a relationship for anybody who’s in the military, regardless of whether it’s active duty or the reserve component. And I was like, “Wow, if I can do something to help people have happy, healthy, safe relationships, you know, I can impact their life in so many ways.” So that’s where I ended up really, really specializing and working with couples and building relationships.

Lisa: Oh, that’s awesome. Thank you so much for sharing that, and I completely agree that relationships are so foundational. We need that connection, that soft place to fall, and it’s such a important part of overall wellness, and like resiliency. It is also true that military relationships have some unique challenges, don’t they?

Military Relationships and Their Unique Challenges

Jesse: The demands and time and energy and effort, whether it’s active duty, reserves, can be quite substantial. Also, depending on the role that that person has in this particular unit. You miss a lot of you miss a lot of important things, and sometimes significant others don’t understand why you can’t like take a day off, or why you have to be there for this particular thing. It can sort of start to get in the way.

Lisa: Yeah, like with any other sort of job or a career, you have a certain level of autonomy that in some ways you don’t in the military, even if you know your partner has needs. Or there’s some personal thing going on, you have these obligations, and you have to be there. That means a lot of time away.

Jesse: Yeah, and I’ll say, I think from my personal experience, at least, I believe that that culture in the military is getting better. But obviously, for anybody listening, they might have a different experience. But I know, perhaps it’s because of the nature of my work and who I am, but I try to be very understanding of the things that people are going through in their life and that they do have a life outside of the military.

In the guard, for example, it’s a part-time commitment. You know, it’s very important one but you know, things come up and where I can give latitude for people to be present for their families and things like that, right. I’m going to try to do that. I think it also not only helps them  balance that life of military and personal life but also, if they feel supported byy their unit and they feel like it’s it’s okay for them to have needs and outside of the military and if we can meet them, then I’m going to try to do that. Morale goes up, right? People who are happy tend to stay around longer and do better jobs

Lisa: Tell us about some of the things that you’ve seen in your experience as a marriage and family therapist specializing in military relationships — so a lot of the time away, less flexibility, and perhaps other variables, too. But what do you perceive as being the consequence, the things that people in military relationships often feel or struggle with that we might be able to help them with?

Jesse: Sure. You know, I think it’s from two different lenses that we can look at it. One is from the military member themselves, and then also the other would be the spouse or the significant other. In thinking about the the spouses or significant others that are in the military, because there’s also dual military relationships and have their own challenges. But for the spouse or the significant other that’s not in, a lot of times they can have the sense of a lack of identity because the military member’s life and career really dominates their relationship.

Lisa: Yeah, I could see that.

Jesse: They get moved around a bunch. It’s hard for them to sometimes hold down a career of their own, depending on what their job is. They get uprooted frequently, or sometimes they have to then also be solo parent or solo person for long periods of time. Sometimes they struggle with a sense of purpose, like, “What is my purpose outside of I’m the spouse of Captain so and so?”

Lisa: I could see that because it’s like their life, in a very real way, is organized around their partner’s career. For basic things like your home, to your friend group to your own career to what your life is like day-to-day must feel like it’s of secondary importance, in some ways, to your your partner’s career aspirations. I may be projecting here, Jessie, as I often do, but I am wondering if that leads people to feel resentful after a while? I mean, is that the feeling? Or is it more that lack of purpose, like, who am I, I don’t have my own identity? Because I couldn’t imagine feeling actively bad about that.

Jesse: Oh, yeah. I’ve seen it both, but certainly I think resentment can sort of build in, and then we know that resentment is one of those… Resentment and contempt and things like that are really toxic to relationships. There’s this feeling of “I’ve sacrificed so much for you, for this relationship,” and if it’s not being appreciated or reciprocated in some way or acknowledged in some way, it can really start to lead to negative feelings that they’re having about their spouse, their relationship, everything that’s going on.

Lisa: Oh, yeah. Oh, my gosh. That just like put things into crystal clear focus for me, Jesse, when you said that, because it’s like in a normal relationship, everybody has ups and downs and periods where your partner isn’t being quite as gratifying as you would like them to be. But I could totally see being in a military relationship, if your partner is, I don’t know, being sort of garden variety annoying with everything that you have sacrificed to make this work for them, and now you’re not being the most perfect partner in some ways.That would feel very fraught, wouldn’t it? I mean, there must be a lot of pressure on the military person.

Jesse: I think so. And I think a lot of times the military person just wants their partner to understand the culture that’s happening, and a lot of times their hands are kind of tied with a lot of the things that are going on. hey will struggle sometimes to make their partner feel like a priority in life. And it’s important to try to do that because the demands of their time are so great.

Lisa: Definitely. Do you find a sense of helplessness, I’m curious, though, if you find that military people partnered with people who are not in the military almost feel like they need to be a more extra special, perfect partner and almost don’t have enough as much leeway to have sort of normal human imperfections.

I mean, I’m just sitting here thinking about somebody’s deployed for half a year or their partner is on their third move in a year, whatever it is. Then you have the military person, you’re just having one of those days and they don’t feel like doing anything and they’re sitting on the couch all day playing video games, and they don’t really feel like talking. In a normal relationship, that would be like maybe low level annoying, but it in a military relationship, I could really see it being like World War 3. Like, how dare you? Did they have to be more perfect?

Jesse: I think certainly it’s one of those things in the back of the mind. I think as long as the… I don’t like seeing, in any relationship, people weaponize things against their partners. Certainly I can see the the spouse or the significant other, at times, and they reach that high level of frustration or resentment, utilizing the fact that they’ve uprooted their life, their career, et cetera, to hitch their wagon to the ship that is going in random directions. “I gave up this for you, and I’ve done this for you,” and they weaponize that. I think that’s not generally constructive, in most relationships, to do that. I try to get people to not…

Lisa: Yeah, but I could see how that dynamic, there’s maybe more of a vulnerability, and then I can’t help but think that just sprinkle in a little law, post traumatic stress in there with the military — and I don’t know how prevalent that is in the military population — but it’s not uncommon for people to go through some really hard things.

How Mental Health and Communication Problems Show Up in Military Couples

Jesse: Yeah, I think you see the full gamut of mental health issues in the military. It’s a microcosm of the world, right. So we have a lot of that. Certainly, depending on their particular experiences, they may have PTSD, there might be substance abuse issues, there might be all these types of things that go on that certainly can make things more difficult.

And then especially, there’s a great stigma about treatment. That’s the other thing that can certainly get in the way, right? Whether it be the stigma about, “What will the military think about me trying to get treatment or help for these either individual issues?” or even just go into couples counseling and everything, or even just culturally, you whether it be men we’re thinking about, stereotypes, right? Men do not typically reach out for as much help in the mental health realm or not as in touch with our emotions, theoretically, because of the messaging that they received growing up.

The military certainly has a spectrum of very masculine… It’s like this masculine guy thing, right? Where you’re in the military, you’re strong, you’re tough. You’re not showing your emotions. Getting someone like that, that has that messaging growing up, to be vulnerable with their partner or be vulnerable to go ahead and do that work can be sometimes challenging.

Lisa: Yeah, definitely. Yeah, I could understand that being a barrier. That was interesting to me. Just for our listeners, I had the great privilege of attending a training, Jesse, that you hosted for our group the other week talking about military culture. It was just so fascinating to me, like, just the different stratifications and sort of roles that somebody can have in the military. There’s even this whole other language and I was curious to know how you— I could see there being many positive things coming from that life experience in that culture. But also, if you could say more about what you’ve observed with that over the years about how that can show up in people’s relationships in a way that is not helpful and that they might not even be aware of?

Jesse: Sure. You know, one thing that, certainly one thing that can happen I’ve seen is in the process of having a fight or argument, disagreement or something, the military member will frequently shut down. They’ll kind of be like, “Yes, ma’am” or “Yes, sir” their way out of arguments and sort of agreeing and not engaging in everything right there, their partner might escalate, and then they’re like, I just don’t want to deal with this, you know? That lack of communication there can frequently happen.

Lisa: Do you think that’s amplified because of their military experience? Because that is not an uncommon dynamic in couples anyway, but you think it’s more so?

Jesse: Sure. I think so. I think, even myself, personally, I think there have been times in my life and relationships where my partner wasn’t pleased about something, and maybe they were reacting in a way that wasn’t ideal or they’re angry.

Then I just, “Yes, ma’am” my way out or get into my military — there’s almost like a body language shift as the argument progresses. You can tell that you’re completely checked out. You’re like, “Nope, I’m not going to engage in this,” and especially when someone’s yelling at me or something like that, and you just nod your way through and not engaged, right? Then that ends up being like an unhealthy style of communication, not being able to engage with whatever it is that’s going on or addressing underlying need that your partner has at the moment.

Lisa: Yeah, and kind of almost conditioned, because in really intense situations, to shut down the emotional piece and go into a mindset of whatever I need to do to get through this with the least amount of damage possible. I could see that.

Whereas, in contrast, what we know around healthy communication is that, as challenging as it is, we have to stay connected to our feelings, at least to a degree in those moments in order to be able to respond in an empathetic way. So you’re saying that sometimes it can be harder for military members who’ve had a lot of training around “gotta get through this”?

Jesse:  Yeah, absolutely. I also try to emphasize to people too, and this goes whether you’re in the military or not in the military. We leave the door, right, we go out into the world, we go to our jobs, we put on our armor, per se, to go out into the world. And certainly, the military, if we talk about some of this is stereotypes but for a reason because certainly the culture is stigmatizing feelings and stigmatizing having those emotional responses and everything or that vulnerability. You got to be very strong, air quotes, need to be strong.

But then they come home, and they don’t take off that gruff exterior. They still maintain those beliefs, whether they actually are thinking that or instinctual bad habits from being raised that way. They don’t take that off, right, and they’re that way with their spouse as well. I always tell people, “Look, I don’t care what you’re feeling and doing as far as everybody else, but the one person that I would love for you to be able to be a little bit vulnerable with, the one person that you can take off that armor with and just be real and connect, be softer with, I want that to be your partner.” That one person. Everybody else, right, put on the armor, do the thing. But when you come home, that should be the one person that you can connect to.

Lisa: Yeah, definitely. This is interesting, and we’ve talked about this on past shows, I think that in many ways, men kind of get get the short end of the stick in some ways in terms of their socialization around communication, around the emotional intelligence, their feelings. I think that we have this toxic masculinity culture in America, in general. And oftentimes, we need to work, especially with men, to help them reclaim their emotional, all of their capacities.

Because I am firmly of the opinion that men are just as emotional and just as aware, and just as communicative, and have just as many needs for connection as women do but have not always had the opportunity to develop those in the same way as women. So that’s just a foundational thing, but now, I think I’m hearing you say that sometimes by virtue of going into the military, particularly maybe as a young man or teenager, 18, 20, that that that could be amplified and make it more pronounced? Is that the right way to say it? 

Jesse: Absolutely. Yeah, and if you think about it, too, somebody’s coming into the military as young as seven years old, you could go to boot camp with your parental consent at that age or certainly 18 and everything. You’re still forming who you are and depending on the culture of the units that you’re in, certain things are going to be celebrated, or certain things are going to be frowned upon, and you kind of build that into part of your identity. And then we’re gonna form, jump into relationships.

Certainly, at that age, we barely know how to how to function in a relationship, it’s a lot of trial and error, and everything is early adult life, figuring those things out. Then we make mistakes, right? We don’t know how to communicate our feelings, and struggling with that really impacts a relationship. On top of that, lets us add in deployments to places that are very dangerous, or even without that, just the demands about going into different military schools. Every year, you could be gone for a couple of weeks here, a couple of weeks there, a month or two here, right? It’s going into some of these things you do to effectively have this long distance relationship dynamic as well.

Lisa: A little bit more about that. Particularly, I’m imagining the early stages of building a relationship. The first year or three, that a lot of that is in a long distance kind of context. What that does, do you think, to the foundational creation of a relationship that starts with somebody, at least one person, being in those circumstances?

Long Distance Relationships in the Military

Jesse: Yeah, you know, especially early on, you start to learn about or get the sense of “I cannot rely on them to be there sometimes because they’re going to be gone.” Then also just building in how do we stay connected while we’re far away? What does that connection look like? What are the expectations? Unmet, unset expectations are something that really causes a lot of friction in relationships.

While I’m away for that three month school that I have to go to halfway across the country, what are your expectations of how often we’re going to communicate? Is it going to be by phone? Or is it going to be by FaceTime? What are your expectations on what I’m doing when I’m off duty, the people I’m hanging out with and things going on there? What are my expectations of how often you’re going to be available to talk? How do we navigate that, and how do we make big decisions when you can’t be reached?

Sometimes that military spouse or partner has to make decisions without their partners input, whether they’re gone for a school that they might not have high level of contact with, or they’re overseas somewhere, and then that that person starts to build a culture on their own in their relationship. Then the military member comes back, and things are not the way they used to be, or they’re being done a certain way, and they almost feel like an outsider or guests in their own home.

Lisa: I could see that. Wow. Okay. Listening to it, there’s so much to unpack here. If we break this down almost into different stages of relationship, like you were talking at first about somebody, or a couple maybe being in an earlier stage relationship also needing to have pretty in-depth conversations that maybe a lot of couples don’t around what are your expectations for how we maintain our connection, let’s talk about your love language.

But I’m almost even seeing that as being almost a very productive and positive growth opportunity, especially for a young couple who’s really has to have conversations like that if they want to have a partnership that endures. It’s much easier to date somebody and not have any of those conversations. But I wonder if that’s almost like a strength for some couples who start in that way?

Jesse: Certainly, right. Certainly, I think there there are… We talk a lot about some of the challenges, but I think military relationships also do have a certain level of strength and resiliency to deal with topics or events that happen that non-military relationships would be much more of a struggle. Because it doesn’t happen very often. It’s like your partner’s going away for a year, like, “what?” In most relationships, that would be unheard of to be able to do that. But military relationships, that’s part of the job, it’s part of what the expectations are. You build on these strengths of, “Oh, yeah we’re used to this. We’re used to them being away periodically. We’re used to them being gone on a short notice sometimes,” or things like that. 

We kind of build on those strengths to be able to handle that. For me, there are times in my life, especially depending on what’s going on in the world where I would be, I’d be dating, and I’d be like, “So just so you’re aware, I’m in the military, and I have demands on my time that are going to take me away periodically, and I’m gone guaranteed every year, that’s gonna be a couple of weeks out of the way. I could get activated and deployed overseas or wherever or something. How are you with that? Is that a thing that you can wrap your mind around?” I’ve had some people that would tell me, “I couldn’t handle if my partner was away for a week,” and I’m like, “This is not going to work.”

Lisa: Yeah, but that’s good, though, to have this like authentic conversations. Also, I could see a real strength for a couple having this certain level of independence and autonomy kind of baked baked into it. I mean, you would really need to have your own inner life in some ways that is different, maybe, than a couple who was able to live together all the time, or be together all the time, because you don’t have that. So you would need to have other stuff going on.

Jesse: And I would want that for any relationship.

Lisa: Of course, that’s a health factor.

Jesse: Definitely. It’s very healthy to be able to have an identity outside of your relationship and things that keep you occupied, interested, thriving that don’t have anything to do with your partner. That certain level of independence, I think, is really healthy overall. So you don’t put everything in the relationship basket because then if, for some reason, the relationship doesn’t work out, then we’re starting at zero and really talking about an identity crisis at that point.

Lisa: Yeah, for sure. Oh, and another thing and this may not be true, this this could be an outdated statistic, but as we’re talking, I think I heard somewhere that military couples or people in the military tended to marry younger than the rest of the population or have less of a courtship phase than some other kind of demographics. I’m wondering, A) is that true to your knowledge, and B) if it is, is there sort of this systemic pressure to marry in order to be able to have your partner move with you or live on a base where you’re stationed out? Are those things available to just committed couples? Or do you have to be married in order to do those things together?

Jesse: Yeah, so it’s interesting. I have not been privy to like actual statistics on the age of military members getting married. However, there are a lot of jokes and stereotypes about it. It’s got to be rooted in some some level of truth, if you will. Certainly, I have definitely know people who have gotten married because they’re going on a deployment, and their spouse is then covered or has certain certain benefits available to them. That can certainly drive some of it, whether it be the the separation pay, the benefits of getting them on their health insurance, or benefits of if you’re moving around, they will pack your spouse with you and everything. Your girlfriend, the military, unfortunately doesn’t care as much about because there’s nothing there binding you together, right?

Lisa: I was just curious if that kind of systemically nudges people towards getting married before would have otherwise in terms of their readiness or having gone through the process of making sure that this is my person before they get married, and if that ever leads to consequences down the road. Maybe, I guess we could speculate. 

Jesse: Absolutely.

Lisa: Yeah. So opportunities for more intimacy and getting to know each other in a different way. But‌ also, yeah, kind of push to maybe sign up for a different level of commitment sooner rather than later.

But also interesting what you were bringing up a little bit ago to about the dynamic where if someone is deployed or away for a long period of time, and there is this necessity to be operating really independently, particularly for the partner that is home, and certainly if there are like kids involved, making the decisions, running the show, that when the military person who kind of comes back into that system is almost like — what’s the word I’m looking for? Not like a new person — but if the non-military spouse has it all locked down, has a certain way of doing things, that it could feel like, I would think, a difficult reentry to have another personality or set of preferences dropping in every once in a while and having opinions about the way the dishwasher is loaded, that kind of thing.

Jesse: Oh, yeah. It goes from big things, right? Major decisions about the house, like, “Hey, we needed to replace a roof while you’re gone, and I just had to get it done.” To, like you said, “How are we loading the dishwasher?” Or how are we disciplining the children? Or what kind routines, as you can imagine. Especially if someone has a been operating as a single parent now for a long period of time, six months to a year, they develop routines. They have their way of doing things, right? This is the bedtime routine, and this is their extracurricular activity routine. I pick this person up here, and I do this here or whatever. Then suddenly, the spouse comes back, and how do they fit into that equation? They want to do something a certain way. It’s the way that we’ve done it for the last year.

Sometimes people have that struggle about reentry, that on top of whatever their experiences have been, but just also just that aspect of coming home, it can be very challenging. The military does, I will say, there are resources available. There is help in that process that the military attempts to do because they recognize that, over time, hey, you know, just like isn’t PTSD wasn’t a thing years ago, right? That wasn’t a diagnosed thing, but they’re like, hey, these soldiers are having these issues, what’s happening? I think the military has also recognized this transition process is, it can be difficult. What can we do to equip soldiers with the tools necessary in their families, with the tools to make that transition process as easy as possible?

Lisa: That’s wonderful. I’m so glad that there’s energy and resources going into that direction.

Jesse: Yeah, and I encourage anybody, if you’re in a military relationship — again, it doesn’t matter if it’s guard reserves, active duty — there are a mountain of resources available out there for people. There are people that is waiting to help you. We are waiting to point you in the right direction for the resources that you can utilize, whether that be mental health resource, financial resources, you know, things for your children to do, get involved in camps or activities and meet other military kids. Stuff like that. There’s like so much out there. I really think that not enough people take advantage of them either, because maybe they don’t know about them, or they don’t know, either that they exist or don’t know how to utilize them.

Lisa: Yeah, well, that’s awesome to know.  In some ways, there are circumstances that are certainly more challenging, but like you were talking about in the beginning, it’s almost like having this other person in your relationship, that there’s also a lot of support from this other person in your relationship. That you don’t just have to rely on your partner, that you are in this system as well, and that’s a real strength.

I know I’ve been talking about a lot of different facets of this experience, but would it be okay to ask you about your professional recommendations as a couples counselor? Some of the most common things that you’ve seen military couples struggling with, and obviously, I know this is a podcast, and people who come in to you for couples counseling, it is a month long process. So we’re not going to meet everybody’s needs in this conversation. But I am curious if you’d be willing to share just some ideas or tips or practices that you’ve seen could really be helpful for couples or families struggling with some of the issues we’ve been talking about today?

Lessons from Military Couples Counseling: Best Practices and Recommendations

Jesse: One of the first things I like to talk about with couples is really trying to figure out what’s the need that isn’t being expressed in whatever it is that your partner is expressing frustration about. There’s usually some underlying need, want, desire, differences in priority — things like that. That can certainly help a lot. If I could tattoo one word on every person, every couple, that I ever worked with, it would be the word curiosity. I believe that when you’re curious, you’re asking questions, and when you’re asking questions, you’re usually not judging your partner. Because judgment is cancer in a relationship. It gets in the way of compromise; it makes you not feel good about your partner in everything. But if I’m curious, I’m asking questions.

That curiosity goes a couple of different ways. One, I think the base level of curiosity is how was your day type of questioning. You get barely get a passing score. You’re like, okay, they are curious about something in their life. But there’s all that, like, what makes them happy? What’s something that they find fulfilling about their job? Who is their enemy? All those things.

But also, I want to get curious about if I say or do something that causes my partner to have a reaction or bristle in some way. I want to be curious, why is it that that made them upset? What about what I did caused them frustration. In a curious way, right? I want to figure that out. Or if I bristle if my partner does something, before I react, I say take a breath in the marriage. It’s like one of the things I say.

Lisa: It’s another thing to get tattooed on yourself.

Jesse: Before I react, I want to be curious about myself. Why is it that that was frustrating? Thenif there was a difference between saying to your partner, “That upset me, I’m mad.” I was like, “Okay, thank you for letting me know. But I need more information than that.” Versus, “Hey, when you call me that pet name that I find so annoying and you never stop calling me, it reminds me of my ex-wife. And every time I think about her, I get really frustrated. So every time you say that, it puts me in that place. Right now it’s like, “Oh, there’s a reason why that upset you. It seems like a random example. It certainly helps if you can get an understanding of what your partner is going through, what their needs are. It can drive a lot of good conversation and good connection with your partner.

The other thing is that we fall into a series of thinking traps. The two most common ones that I see in, you know, anybody, certainly, it would be mind reading. “I believe I know what my partner is thinking without them actually articulating that.”

Lisa: I totally do that.

Jesse: So that mind reading one is really big. It also shows up in the “You should know that already. I shouldn’t have to tell you that.”

Lisa: My husband does that one. We make a great team.

Jesse: I certainly would ask questions. That’s, again, the curiosity piece. That’s a big one. For thinking traps, you fall into that and jumping to negative conclusions with our partners. Probably one of the most controversial things I’ll say to people is that your partner is actually rarely wrong, which usually people would raise an eyebrow. There’s an asterisk there. There are certain things that are black and white issues. So when we’re talking about abuse — it doesn’t belong in any relationship — lying, infidelity, making unilateral decisions, breaking agreements that you’ve made with other violations of privacy, right? Those things are just wrong. I think most of us should be able to objectively stand back and go, yeah, don’t cheat on your partner, don’t lie to your partner, don’t abuse your partner. 

But how you load the dishwasher, we talk about the thing before. How you load the dishwasher is not a right or wrong issue? We tend to argue with our partners about these things as if it is, you know… If I want to load the dishes on that side, you want to load on that side, at the end of the day, in a bubble, it’s not going to stop the world, but will‌ burn a lot of relationship currency to be right. I think Esther Perel said in one of her TED Talks, “You can be right, or you can be married.”

Lisa: That’s a really good reminder. And I think, too, I think you’re touching on something that’s so important in relationships of any kind, but I think especially the military relationships are understanding that everybody has their own internal experience, and that whatever they’re thinking or feeling really does make sense to them. Because I think a lot of times that conflict comes from the way people are communicating. They are actually feeling something and what they’re expressing to you. It’s not even what they’re saying sometimes. It’s the way they’re saying it. It does actually always makes sense to them. Like what you’re saying about that curiosity, what is coming up for you right now around, it seems like you’re having a reaction to something, tell me more. So I love that advice.

I could also see, though, how it requires really a fair amount of like psychological mindedness and emotional intelligence for the person on the other side of that to say, “you know what, I am feeling XYZ” — because that might not be conscious — “and I think it is because of this thing that happened with my ex-wife. And so I probably do have a reaction.”

To be able to communicate that to somebody, you have to connect a lot of dots and like what we were talking about before, and particularly, again, not to overgeneralize, but‌ maybe many men, socialized to not know how to do that. Then being in a system that does not make that any better, at the very least, may really struggle to be able to understand their own inner experience to the point where they’re able to articulate it to another person in a way that makes sense. That is a really hard situation. 

Jesse: It’s difficult, right? I mean, we talked about a [inaudible] here. Just tell your partner why you feel that way.

Lisa: Exactly. We’re both therapists, Jesse, like, we can do that all day.

Why Couples Counseling Matters to Military Relationships

Jesse: It takes a great deal of practice. We have habits in relationships that have been built up through what we learned from watching our parents’ relationship and what we learned through trial and error as a kid’, and etc. Then we establish these norms, and then we don’t even realize sometimes what they are. Then we react reflexively when our partner says or does something we don’t like. So it’s hard to hit the brakes on that and be like, “Hold on, let me be curious right now.” It takes a lot of work and effort to really do that unconscious work.

I think couples counseling can be useful for anybody. You don’t necessarily need to have… The car doesn’t need to be on fire to bring it to the mechanic. You can bring it in for regular maintenance. I think you can gain a lot of value from that, especially if you’re already predisposed to having challenges in the relationship like with military couples. There’s built in struggles that they’re going to have, whether because like, again, the military is the mistress in the relationship, if you will, that is going to steal your partner from time to time, you have this long distance aspect, you have like the stigma around getting mental health treatment in general, you know, substance abuse, high rates of suicide. All that is going on in a very stressful job environment that is sometimes difficult to just understand or know what it’s like to do that.

Lisa: Yeah, a good reminder too, that curiosity to even maybe the the non-military partner to be able to say, “My partner is having a very interesting reaction to me or the situation right now. Why does that make sense?” I wonder why that would be, in a way, that’s sort of more empathetic and tolerant as opposed to judgmental to use the word that you were talking about previously, because people really do always make sense. I could understand to how almost a more intentional understanding for your military partner’s experience, well, on both sides, but would go a long way.

For example, one of the things that I’d loved to just ask you about for the benefit of our listeners, post-traumatic stress disorder is common across the board, but particularly in military populations. Also, things like depression and anxiety are very common. All of those things can look different in men, particularly, than women. And again, not to stereotype, and many active duty service members are men much of the time, although I’m sure that women can have all these experiences as well. But what would your — not advice —- but perspective be to perhaps a non-military partner to help them understand if maybe there is a trauma response or mental health thing that’s coming up for their military partner, just to be able to, “Okay, this is part of what’s going on. Maybe this is an opportunity to support my partner and to getting help, rather than being mad at them for behaving weirdly towards me.”

Jesse: I think, first being on the depression piece, I would say, in men, it may look differently. And I think you bring up a really good point and a lot of military members, a lot of them are male. You’ll see a lot of times anger or aggressiveness, is one of those things, very, very typical thing, and substance abuse, as well is another one that really could be a big sign of like, “oh, this might be some depression going on here.”

As far as the piece that goes with the PTSD, one of the things that I think you’ll see, the two ones that I really am paying very close attention to right is those intrusive thoughts that are very common, as well as like hyper vigilance is another thing, and it kind of expresses itself in some very fascinating ways. That hyper vigilance could be “I’m always on alert for danger.” Very frequently, you will see that members of the military, when they go to a restaurant with friends, they need to sit so that nobody is coming up from behind them and that they’re facing, you can see the entrances, for example That is like a very low level, lightweight, light hypervigilance thing. It’s very interesting, and then you, when you got your military buddies, you’re all looking at each other, like, we’re gonna get that corner seat that we all covet. But you’re with your buddies, right? So you’re actually a little safer. You’re like, “Okay, I know, they got my back.”. Right. It’s very fascinating.

Lisa: You’re there with your squad. All right.

Jesse: But you know, I’ve been with partners who they know exactly what seat I want when we go out to eat together. So it’s fascinating. So I would certainly say that that hyper vigilance piece, that intrusive thoughts piece, it’s gonna be the ones that are very easy to, easier to see, I would say. And then also where I would really pay attention to, how are they expressing their emotions? Are there angry outbursts or aggression? Are they’re self-medicating through alcohol, for example? Are they shutting themselves in and all they do is they just play video games all day, and they’re not engaging socially with people anymore? Irritable things like that.

Lisa: Yeah, that’s a really good reminder. Again, because I think in relationships, it can be so easy to see what‌ people are doing and attribute it to their‌ character, or he’s a bad communicator or whatnot. But especially to be looking at things like that, irritability, explosiveness, anger or withdrawal, that’s really outside the norm, and be able to say, maybe there’s something else going on. There’s been a lot in the media and the news, and I think it’s a very positive thing, about suicidality in particular in military members. Why — and this is a big question, I don’t mean to put you on the spot — but I’m curious, your opinions as to why many active duty or former members of the military are at such high risk of suicide in particular?

Jesse: That’s a tough question in some ways. I’ve personally been affected by it. I have more friends than I wish that I could list off that have died by suicide. And I want to say I, probably, most members of the military also have that same experience. I think it comes from a variety of places, right? One is certainly this feeling of this lack of being able to do something about whatever it is that’s happening to them. I think the high demands of their job and the things that people have done, like that PTSD element, certainly is there, and not having that support for it. 

But, you know, again, I think the military is doing a much better job now of destigmatizing mental health care, about giving people resources to prevent suicide, and trying to take care of people better. The other thing too, is if we look at it, and I don’t know the numbers for this myself offhand, but if we look at the amount of men versus women who are dying by suicide in the military — just speaking of statistics — it’s going to likely be much, much higher in men. Then also, in men, they have a higher rate of suicide completion because of the methods that they typically choose for it. They access a firearm, things like that, much more violent methods of suicide that have higher rate of success. So I think you’re gonna see that as well, as far as the statistics go. 

It’s a problem that we’re still trying to address. I’ll say this, too, right? No matter how good you have all the support in the world, all these things, there are still people that are going to die by suicide, unfortunately. It’s tough trying to catch the ball, right?

Lisa: Absolutely. The terrible thing, suicide and depression, really, is that it really takes over someone’s brain and starts telling them things that aren’t true, but it feels true to them around it’s hopeless, helpless, never going to be better, all these terrible things. Because of that, people who are in that space or entering that space really do need help from the outside frequently. Can you just say a little bit about what to be watching for if you are partnered with someone in the military, or your child or brother or sister or friend is a military member. What are some of those warning signs that you, as their loved one, would need to say, “Okay, it’s time to do something to help them.” That they might not want, and we’re doing it anyway.

Watching for Signs of Depression in Members of the Military

Jesse: It’s weird, and maybe it’s because of the nature of our work, I feel like I heard this so, so many times, like “what are the warning signs?” If people start giving away their possessions, or they start talking about what we’d be like if they weren’t here, or you’ll see them isolate, and acting different, kind of cutting themselves off from people. But then also, sometimes there’s a weird moment of things seem really, really great. Because if they have a lot of these problems, they’re like, “oh, I have a solution to this problem.” Kind of like a release moment where you might not see certain signs like that, or you might be like, “Oh, things were getting better.”

I think, certainly, really just paying attention to your partner and being curious is going to be one of those things, and also not being afraid to ask them very direct questions about it. Are you having thoughts of suicide? Are you thinking about killing yourself? And being very, extremely direct about it. You’re not going to put the idea in someone’s head. You’re not going toask the question, and they’re gonna be like, “Wow, man, I haven’t thought about that before.” 

Often times, people who are who are in that river, right, headed down the river of suicide and everything, they will have a sense of relief when someone opens the door for that conversation. Because it’s difficult to have that turn to somebody be like, “Hey, I’m thinking about killing myself or harming myself in some way.” But somebody opens that door, it’s like, “Oh, I can talk about this now.” Then you can have that conversation about what is their story, right? What is their suicide story? What is it that got them here? What is it that’s going to keep them safe for now? 

That’s one of the things I would say if you have a loved one who is struggling like that. One of the first things is like, “what can I do to keep them safe for now?” What’s the life jacket for the moment so that we can get them to a higher level of care and get them to see a therapist or get them to see somebody?

Lisa: Yep, definitely. And I will say, and I’m imagining that you share this perspective, because you and I are marriage and family therapist, so we take a systemic view of mental health as well as relationship improvement. I think it’s just important for this conversation to let our listeners know that while many times people think of marriage and family therapy as an avenue for improving relationships, which it absolutely is, and that has a curative benefit on its own, there are also forms of behavioral health care that are delivered through marriage and family therapy that are evidence-based treatments for things like depression, anxiety and trauma.

Just particularly if you have a partner who is maybe resistant to the idea of going and signing themselves up for therapy, it is absolutely acceptable and can be very beneficial to do that with them. So to be making the appointment to go in for family therapy with your partner, and working with them because at the end of the day, even if they do have a depression diagnosis or a trauma diagnosis, it is both of your problem. It is within both of your power to fix together through the systemic work that you could do it.

So I just wanted to say that out loud, because particularly with, I would imagine, with this population, it might be a harder sell to get them to go off on their own and see a therapist compared to maybe doing it with a partner or family member, but I don’t know if that’s been your experience.

Jesse: When I think about, like the military members that I’ve worked with, mostly it’s been couples work about the relationship and about the individual, like, things that are going on with the person. Though, I would certainly say, I would certainly welcome any couples that are trying to tackle that depression, anxiety, that PTSD together as a unit. I think once you involve your partner, and you feel like you have… I think community fixes a lot of problems. That sense of community, that sense of we’re in it together, right? Because I think everybody I’ve ever talked to who are doing individual work feel so alone, like they’re the only person who was going through this particular thing.

Ideally, quickly, they realized no, right, other people are going through this, but also they don’t have to tackle it alone, right? They have this person there with them, that person right, again, that one human being that they can be vulnerable with. When they circle the wagons around themselves, they make sure to circle around their partner as well so they don’t erect these walls, shutting their partner out, ideally, and then bringing them they can deal with it together.

Lisa: That’s wonderful. I feel like we’ve kind of come full circle since the beginning of our conversation, back to that importance of connection. What a wonderful conversation, Jesse, this has been fantastic and so helpful, I’m sure, to so many of our listeners. Are there any other thoughts or words of advice you’d like to share with them before we‌ glide to a halt?

Jesse: If you don’t mind, I want to just like throw out like a couple of resources that somebody can utilize. Obviously, there’s the VA, but some people have mixed views about the VA. Completely understandable, everybody has a different experience with it. But I will say like I did in grad school, I did my internship actually at VA and the mental health team was absolutely phenomenal there and cared a lot about what they did. Certainly I would have recommended that VA for anybody to go to for their mental health treatment. I think great experiences there. 

There are also local vet centers that are not associated with the VA in most places. So you can access mental health resources there as well. Military OneSource, if you Google Military OneSources, there’s an 800 number. They have a whole website available for servicemembers to utilize things. They can access different mental health resources, as well as a bunch of other things.

Any type of family programs, resources, they typically most bases and also like in the guard, most states have a family program type thing, and they have also access to a lot of resources available to you as well. So I would say, reach out, ask questions. You know, ideally, somebody in your military unit will know. After your first sergeant, they should know all these things. And certainly point you, at least if they don’t know themselves, what resources are available, should be able to point you to the person that has the resources. Chaplains, for example as well, are really good resources for people who want to utilize them as well, whether it be to talk to somebody or to point them to more resources.

Lisa: Thank you so much for being so generous in sharing all of this information. It’s really helpful to know and I’m so glad to hear just about many, many layers of support that are available to military members and also their families because, it is, in some ways, a difficult path. It’s so heartening to know that there’s just a lot of support and care for people who are who in this place. Yeah.

Jesse: Awesome.

Lisa: Thank you again, Jesse, for doing this with me today. It’s a wonderful conversation. I appreciate your time.

Jesse: Absolutely. It was so good to be here. I am very, very happy to chat anytime with you, and I look forward to chatting with you again soon.

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