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By Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT

Bouquet of flowers with wedding rings and military tagsWhen you take a vow of marriage, you are making a promise to protect, honor and love your spouse for the rest of your days. But what happens when you make that same vow for your country at the same time? Which vow do you honor when you and your spouse are expecting your first baby and there is a deployment on the horizon? Which vow do you honor when the twin towers are bombed on September 11th and your family is terrified but so is your country? And which vow do you honor when your spouse is diagnosed with stage 4 cancer?

While all marriages have their own challenges, there are certain issues that are unique to military marriages. I have lived near an Air Force base for over 12 years now. In that time, I have had the privilege of both working with military families within my profession and making personal, lifelong friendships with military families. While I know that I certainly cannot and will not capture every single challenge that military marriages face, I would like to speak on a few that I have noticed within my experiences with these extraordinary families.

  1. Who/What comes first? – While many marriages may find themselves in a constant balancing act between job and family, military families seem to be faced with the biggest and most challenging balancing act of all… they are forced to choose between fighting for their country and fighting for their family. And, in many cases, there is no choice at all. The country must come before anything else. This means that dad may be overseas when his firstborn child takes his first steps. Or, mom may only get to see her son graduate from high school via the internet. While it may be easy for the high school graduate to understand why mom cannot be present for such a momentous occasion, it isn’t so easy to explain that to the baby who just took his first steps without his dad present.
  2. On the Move – Just when it feels like things are settled with jobs, friends, houses, and school, it’s time to make that move again. It’s time to, once again, pick up and move to another location and do it all over again. Many military families are required to move every few years; and many of the places they have to go are places that they have never been. A new life has to be re-established each time.
  3. The Reality – Let’s face it. The reality is, what these service men and women do is dangerous. At each deployment, families find themselves thinking about the terrifying possibility that their spouse/parent may not make it home; that those hugs and kisses they give and receive could possibly be the last they get and give. But, just because those fears are there does not mean that the world stops around them. There are still obligations to be fulfilled (ie mouths to feed, bills to pay, jobs to work). The family left on stateside must continue on.
  4. The Aftermath – It’s easy to assume that once the deployment is over and the service member is back safely, everything returns just as it was before. But, all military families who have been through deployments know that this just isn’t the case. While the initial days of return are filled with joy and excitement, the days, months, and sometimes years that follow can be trying and difficult. What these service members have seen and done overseas can have a lasting effect on them and can bleed into their interactions with their families and friends. Many family members have told me that the person they sent overseas was not the same person that returned home to them.

This list only captures a very small portion of challenges unique to military marriages and families. It’s important to acknowledge that these challenges can create emotional turmoil and a multitude of stressors. Resentment, fear, jealousy, anger, and disappointment, among others, are experienced. But, in the end, these families display an enormous amount of resiliency, hope, strength, and wisdom that can inspire and guide us all. I am so grateful for the battles that our military members fight for us and the ones that their spouses continue to fight as well.

This post was written by Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT, the social media and webinar coordination specialist for OneOp. OneOp aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about OneOp on our Facebook and Twitter.

Blog Image: Photo from Flickr [DSC07624 by Amanda Govaert, September 10, 2011, CC BY-ND 2.0]