A close-up picture of MilSpouse Lizann holding flowers.

Say This, Not That to Military Spouses

Every military spouse faces challenges, and in those difficult moments, they need support and encouragement. Unfortunately, sometimes our military community is not great at supporting each other. It could be because many of us are struggling under the burdens of our own stressful challenges. Or it could be because military spouses have become so desensitized to living a lifestyle of constant change and uncertainty that we forget these situations are stressful to newcomers.

When you truly want to encourage a military spouse, it’s important to remember two things: empathy and unity. When you empathize with someone, you accept their emotional reaction — even if you have never been in their exact situation. When you focus on unity, you remind members of the military spouse community that no one needs to suffer alone. We have all faced similar challenges. Together, we can use our experiences to support each other.

When you want to encourage a military spouse, use the principles of empathy and unity to guide your response. Read some examples of what to say — and what phrases to avoid — below.

Don’t say: “You knew what you signed up for!”

Try this instead: “That sounds very difficult and frustrating. Can I help you find support through this?”

Why it matters: Many military spouses didn’t know what to expect when they married a service member. You can never fully appreciate the stress of a PCS move or deployment until you are going through it. Some spouses fell in love before the military was in the picture. Even someone who grew up as a military child and should know the challenges of military life will tell you that things are very different when you are the one married to the service member. Whatever emotions they experience are valid. Use empathy here. Instead of mocking someone for facing a difficult time, meet them where they are and help them through it.

Don’t say: “You’re overreacting, this isn’t a big deal.”

Try this instead: “Seems like you are under a lot of stress. How can you de-stress and take some of that emotional burden off your shoulders?”

A black and white picture of a woman leaning on a service member’s chest.

Why it matters: You can never see all the emotional burdens and the invisible weight of stress that someone is carrying. If someone seems to be upset and venting over a seemingly small inconvenience, it is probably because their stress level is already high. This incident is like “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Instead of lecturing them about how they should toughen up or “put on their big girl panties” (another frustrating, unhelpful phrase), it’s better to help reduce their burden. Use empathy and listen so they can unload their emotions to a sympathetic ear. Offer to take something off their to-do list. Encourage them to do a relaxing activity such as listening to music, taking a walk or enjoying a long bath.

Don’t say: “Other people have it worse. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”

Try this instead: “That pain you’re describing isn’t unique to military spouses. Is there anyone around you who could understand and sympathize?”

Why it matters: In a difficult situation, it’s easy to feel that your challenges are unique and no one else can help. But emotions like loneliness, worry, uncertainty and frustration are not exclusive to military life. Acknowledging that other people experience pain and difficulty does not minimize an individual’s suffering. But remembering that others experience similar difficulties lets military spouses know they don’t have to get through it alone. They need unity to find strength. Ask if they have any friends or a support system to help them. If not, recommend they talk to a trusted counselor, such as a chaplain or a professional from Military OneSource.

Don’t say: “Let me know how I can help!”

Try this instead: “I would like to help you in this specific way, once a week. May I do that for you?”

Why it matters: While this sounds kind and helpful, it puts the burden of asking for help on the other person. Instead, offer a specific chore you can do for someone. Specific help is more useful and easier to accept. Give a gift card for food delivery so they don’t have to cook dinner. Offer to drive their kids to a recurring event. Invite them to attend a club or activity with you so they can meet new people.

Empathy and unity were my guiding principles when I wrote my book, Open When: Letters of Encouragement for Military Spouses. Each letter offers friendly support for a unique situation in military life. After listening to military spouses for over a decade and supporting thousands of military spouses going through deployments, I learned that empathy and unity are what people crave when they are facing a challenge. Use these thoughtful approaches to truly encourage a fellow military spouse.

A neck-up image of a spouse and her service member looking at each other.

4 Tips to Ease Reintegration After Deployment

Deployments are notoriously challenging for service members and their families. Deployment struggles can complicate family relationships and create permanent and lasting changes. However, learning about the stages of deployment can help you make sense of complicated experiences and emotions.

Viral videos of service members rejoining their families frequently garner admiration from observers. Behind the scenes, military families are often left wondering how to navigate what comes after the homecoming fanfare. The “what comes after” is called reintegration, and it can be perplexing for all varieties of military personnel and their families. Consequently, your service member’s reintegration into everyday home life may require more consideration than is advertised in the typical all-American homecoming “happily ever after.”

Reintegration difficulties can be further complicated by the effects of returning from combat zones. Service members and their families can take advantage of Military OneSource stress management resources throughout the deployment process. Fortunately, the experiences of previous generations of military families have helped to demystify the deployment lifecycle, revealing three main stages: pre-deployment, deployment and reunion/reintegration.

Read on to learn 4 tips for supporting your service member during the reintegration stage:

  1. Think Ahead. Helping your service member reintegrate starts before they return. Ask them what homecoming festivities would make them feel the most comfortable. For some, a party and a large greeting group waiting at the airport might be fine. For others, a small, quiet homecoming is more enjoyable. Be open to accommodating your service member’s needs to ensure things start off pleasantly for everyone.
  2. Prepare for Change. Homecomings are highly anticipated for months or even years in some cases. While no two situations are alike, it’s safe to say that things will be different when your service member returns from a deployment. However, during moments of difficulty or disagreement, it can be tough to remember that post-deployment reintegration struggles are to blame. Prepare by talking to your service member openly about how you’ll communicate with each other as you work through upcoming changes. Need help navigating deployment lifecycle changes? Military OneSource offers free resources to help your military family thrive. Access tools to help you navigate pre-deployment, deployment and reintegration. Check out the Preparing for Deployment resources here.
  3. Be Patient. Change can precipitate growing pains. When my spouse returned from a 15-month deployment, everything was different. I had already completed our PCS across the country, and my sailor came “home” to a place that was brand new to him. Barring phone, text and video chat conversations, we had lived completely separate lives for 15 months. We had to learn to live together again. With time comes change, and with change comes a need to be flexible. Daisaku Ikeda said, “With love and patience, nothing is impossible.” Patience offers you room to show your service member love and compassion as they navigate through the deployment lifecycle.
  4. Embrace the New. Socrates said, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” As you give your service member room to become re-familiarized with home life, embrace the change as it makes way for new beginnings. Newness fosters opportunity. Allow your service member time to adjust as you start a new routine together. Pretty soon, the “brand new” that you create will be your new normal.

When facing reintegration, remember to think ahead, prepare for change, be patient and embrace the new. Obtaining the insight and tools that you need to promote your family’s successful reintegration is easier than ever.

Numerous resources exist to aid in the deployment lifecycle and help military families make sense of the deployment process. Check out Military OneSource’s Plan My Deployment tool to learn more.

A view of a Thanksgiving table is shown, featuring an orange plaid blanket, a pumpkin table-setting and a sign that says “thankful.”

Tips For a Fun Friendsgiving

Often friends become closer than family due to job requirements and physical distance. We all have those friends we’ve been stationed with who have become an extension of our family. Therefore, Friendsgiving instead of Thanksgiving has become quite popular in the military circle. I’d like to share some tips on a fun Friendsgiving day.

  1. Potluck it. The only rule with potluck is the host does the turkey (transporting a turkey is just asking for a disaster). Other than that, everyone should share a dish that has been traditional in their families’ Thanksgivings. It’s a great conversation starter. To make sure there aren’t any dishes duplicated, a volunteer (most likely the host) should start a meal sign-up.
  2. Accept help. When people offer their help, take them up on it. Simple decorations are festive and fun but always fall to the host. And that can be overwhelming with a gauntlet of tasks. Decorations don’t have to be fancy, paper pilgrim hats, name cards or silly photo props for selfies always add to a fun atmosphere.
  3. Get lectured. Have the history buff of the group plan a brief recap of the first Thanksgiving. It’s a great way to remember why we celebrate the holiday. If your history buff is blessed with comedic talents too, that makes it even more fun.
  4. Be thankful. After everyone is stuffed to their eyeballs, go around the table and share what each guest is most thankful for or their favorite family traditions on Thanksgiving. After all, it is the season to be thankful.
  5. Break out games. Once all the important eating, sharing, clean-up parts of the day are over, break out the games. Adding a game night will surely make this Friendsgiving go down in history to relive over and over for many years. No need to have several complex games on hand. There are so many fun games that can keep you entertained. Keeping it simple is also a great way to convince the non-gamers to participate and realize how much fun games actually are!

Making the most out of nontraditional situations are what we thrive on in the military. Knowing every station is temporary elevates the stakes when it comes to making friends and connections that are lasting and meaningful. And even though it isn’t traditional, celebrating with our friends instead of family can bring on the feels and create memories you spend your life trying to recreate. Enjoy your Friendsgiving wherever you are!

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