Spending time apart is difficult for any relationship. Military couples going through deployment face challenges such as limited communication, time zone differences, combat zone stress, and missing important life moments. A deployment can wreak havoc on any marriage, no matter how long you have been together or how many you’ve been through before.
My husband and I have been together through all seven of his deployments. For the past four, we were married and had children. Of course, our relationship has been through ups and downs over the years. Some deployments were harder to get through and recover from than others. But through all the challenges and time spent apart, our relationship has remained strong. Over the years, we have learned from our communication mistakes and adjusted so we can better support each other during deployments. We recently celebrated our 12th anniversary!
Here are the essential skills we have learned to keep our marriage strong during deployments.
- Discuss expectations ahead of time: When we don’t express our expectations, we set ourselves up for frustration and disappointment. Each deployment is different, and the available communication options change each time too. Will the service member have access to Wi-Fi? Will you need an international phone plan? Will they be able to do weekly emails, daily messages, or regular video chats? Each person should express what they want the communication to be during deployment. Then research the technology options to see if that will be realistic.
- Decide how much to share: Bad news happens during deployment. Ask your service member when or how much they want to know about family drama or problems at home. Some couples like to be completely open and share everything, even if there is nothing the service member can do. The risk is that this can become a depressing distraction during the deployment. Other couples prefer to shield the service member by only sharing bad news after it has been dealt with and resolved. Decide which style works best for you, and if there is any family situation they would want to know about right away, through a Red Cross message.
- Trust each other: Many relationship arguments boil down to trust. Ignore the rumors you hear about other spouses or service members in the unit. If your spouse has always been trustworthy in the past, there is no reason not to trust them during deployment. Don’t waste your time and energy imagining scenarios or worrying about what might happen. Give your spouse regular reassurance and reasons to trust you and remind them you still love and trust them.
- Find new ways to communicate: Deployment may be your first time with communication limitations. If you were used to calling and texting whenever you wanted, the change can be shocking. Try to adapt to new methods instead. You can write letters or emails, use long-distance apps like WhatsApp, Marco Polo or Love Nudge, or find creative ways to spend time together via video chats.
- Try journaling and letter-writing: If your service member is in a location without any communication options, it’s extremely frustrating and lonely. One way to express yourself and release those emotions is through writing. Even if your spouse won’t see your words for a while, try keeping a journal or writing regular letters. Some couples each keep a journal during deployment, then exchange them after homecoming. Or they each read the same books and answer discussion questions after each chapter. This is a great way to stay in touch and feel connected when you don’t have other options.
- Respect each other’s needs: Some deployments are very demanding with stressful schedules. Others are more predictable. Either way, you should each be considerate of the other person’s situation. Spouses need to be patient and not expect immediate replies if their service member is in a difficult environment. Respect their work and sleep schedules and try to schedule calls during a time you are both awake. Likewise, service members should not use deployment as an excuse to make their spouse a lower priority. It’s still important to make the effort to connect whenever possible and listen to the spouse’s experiences, even though they may feel distant.
- Lean on friends: Although deployments are stressful, couples should not dump all their negative experiences on each other. Both the service member and the spouse should have at least one other friend they can vent to on bad days. This doesn’t mean your spouse stops being your best friend. It just means that you don’t fill your conversations with complaints and negativity. Having a third party to talk to means your conversations with your spouse can be deeper and more encouraging.
- Take care of yourself: Both parties should do what they can to take care of themselves physically and mentally during deployment. Losing sleep and worrying about the other person won’t help either one of you. Showing your spouse that you are strong and healthy (but you still miss them!) can help them worry less and feel more confident about the relationship. Staying healthy will make each of you better equipped to face whatever deployment throws your way. For ideas about staying healthy consider using the deployment resources available here: https://www.militaryonesource.mil/military-deployment-support.
Deployments are stressful on any relationship, but if you and your partner focus on these tips, then you will build up a strong relationship that can thrive during any deployment challenge.