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?”
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.