Military Life

Playing by the “Unwritten” Officer Spouse Rules Without Regret

The life of a military spouse is a role dictated by tradition, rules and social nuances that make finding and maintaining friendships complicated.

The rank of our spouse doesn’t change that we all share similar experiences – we are all trying to navigate this minefield-riddled structure that makes playing hopscotch in the DMZ look like child’s play – but the experiences are different. One of the great divides among the spouse community is the unwritten rules regarding the socialization between the officer and enlisted communities. The military is crystal clear on fraternization among the ranks, but the waters get muddied when spouse friendships cross the lines of this hierarchy.

I follow the “unwritten” officer/enlisted spouse rules that many find arcane out of respect, and I shouldn’t be torn down or criticized by those that haven’t walked a mile in my shoes.

This is an unpopular opinion at best, but as the spouse of a senior officer, I damn well do wear his rank. I don’t look for anything I did not earn, but the harsh truth is that my spouse wouldn’t be where he is without the support I provide, and he is the first one to tell people that fact. I would never expect or demand a salute, special privileges or the like, but I am still caught in the tug-of-war between the system and naysayers that consider it oppressive and out-dated.

None of this is to say that we won’t get to know the enlisted members and their spouses on some level, but there are lines. Part of my officer’s job is to know his people, who they are, what their struggles or challenges are and how he can help. The same goes for their spouses. As an officer’s wife, if an enlisted spouse, or a junior officer spouse for that matter, needs a kind word, advice, support or a cup of coffee, I will be there, but while we will be familiar, that is not friendship. It can’t be for many reasons, and that is why I stick to my own tribe of officer’s wives.

Officer spouses aren’t looking down from our ivory tower casting judgment and scorn like arrows onto enlisted spouses. The grass is not greener on our side of the fence.

Our spouses bare the crushing burden of leadership, and we are in the trenches with them day in and day out. We help pick up the pieces and hold it together when if by order, deed, signature or actions of another one or many under their command are hurt or killed. It’s not just protecting one person or yourself and the guy next to you; it’s responsibility on an epic scale. As the spouse, we are there at the end of the day trying to help salve the wounds of self-doubt and guilt so that our officer can go back out the next day and be who they need to be for the good ol’ USA.

While all ranks have schools and training to get promoted, the rigors on the officer side are much grander in scale than people might realize. JPME and War College are degrees and certifications on steroids. The demands of 15-20 hours a week on top of your day job and having a family is incredibly tough on the whole, but mostly the officer’s spouse who is picking up the slack of those lost hours.

Walking around, I look like everyone else. I struggle with my small army of children trying to get everything done, but I do it all with a heavy dose of caution with all my interactions. You question why someone new wants to get to know you; do you legitimately have shared interests or are there ulterior motives at play? It’s a very isolating way to live, in a cloud of perpetual suspicion rooted in a system as old as the military.

Anytime my spouse’s rank is revealed, through an inquiry or something as mundane as presenting my ID at the commissary, I very quickly go from a standard “ma’am” to the “ma’am sandwich.” Every answer or statement is “ma’am [insert answer] ma’am” that essentially broadcasts to anyone in earshot that I am an officer’s spouse. Postures change, the side eye glance of “Oh, who is her spouse?” or the whispered contempt of “Who does she think she is?” I try not to cringe under those judgmental stares, especially on those days where I am not dressed to the “officer wife” standard. Yes, I am expected to present myself at a certain level, and many days I fall short, but it doesn’t change the fact that others are placing that expectation on me.

I will never feel comfortable being called “ma’am” by people 20 years my senior that have spent a lifetime serving our country. If anything, they should deserve the additional deference, but as they do, I accept the bounds by which we are all confined.

I maintain the unwritten rules for spouses because they serve a purpose. The military rank structure is in place for a reason, and if my personal relationships can cause friction or dissent in that, then I’m undermining everything we work daily to support. The quality of the unit is only as strong as its weakest link, and it is what everyone relies on to keep people alive in the most chaotic and deadly environments, so if my choice to abide by an unwritten rule prevents part of the whole from degrading, then I will follow those rules.

I am afforded a level of respect commensurate with my spouse’s rank, but I am also beholden its responsibilities. I must comport myself at all times, just as he does – rules I never opted to be held to, but must for the sake of the whole. I can’t rant on social media about politicians and or “injustices” in the military world because, at the end of the day, those one-off comments can cause divisiveness. My social media is locked down like Fort Knox, and I am neurotically precise who can see what I share. It’s exhausting, but it serves a greater purpose.

I tried stepping outside the bounds of the rules, and it didn’t go well. I don’t publicize my husband’s rank in any context, but my former friend, the wife of an enlisted soldier in a different service, mentioned it in conversation surrounded by a group of other enlisted wives. It wasn’t the proverbial record scratch, but the conversation became tenser and forced, the free-flowing laughter replaced with a cautious verbal dance. I wanted to fit in, they were a great group of ladies, but I was eyed with unease because of the looming spectre of my spouse’s rank. Let’s be fair; it’s not just the officer spouses that are playing by the unwritten rules, on even a subconscious level the enlisted spouses are judging us just as much as they rail against the reverse.

Socializing within similar rank gives us all the ability to relax.

The equality breaks down the walls laced with tension and allows us the friendship without worries. It takes a lot of stress out of social situations, and it’s not meant as exclusionary, it’s a matter of comfort and shared experiences.

The unwritten rules are a double-edged sword. If we were all honest with ourselves, we all play our part in the great dance. I know officer spouses that choose to stray from the unwritten rules, and that is their choice. The key is that I don’t judge them or others for it, just as they don’t judge my choice to espouse the rules they abhor.

Proud military spouses, enlisted or officer, shouldn’t be criticizing or judging each other when we all support the same mission.

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