For many military families, PCS season is an exciting time, an event involving the whole family as they get news of an upcoming assignment and begin researching and looking forward to a new duty station.
But for others, it brings on an anguish of decision making due to a location not being ideal for the entire family, whether it’s because it’s a shorter tour, an overseas assignment that offers little in the way of family support, or various other reasons. This can cause a family to weigh whether or not it’s worth them going along or if they should stay behind while the active duty spouse relocates alone (called geo-baching in military circles, for geographical bachelor).
Our family’s motto was that, after so many deployments, forced time apart due to my husband’s military training and education, and separations for innumerable TDYs (temporary duty), we’d spent enough time involuntarily separated without adding to the time apart by choice. Our priority was to keep our little family unit together when we could. This decision definitely involved some sacrifices, including choosing to homeschool our children to offset the educational strain that came with moving every couple of years or less, especially as my husband’s career ramped up along with more assignments, me staying home with our kids and later continuing my career as a work-at-home mom to provide stability since my husband’s job was so unpredictable and he was away a lot. So while that worked for us, it doesn’t mean it will work for your situation. We’ve all got to figure out what’s best for our individual families.
Why Military Couples Choose to Live Apart
1. Spouse Career/Education Concerns
One of my friends was halfway through nursing school with her husband finishing out what they thought would be another two years in his assignment when he received unexpected orders to move. It made sense for her and their children to stay behind so she could finish out the final year of her program while her husband went ahead of them. I’ve also had friends who were active duty, Guard, or Reservist themselves and simply couldn’t get a new slot at the same base as their active duty spouse and had to wait months to make the move.
Other military spouses have tenure or a senior position in their chosen field, can’t transfer jobs, or want to set themselves up for their own career goals after military retirement. While we hope this won’t be a decision military spouses are forced to keep making and the future will only be brighter for military spouses’ careers, it’s a real thing we continue to face right now.
2. Family Concerns
Some families reach their children’s high school years and decide that, regardless of where the active duty parent will be sent next, the rest of the family will remain in place in order to let their child finish school and not have to face yet another move. (If your child is about to be a senior in high school, you may be eligible to apply for the High School Senior Stabilization Act, which allows families to stay through the end of the school year.)
In some cases, if the assignment for the military member is only for 12 months (such as a school where the family is authorized to come along), families choose to stay behind rather than have to face moving again in a year.
Others have dependents with special medical or educational needs that simply can’t be met at the receiving base. While it’s beyond the scope of this article to go into details about this issue, EFMP (Exceptional Family Member Program) families in particular tell stories of delays in paperwork that mean they’re not able to complete requirements to move forward with an assignment or being denied a move to certain locations altogether. Military Spouse writer Megan Hammari says, “I have spent the last two years trying to fix the problems to the paperwork so that we might have a chance to be together as a family again.” This doesn’t seem to be a rarity with EFMP families, unfortunately.
It’s important to keep in mind that this scenario is different from a remote assignment in which the military decides the service member will relocate alone to a location that does not offer adequate family support. In that case, service members should be eligible to receive a housing allowance for their dependents’ location. When choosing to geo-bach, the service member usually only receives BAH based on their actual duty location.
There are some exciting new updates via the Military Family Stability Act, which allows a 180-day window for qualifying families to PCS. Waivers also exist for families staying behind due to medical or other reasons which allow for BAH at the more expensive location. Each service branch administers waivers differently, so be sure to check with yours.
3. Concerns About Location
Some locations are more remote with less availability of common resources, even in the U.S. If your own career is highly specialized or your child has an interest or talent that simply can’t be served in a smaller area, it may make sense to stay where you are. Other military spouses are unable to find work at an overseas base–in fact, some overseas bases’ SOFAs (Status of Forces Agreements), like those in Italy, are so prohibitive regarding military spouse employment that it’s nearly impossible for a military spouse to continue a career in such locations, to include work-at-home positions.
While we all hope that will change at some point, for now, we’re forced to work within the confines of the rules. And that means that certain locations are completely impractical for some military families. (Get more information about military spouse employment at Military OneSource).
4. When a Voluntary Separation Works
One plus of a parent geo-baching is that there can be an excitement about the remaining family visiting the new location and living like tourists for a time. One spouse I know lived several hours from her husband over the course of a year while he was at school, making regular weekend trips back and forth. It added an element of fun for the kids to stay in Daddy’s furnished apartment or to plan weekend getaways together.
Considering all the reasons discussed above, it’s understandable why a family would make the choice to temporarily separate for a time.
But let’s have some real talk about this.
With three decades as a military spouse behind me, I’ve observed many scenarios like this play out. As a volunteer for family readiness groups, a mentor for spouses’ courses, and through years of writing for and connections with the military spouse world, countless spouses have reached out to me. I’ve witnessed numerous friends’ families decide to live apart for a time, and see that time stretch out longer than they ever initially intended. And I’m here to tell you that, if there are already cracks in the marriage, the distance doesn’t help. Studies have shown that for each month apart, military couples’ divorce rates increase.
I know I run the risk of sounding overly negative, but I only mention this so that you’ll have your eyes wide open to potential issues. Can it work? Sure. But it seems to work best for couples who already have a solid, healthy relationship, are proactive about putting in the effort long-distance to keep their marriage strong, who plan a regular schedule of seeing each other and practical ways for keeping everyone in touch, with a definite end date in mind for the separation. They understand the costs involved with maintaining two households and have planned their budget accordingly. All keep foremost in their minds that the separation is a temporary one.
5. The Final Goal: Coming Back Together as a Family
Some families may decide that the stress involved is simply not worth it, and decide on an early retirement or separation from active duty. Should that have to happen? Should military moves be so stressful that the family is forced to make a decision to either live apart or leave the military? No, of course not, and we all hope that the powers-that-be will continue to look at ways to make the PCS process more logical and family-friendly. But until that day comes (I’m an eternal optimist!), it’s important to weigh every aspect before making this decision.
Regardless of the reasons for temporarily living apart, the end goal is obviously one of reuniting. Plan ahead for a different type of reintegration–of getting to know each other again after living separate lives. And above all, rest in the knowledge that you did what was best for your family!