At a family reunion several years ago, my uncle asked, “What unspoken vows do you have in your marriage?”
He was referring to the vows that respect each other’s pet peeves, and we all laughed as people shared their promises of keeping the cap on the toothpaste or using separate knives for the peanut butter and jelly.
At the time, I’d been married for only a couple of years, and I added that I’d promised not to meddle in my husband’s tools. But over the years, my uncle’s question echoed in my mind. As deployments came and went, I discovered that my unspoken vow was more complex, and in fact, I had more than one.
Deployment adds a unique dynamic to military marriages. As Army spouse and 2015 Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year Corie Weathers writes in her memoir, Sacred Spaces, “Deployment, by its very nature, creates highly significant yet separate experiences for military couples.”
Deployment ushers us into a strange space, asking us to exist without each other and to accept that we can’t share each other’s experiences or even fully understand them.
I’ve often thought of it as living parallel lives.
Others have thought of it this way, too. Air Force wife Alane Pearce writes of parallel lives in her piece “Committed,” which appears in Faith Deployed… Again, and Weathers addresses “gaps” that separate couples in Sacred Spaces. Surely, more wrestle with this notion in their hearts.
However we might term it, the awareness of separateness is a reality in deployment, presenting us with a veritable mountain to climb. Although we’ll encounter tough passes of doubt and aloneness, I believe we have the ability to make it through these obstacles with sure footing. In my own experience, the first step is simple but powerful: I give voice to my unspoken vows.
1. I promise I will let you go.
We all know that prior to deployment, our service members become laser-focused on pre-deployment trainings, preparations and briefings. Like kids on Christmas morning, they sit amidst their gear, organizing, packing, unpacking and repacking.
Meanwhile, we file powers of attorney, wills and crisis notification forms. We make arrangements with friends to be the ones we can call in case of an emergency.
Suddenly, we realize that we are preparing to be alone. That awareness is grim. It can induce fear, crank our grip tighter and make us ask why. It’s a force manipulative enough to make us feel left behind.
But, the power is within us to pause, take stock and refocus our lens.
As I reflected, read and spoke to other spouses, it struck me that by focusing on the aloneness ahead of us, we can set ourselves up for a long, lonely climb. Some spouses recalled that simple expressions of compassion have eased the road toward deployment.
Air Force wife Katie Spain, who has been married for four years and faced two deployments, reflects on the difficulty service members must feel being so far removed from their families: “While the military may be their first responsibility, it is not the first priority in their hearts,” she says, “and I can’t imagine the internal conflict being easy to remedy.”
Weathers echoes such compassion in her book, when she recalls preparing for a unique experience to accompany former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and his staff to visit American personnel deployed to the Middle East.
As she finds herself mirroring her husband’s pre-deployment motions, she realizes that she is also experiencing guilt in leaving her family.
Having been in her shoes, her husband empathizes with her position. Weathers describes this interesting role-reversal as an example of the value that spouses’ compassion can have in releasing service members to their mission.
“We play an awesome role to love them that way,” Weathers said in a recent interview. “We do have the ability to release the anxiety that they have not chosen deployment over their family.”
It seems to me that this compassion releases the military spouse, too, as it eases tension and draws us closer to our service members in a shared experience. It helps us understand that we are not alone in our feelings, it reaffirms our love with our service members and it allows us to approach deployment with clearer sight and firmer footing.
2. I promise I will be my best for you.
As military spouses, we know that once our service members leave, our role suddenly changes. We go from being part of a pair to being a “Class-B bachelorette” or a “pseudo-single parent.” Whether we dub it “flying solo” or “geo-baching,” no cute new title fills the emptiness left by our service members. The impact of their sudden absence can knock us off balance, making us struggle to find our grip without them.
All home front responsibilities immediately fall to us, and it seems that the same mystical force visits every household immediately following a service member’s departure, breaking every appliance and infecting every child with the stomach flu. Suddenly, we are swamped trying to work a two-person job, to nurture, discipline, organize, clean, counsel and perform damage control. The sheer magnitude of this responsibility can be overwhelming.
This is the time when the feeling of living parallel lives is perhaps the most acute. The sense of separateness is seemingly insurmountable. Personally, I find myself angry with it. Angry with the feeling of separateness. It’s a strange, unwanted feeling to have in a marriage.
But it doesn’t have to be so bleak. I believe we have the power to overcome the feeling of separateness, to find an intersection, even when that seems impossible.
Reflecting on her experience as a licensed counselor working with military couples, Weathers describes many military spouses as “resilient, positive and resourceful” when going through a deployment.
“They push through and make things happen, and grow in their independence,” she says. “And the service members can trust that. It makes for a trusting relationship. They can focus on their mission.”
Although deployment changes my role temporarily, I am still married to my husband. Whenever I am overwhelmed, I owe it to him to push forward, because the obstacle he is facing doesn’t let him stop to dwell on his aloneness.
A friend once told me that her priest described marriage not as 50-50, but as 100-100. Each spouse must give 100 percent. Never is there a time when this is truer than during deployment. By actively choosing to give 100 percent, I am enabling my husband to do the same.