What Every Couple Can Learn from Military Relationships

Not every couple will struggle with glitchy Skype connections during months apart, the U.S. Government interrupting dinner, or the strain Top Secret secrets place on two people in love. Military relationships are subject to a laundry list of struggles—and joys—that others don’t have. But at the heart of military relationship challenges are the same human issues that every couple navigates.

These seven tips for strengthening a military relationship are based on the principles of Emotional Intelligence (EQ). Hopefully they will help with deployment, reunion and the everyday challenges of military life. Beyond that, you can apply these EQ ideas to any civilian relationship, too.

Erase expectations.

There’s a wonderful scene in the 2009 film 500 Days of Summer where the main character, Tom, attends a party where he runs into his ex-lover and the love of his life, Summer. On one half of the screen we see his expectations—an enthusiastic and idealistic reunion—and on the other half of the screen we see reality—an awkward party where he learns that Summer is engaged to another man. The disappointing reality is especially bleak in contrast to Tom’s dream. Military relationships are not unlike that party scene.

Young Couple Embracing after a SeparationIt is the nature of the military to be unpredictable. Human emotions are often unpredictable too. Together, these two wild cards make military relationships a constant exercise in letting go of expectations.

Timelines will change; deployments that are supposed to end in February will go until April; emergencies will come up on weekends. Etcetera. Always buy the travel insurance!

Emotionally, it’s easy for frustration with the situation to turn into frustration with your partner or resentment when plans don’t work out. The sooner you can accept the unknown and relax any attachment you have to some future you imagined, the happier you will be. That’s not to say don’t make any plans; just leave wiggle room for them to change.

The same goes with expectations about your partner’s emotions. You might imagine or even dream about the moment you’re reunited. Much like Tom and Summer at that party, reality and expectations rarely match up. Expecting your partner to feel certain emotions or act in a certain way doesn’t honor the reality of the situation. Let the joy, sadness, anger, or whatever it is come naturally. Your separation and reunion will not look like the movies; it might change every time. The less you fixate on your expectations the more clearly you can see your reality.

Have your own interests and lives!

On the podcast Marriage More, the host wife Mandy said spontaneous bouts of crying were normal during deployment and her husband Jeff explained: “she had nothing to do because I wasn’t there.” That is a huge red flag.

 Women shooting an outdoor scene with a cameraIn order for two people to be happy together, each person must be centered and content with themselves.That means having your own passions, thoughts, hobbies, interests—your own life. Partners are together, but they are not literally the same person. For military couples who experience time apart, it’s especially important for each person to have his/her own life. During separation, those individual hobbies/job/social life, etc., become a vital support system. Maintaining personal interests gives you something to connect to when your partner is gone, something to share with your partner, and most importantly: something to keep you feeling human when someone that is such a part of you gets taken away.

Work out the logistics.

Even the tiniest things will matter. When challenges arise in any relationship, the smallest things can escalate. Preempt that by planning well:

  • Schedule regular meeting times if you need to
  • Work out the time difference. Using UTC (Zulu time) to schedule is convenient.
  • Have all the tools you need to connect: wifi or cell signal, battery charged, headphones, etc.
  • Shared calendars make scheduling easier

Understand how your partner communicates love.

Different people communicate intimacy in marriage in different ways. “Love languages” are a label some researchers have given these communication styles, identifying five distinct styles: quality time, acts of service, receiving gifts, words of affirmation, and physical touch. Whether you subscribe to these five ideas or one of the many other interpersonal communication theories, the point is the same—your partner will show and receive love in a unique way.

The more you understand your partner’s communication patterns, the easier it will be to feel close. While you may get intimacy from sharing everyday details, you partner might feel closest when giving or receiving a token of your love. He/she might love helping you solve problems while you enjoy deep relationship conversations. It’s not that one partner’s style is more valid.

In military relationships, which require talking across long distances or reconnecting after time apart, understanding your partner’s style of expressing intimacy will
make it exponentially easier to feel close despite the challenges. Successful communication is the hallmark of every contented couple.

Embrace technology, but don’t rely on it.

Skype, FaceTime, and social media are like lifelines when military duties separate two partners. We 21st Century citizens of developedNewlywed American sailor shooting selfie with his wife countries get a huge benefit from technology. Use it as much as you can, as well as you can, and often as you can. But do not make it a pillar of your relationship.

Connections will inevitably fail, the video will be glitchy, and after getting disconnected what seems like a thousand times on a call you’ve been waiting days for—it’s easy to get frustrated. The issue comes when that frustration seeps into the relationship.

Plus, there is still something magical about receiving snail mail, leaving each other notes or exchanging tokens—things you can touch.

Live together in the present.

Like getting sucked into a relationship built on technology, it’s easy to build a life together based on future plans. When you can’t be physically together in the present, it can be hard to just enjoy being together in the now; it seems like the only time you have together is in the future. This is a setup for building unachievable expectations though (remember 500 Days of Summer).

It’s fun to dream; it’s smart to plan financially; it’s reasonable to schedule future events. But as most people can attest—there’s something irreplaceable about just being together. As challenging as it is to do nothing together 

American soldier outdoors with his son

on a phone call or FaceTime, try to enjoy that present moment for what it is. Even just a small moment of present togetherness will increase feelings of closeness. Listen to a song together, give each other a tour of where you are or share an article or song that struck you today.

If every conversation is about the future, the future will become bloated with expectations that it can never fulfill, and disappointment is a harsh blow for any relationship. 

Accept the military as part of your love life.

A military job extends tentacles far beyond the workplace. It comes with a mentality, a culture and a lifestyle that does not have a quick on/off switch. While a member of the armed forces is a human with an identity outside their military duty, it does become a part of him/her in the same way your upbringing influenced your adult behavior. That means it is inextricably linked to your relationship, too.

The military comes with top secret material that partners can’t share. It comes with nontraditional hours than can disrupt usual family life. Sometimes it brings trauma, long-distance or serial relocation. These things do not define your relationship, but they are an inevitable part of it. Coming to acceptance with the innate struggles of a military lifestyle (and its benefits too, of course), will ease tension in your relationship.

It all comes back to those expectations. Know what to expect, but embrace the unexpected!

Relationships in the military are challenging and no matter whether you're in a military or a civilian marriage, you can always benefit from support. Reach out and let us know how we can support you.

Check out our resources or email jennifer@heartmanity.com. To find out your love language, check out this love language test.


Enid SEnidRSpitz.jpgpitz is a writer and yoga instructor based in Charleston, SC. She previously lived in Portland, OR and Seattle, WA, where she was a newspaper editor and researched yoga for traumatic brain Injury. Heartmanity combines Enid's passions for social well-being, neuroscience and yoga. When not writing or on the yoga mat, she is an avid traveller, enjoys a good whiskey, and loves being outdoors. Twitter: @enidrosalyn, Instagram: @littleyogibird.

Posted in Love, Marriage, and Relationships, Emotional Intelligence & Fitness