by Meg Flanagan
When you think about a strong marriage, in or out of the military community, what does it look like?
Take a moment and sit with that image.
Mostly, when we talk about strength in terms of passion, commitment and trust. And while those are all awesome factors leading to a strong marriage, they’re not my secrets. I recently asked my husband: “What do you think makes our marriage strong?”
His answer actually surprised me because it’s not one I hear often or at least it’s not said out loud:
1. Adapt and Overcome Together
My life doesn’t look like I thought it would when I was 18, 20, or even 22. I picked those three ages because they marked huge milestones for me: high school graduation; meeting my now-husband; marrying my husband, graduating college, earning a Master’s degree, moving across the country. Yes, 22 sure packed a major wallop.
When I was 18-21ish, my plan was simple: become a teacher, find a great school, meet a wonderful romantic partner, raise a few kids and retire to the beach. At 34, here’s what I’ve got: teaching degrees, great job at this duty station, awesome romantic partner, amazing kids, and the opportunity to live all over the world.
But if you had told me when I said “I do” in 2008 about the course my life–our lives–were about to follow, I wouldn’t have believed you. I would have been aghast that I would spend so much of my early married life living alone with a small dog. My mind would have been blown had I known that I wouldn’t teach full-time until 2013– four full years after earning my degrees.
What’s helped my military marriage survive is adaptability. Instead of breaking down or blaming each other for unforeseen circumstances, we’ve talked it through and considered ways to respond that make sense for us at that moment. Being able to pivot, to change the narrative and respond to the unknown, is essential in a strong marriage.
2. Communicate Even When It’s Painful
I saved every single one of the emails I sent my husband during his 12-month deployment. A few months ago, I went back through them and read them again. Man, did I do a lot of complaining!
For those playing at home, military spouses are told, in no uncertain terms, to keep all deployment communication uplifting and positive. My emails regarding many things were exactly the opposite of positive and uplifting. Some were brutally honest.
Being able to say exactly what we thought with unadulterated honesty probably saved our marriage. Neither of us painted an overly rosy picture of the other person during our long separation. In fact, some of the emails were downright painful to write and reread, even all these years later.
He knew exactly who he was coming home to: a type-A, anxious mess of a woman. And I knew what I was getting: a dedicated, strong, silent type who is often (very quietly) the smartest person in the room.
Even after he came home, we still communicate best in writing. I like it because I can write out everything and then edit it to sound slightly nicer while still getting my point across. It’s also helpful to have records of conversations for posterity. Being able to say what we think, no holds barred, is essential to keeping our marriage strong. We know where the other stands on important issues, like our kids.
3. Be Fiercely Independent
We often joke that the military misnamed spouses as “dependents.” Most military spouses I have met are anything but dependent on their partner. Let’s face it: we’ve got to survive and keep kids or pets alive for long stretches solo.
One of the things that keeps our military marriage strong is that we are 100% capable of being alone, of surviving without the other person. However, we choose to be together, to remain dependent-ish. We also have learned that we operate best when we do things we enjoy without the other person. He’s got his stuff and I’ve got mine. We know what’s going on in general terms, but also know when to butt out.
One of the very first things I learned as a military spouse was that his career is not mine. I’m not the Marine, he is. And so he gets the promotions, the expertise, and the deployments. By the same token, my degrees in education are mine, it is my career and my business. In this way, we have each stayed fiercely ourselves and very independent.
4. Know Your Limits
Along with keeping somethings to ourselves, we also agreed at the beginning of our relationship that there were hard limits to how much military we would have in our lives.
Basically, the military doesn’t have a place in our home. There is no wall of glory with plaques and awards from his career. We don’t have tons in-uniform professional pictures on our walls. In fact, the only way you might know that we’re military is the one very small homecoming picture on a desk. Oh, and the souvenirs we’ve picked up throughout our journey.
We agreed that once he stepped into the house, the Marine Corps went away as much as possible. From the outset, we differentiated between his job as a service member and his life with our family.
We set that hard limit and we stick to it. Setting that limit took all our skills of communication. Keeping to this limit requires that we adapt every time we move. But, 12 years later, we are better for it.
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Meg Flanagan is a teacher, blogger and military spouse. She owns Meg Flanagan Education Solutions, an education advocacy service dedicated to serving families on the K-12 journey. You can find Meg on Facebook. Meg is also available as a freelance writer and personal education advocate!