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Spouses Need Service Members' Support to Be Happy

Must-Have Parent

Does a spouse need a service member's support to be happy? In a word, yes.

A few months ago I wrote this commencement speech for new military spouses, offering advice on how to succeed in this lifestyle.

If I do say so myself, I offered wise suggestions for spouses about staying true to themselves. But I missed a major factor that one sharp-eyed reader noted:

"No matter what the military spouse does, it is totally impossible to thrive in military life without the support and understanding of the active-duty partner."

So let's think of this column not as a commencement speech, but as a halftime pep talk for active-duty service members.

When my husband and I got engaged, I remember him ever-so-emphatically promising, "If this life ever gets too hard, I'll get out of the Army."

I'm sure I threw my arms around him in that moment and we clinked champagne flutes as we watched the setting sun. Or something like that.

I have no doubt that he meant it. I've never doubted that he meant it. But then this life proceeded to be too hard most every day from our wedding in 2003 up until the present.

And for a variety of reasons (stop-loss orders, being over halfway to retirement, promotions and great opportunities, loyalty to others serving and passion for the cause, and plain old stubbornness), leaving the Army was not something either of us ever seriously considered.

Thankfully, he's never lorded that promise over me. But I've heard other service members use promises like that one as an excuse, saying things like, "I told her I'd quit if she wanted me to, but she never asked."

Epic fail.

A promise to quit is not an excuse, service members. Because she (I'll use the feminine pronoun, but this applies to he-spouses, as well) loves you. If she called your bluff, she'd be the one who made you quit. She loves you too much to do that.

This stubbornness and persistence are exactly the qualities you need her to have, by the way, to make it through all the challenges ahead. That's why the two of you have to commit to helping each other make it work.

She needs a life, and probably one that has very little to do with your work. Unless your spouse grew up in a military family, this lifestyle is going to be very different from what she knew before. She needs a world outside of the military. This means friends, hobbies and conversations that are completely acronym-free.

But making friends might be difficult for her, particularly if she doesn't work outside the home or otherwise have access to adults.

Odds are good that she's not living in her hometown anymore and, statistically speaking, odds are also good that she spends much of her time around small children.

For her to find and keep friends, she's going to need a spouse who understands that having friends is important.

Building a life through social activities may be enough for your spouse, but it may not. She may need a job of her own, and she may need it for reasons that have nothing to do with income. Alternatively, she may decide to give her time and talents to a volunteer organization.

As the reader who suggested the topic for this column wrote, "Every time one of my husband's co-workers asks 'Your husband lets you work full time?!' I have to actively resist punching them in the throat."

Military or civilian, every couple does marriage differently. Resist the urge to compare your marriage to others. It will never turn out pretty.

Military life can bring some incredible opportunities, and some nice benefits for service members and spouses. Your service makes it possible for her to partake of these things. That's a big gift -- and you gave it to her.

This life also allows her to be a part of something bigger than herself. Again, that's no small thing. But it makes demands on both of you that are largely unmatched in the civilian world. Just as she needs to help you so that you don't collapse under the weight of those demands, she needs that same help from you.

To sum it up, don't be the guy who gets punched in the throat. Support is a seven-letter word, but "jerk" has only four.

Don't be a four-letter word.

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Rebekah Sanderlin Family and Spouse

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Rebekah Sanderlin is an Army wife, a mother of three and a professional writer. Her work has been published numerous places, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, National Public Radio, CNN, and in Self and Maxim magazines. She currently serves on the advisory boards of the Military Family Advisory Network and Blue Star Families.

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