Just like you can count on Murphy's Law to go into effect the minute your loved one deploys, there are a few universal truths we have found that apply to all spouses during the transition.
1.) It is really hard.
2.) It is easy to make mistakes.
3.) A lot of the work falls to you.
It is the first one that really gets you.
"For a while there, we were fighting every night," says Erin, a Texas-based Army wife whose husband recently learned he would not be making a career out of military life.
"We fought like cats and dogs. I knew we were stressed, but I wasn't ready to deal with what it would do to our relationship."
The lost job. The rejection. The loss of identity. For many service members navigating transition, these troublesome realities hit home - and in many cases, they hit home at home.
When they hit home for Erin earlier this year, she was taken completely by surprise. Like many of us, Erin was doing her best to balance the demands of military life with all the normal things running a family requires: She was trying to stay on top of all the bills, her kids' activities, and her husband's needs.
"There are cookie exchanges and soccer fundraisers. Mandatory fun events. There's just so much going on I can hardly keep up on a good day," she confesses. "They added in the pink slip and I'm barely holding on."
Erin turned to us for help. "I don't want to fight anymore, but I'm so stressed out," she says. "Transition is just harder than I expected and it's really taking its toll on my family."
For advice on how to handle the role transition plays on your family's emotional life, we turned to Carol Bowser, an employment expert who specializes in conflict management. Carol is one of the National Military Spouse Network's go-to advisors, a trained mediator, consultant and president of Managing Conflict, Inc. When it comes to making sense of trying times like transition, she has answers we can use.
Listen With Your Heart
"Transition presents a challenge," she says. The first step to navigating that challenge, she says, is knowing how to listen to your spouse - and how to respond effectively.
"If your spouse shares their frustrations with you, recognize that they are not asking you to fix it or likely looking for suggestions," she says. "Instead, they are looking for an outlet to share concerns and process what is happening. You can always move to problem-solving and back up planning AFTER the emotional side is has been expressed."
Did you catch that? Your spouse is not looking for you to fix the problem. "It's been my job to fix everything at home for seven years," laughs Erin. "Suddenly that changes?"
When it comes to transition, that answer is a resounding yes. You do not have to magically come up with a life-altering suggestion for how to make things perfect on the spot. Instead, Carol says, the best course of action can just be to listen and ask for direction.
Ask: 'What Would Be Helpful Now?'
"You will know that someone is ready to move on by waiting until they are done talking then asking ‘what would be most helpful for me to do now?’” she advises.
Erin admits that she has not always taken that route. "You feel so compelled to say something. Anything. Just to put something out there to make everyone feel better," she says.
But when a pink slip has been served or the time to join 1st Civ Div has come, there are not a lot of perfect words to say. Instead of struggling to find the less-than-right ones, try out Carol's suggestion. "What would be most helpful for me to do now?"
"I can see how that would make my husband feel better," Erin says. Not only does it hit the mark as a supportive response to your spouse's remarks, but it also might help get the ball rolling on how to think through creative solutions to the problems transition pose in your family. "Anything not to put my foot back in my mouth," Erin says.
Take Down the Emotional Silo
While careful listening and supportive responses can relieve much of the communication-based tension in your home during transition, it does not mean you should be quiet. For jobseekers -- be they you or your service member --communicating about the process is especially important.
"The stress of looking for a job is significant," says Carol. "There are likely feelings of frustrating, rejection, rising and falling hopes. Just know that this is normal."
Carol also urges those looking for work to reach out to other job seekers for support and camaraderie. "Retreating into silence and creating emotional silos does not help. Seek out other job seekers with whom you can share frustrations, tools, tips, and networking leads."
Taking concrete steps like those while sharing your feelings honestly with each other is a recipe for success, Carol says. She says that sharing your feelings with your spouse is important.
Erin agrees. "As the delay and tension increase during your Job search, recognize that you and your spouse may be more quick to anger, more irritable, or may be withdrawn. Remember you cannot be at your best during times of prolonged stress. Attempt to get sleep, take walks, eat nutritional meals."
Find Ways to Decompress
Erin seconds those suggestions from personal experience "No one is very nice when they are tired," she laughs.
Erin adds that finding time for intimacy is equally important. "It could sound cliche, but you have to avoid getting locked in that stress trap of being angry with each other. You really are angry with your situation, but you still need to find time to be with each other."
You may even find that after finding time to connect intimately with each other, you might be able to communicate more effectively about all the transition stressors you are balancing right now.
Anything you can do to support healthy and constant communication during the transition process is the key to navigating the process successfully. "Talk to each other about issues as they come up," Carol urges.
Just as importantly, try to go easy on your spouse, no matter how stressed you both are.
"If you have the expectation that your spouse will be treating the job search like a full-time job (6-8 hours per day, 5 days per week - which is what experts will tell you to do), but they are taking some time to relax, this can cause resentment to build."
If your spouse is balancing a serious job search with active duty, that need to decompress may be even stronger. Be there to help support your spouse find a balance, and try - as hard as you can - not to throw the classifieds at him as he watches Monday night football.
"It wasn't my best moment," admits Erin. "But I was so mad at him. He was just drinking like everything was okay, and it's not okay right now."
Erin confesses that she feels she has no break from the weight of transition, and she resents every break her husband tries to take. "He needs to decompress though. I get it," she says. "It's just hard to remember."
Negotiate the Responsibilities of the Job Search
Carol notes this is a two-way street, though, especially for families with two jobseekers at the helm. "If a spouse will need some help watching the kids to do research or attend networking events, negotiate it," she advises. "This will be good practice for when you as a family need to negotiate how to fulfill the requirements of your new employer(s)."
For spouses navigating rocky transitions like Erin, this is welcome advice. "I feel like there are such clear instructions for how to be a good wife during deployment," Erin says. "I just don't know what to do during transition."
If you, like Erin, are struggling with the weight of transition in your marriage and family life, take Carol's suggestions to heart. Listening, responding supportively, keeping communication effective and constant, and negotiating both downtime and job search responsibilities will make transition as smooth as possible in your home.
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