When I look back on the years of my military marriage, I see it as a bookshelf lined with memories.
The deployment years are a lot like survival stories. Reintegration seems like a classic drama. There are pages with hurt, volumes of joy, collections of happy and sad memories.
I must admit, when I feel sad, angry or entitled, I reach for "books" on our shelf that remind me of other times when I felt that way. I want to feel validated and maybe even fueled to win the next argument. "Remember this?" "Remember that?" "What about the last time you ..."
… There's no need to finish that sentence. We all know it never ends well. Meanwhile, my spouse is scrambling through the proverbial bookshelf trying to find even a short story to provide alternative evidence.
Some of you just take turns pulling down the hurts and reading them again and again. Arguments and tension tend to deceive us into thinking that our situation is horrible, when really we just need a reminder of who we are.
Military life can mean our bookshelves are often filled with separate memories and significant, defining moments. I call those moments "sacred spaces" because they are set apart.
Instead of coming back together, military reintegration often becomes a time to accumulate stories of hurt, stacking that bookshelf with plenty of ammunition we can return to later.
I want shared positive stories to be what defines my relationship, don't you? More than that, I want stories of how we redeemed our marriage. I call those "shared sacred spaces."
I've learned that if you don't stock your bookshelf with as many positive shared sacred spaces as possible, you will have a hard time finding hope when you need it most.
During one reintegration, I listened as Matt shared his deployment stories. There were so many separate memories. The bookshelf was filling up with them. Reintegration was filled with sharing our most "sacred" or significant, stories while we had been apart. Although we did our best, we talked more than we listened. In our attempts to get on the same "page," reintegration became, instead, a time to accumulate stories of hurt.
But how do you do fix that? How do you start plussing-up your marriage bookshelf? I can tell you it doesn't happen accidentally. It's not as hard as writing an actual book, but it definitely takes mindfulness.
Here are a few things I have learned:
Pursue. There is mystery and a quest to win someone's heart in the dating years but, at some point, love matures and the pursuit must become more intentional -- purposeful even. If you are at a place where you are holding out until your spouse pursues you, you are only collecting stories of failure. Be the first to pursue your spouse. Truly listen to her needs, the kind of date nights she wants. Even better, hold hands and look him in the eye while listening. Using three of your five senses will solidify your memory and help him feel heard.
Plan. Intentionally prioritize time with your spouse. I hear couples all the time talk about scheduling dates every week, but they never do so. Sure, it takes time. But scheduling something fun that engages as many of the five senses as possible will make for an evening your marriage will never forget. Dance lessons trump a dinner and a movie. I know the inconsistency of military life can make this a huge challenge, but if we aren't focused on the time we have together, it will slip away.
Protect. Like a family photograph tainted with memories of bad attitudes and screaming toddlers (not that that ever happened to me), so it is with shared sacred spaces. If we aren't protective, our efforts can easily be sabotaged. Demons of the past, minefields of the present, or simple miscommunication -- something out there wants to see you fail. You must be proactive by setting up limits to what you will talk about or thoughts you choose to entertain. Shared sacred space moments are not a time to hash out what should be reserved for the counseling office or a family meeting.
But what if sabotage happens anyways? Try to reclaim it. Even a reclaimed sabotaged moment can make for a powerful memory of hope and resilience. In the midst of the tension, make every effort to intentionally think the best of your spouse.
Sometimes, Matt or I will reach for the other's hand and just say, "I'm for you, not against you." It is a gentle reminder that although we may be upset at each other in the moment, we believe the best in the other.
Forgiveness and grace go a long way. Our spouses are not perfect and never will be. The sooner we accept it, the easier it will be to forgive. Remind yourself of the many moments you have needed forgiveness yourself. The sooner we forgive, the sooner we will have grace to offer.
Redemption stories are the most powerful shared sacred spaces of all and will no doubt give you a truly great story to revisit from your shelf of memories.