Should You Make Your Marriage Long-Distance?

(Photo: Stock image.)
(Photo: Stock image.)

Would you consider staying behind when your service member moves to the next assignment?

Different from a deployment or unaccompanied orders where you cannot move with your spouse, geographically separating -- or "geo-baching" -- is a choice families seem to be making more than ever as an easy solution to the stress of too frequent military moves.

Whether you are considering staying behind for stability in finances, career, medical care or children, it is a difficult decision.

My own family recently faced this option when my husband received orders for training just 90 minutes up the road. When his temporary assignment was extended to a year, we changed our minds and chose to stay together.

But we did consider spending that time apart. And this week, as we received yet another set of orders, this time for a move in the middle of the school year, I wondered, "Is moving what's actually best for our family?"

Every family situation is unique. And since many couples are weighing the pros and cons of this decision, I spoke recently with others who have tried it. My question: Where is the line between geo-baching being a healthy solution and it becoming destructive?

As a counselor, I know that every family must make their own decisions. But based on my research and discussions with other couples who have been there and done that, here are a few things to consider when choosing geographic separation.

Is There a True Crisis at Home?

A personal or family crisis that demands immediate attention -- such as battling major debt that brings legal problems or derailing a career or education -- makes an ill-timed military move incredibly stressful, and maybe even harmful.

Deciding whether what you're dealing with is actually a crisis is the key. Moving in general can feel that way, so talking with a professional can help you discern if your situation actually rises to this level. Seek out support and mentoring to find whether there may be creative solutions for moving without leaving it all behind.

Those I spoke with who tried geo-baching for career stability or for a non-crisis level money issue discovered in the end that they value family and marriage more than that for which they stayed behind.

A long time ago, someone wise told me never to make a decision based solely on money unless you are in an actual financial crisis. That wisdom has always guided us well.

Solving any personal crisis, such as arranging care for aging parents or medical care that requires stability, is understandable before your attention can be focused on other things such as another military move.

While using the military's Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) is a longer-term solution, some families may need to temporarily stay behind to resolve a crisis before moving to the next location.

If you are an EFMP family or have specific medical or situational needs, searching for highly specialized providers takes time. Rapport with the right doctor can be just as important as finding one with the right specialty.

Even though registering with EFMP helps you relocate where specialists are available, it is sometimes wise to temporarily stay with what is already working until you can smoothly transition.

Commit to Making the Separation Temporary

It's hard to know the long-term impact geo-baching can have on families and the military community.

Some families have made a more permanent decision for the sake of stability. I have seen some choose to live apart for close to a decade. While it is possible for a marriage and family to survive that kind of separation, I find it dangerous.

Even though moving frequently is hard on the family, separating for long periods of time can have equal, if not greater, consequences.

Although the "why" behind the decision is not well researched, I hear from many that marriages are dissolving after years apart. While separated, temptations are harder to control, and it's harder to keep your connection and friendship as a couple strong.

Reintegrations are difficult enough after a year apart -- imagine three years or more. Just like when calling a "timeout" in an argument, there must always be a "time in."

Marriages that geographically separate with no end date are easily set up for derailment.

It's Not Just 'For the Kids'

When it comes to your kids, I get it: It is so hard to watch them say "goodbye" and start over.

However, I have to remind myself that I have seen more families than not raise military children who have become not only well-adjusted adults, but also over-prepared for the world. It is also well researched that the long-term absence of one parent plays a significant role in an individual's sense of identity and worth.

Much like the wisdom I received about money, the same holds true for children. Children need an example of a healthy marriage in which partners choose each other. I often lean on a quote from President George W. Bush in which he explained his decision to run for president to his young daughters: " … Your mother and I are living our lives. And that's what we raised you and Barbara to do: Live yours."

That quote reminds me that my husband and I are daily modeling what it means to be a couple to our kids as we make difficult decisions to responsibly live out our calling together.

While peer relationships are definitely important to a teen's development, a family staying together also offers stability. Therefore, like many families, I would consider a temporary separation if it meant my teenager could finish out school or a commitment that would significantly impact important upcoming goals such as college.

Consider Firm Commitments and Needs

Your most important commitment is to your family and marriage. But that doesn't mean other promises don't deserve consideration when mulling the geo-bach option.

If I made a commitment to a project for work that would cause that business extreme harm if I did not find a replacement or finish my commitment, I would consider temporarily staying behind. However, I would do everything in my power to provide an early solution so as not to find myself in that situation.

The families I spoke with about their decisions to stay behind were in various seasons of life -- some just beginning, others much more experienced. Almost no one regretted geographically separating, but they also would not necessarily advise it.

What they learned about life, love and family is not something they regretted, but they also said they would not do it again. In fact, many of them recommended staying together at "all costs."

You can hear more on this topic by listening to my podcast with Suzie Swartz, wife of a former Air Force chief of staff.

How you decide your own path on this important question will be a major chapter in your marriage.

Consider it carefully.

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Family and Spouse Marriage PCS