Marriage isn’t easy. And the military can make it even harder. Some military marriages can withstand the strain. Others can’t and end in divorce. I’m one of those whose marriage didn’t make it.
After a 13 year marriage, I divorced from my active duty ex-husband over two years ago, in addition to the one-year legal separation required by the state. I still live in an area with a dense military population, and many of the military spouse friends I had before my divorce are still my friends now that I’m no longer one myself.
So with this perspective, what have I learned about military marriage? Here are:
5 Marriage Tips from this Divorced Military Spouse
Tip 1: Don’t ignore red flags.
Toward the end of the marriage, I found myself looking forward to him leaving on military-related trips, even though it meant my life was harder because I was parenting alone. Whenever he came back from deployments, we went on lavish vacations without the kids to reconnect, which only worked as long as we were off the grid and away from the daily stressors of married life, like paying bills, cooking dinner and everything that goes along with parenting two young children.
Those are huge red flags that we both ignored. Whether it was because we only had a limited time before he left again or because we were busy assimilating him back into our family life, we swept our problems under the rug and carried on.
Tip 2: Go to counseling BEFORE it becomes your last resort.
By the time my ex and I started marriage counseling, it was way too late. For years, a little voice inside my head nagged at me that we needed help, but I kept shushing it (another red flag!). Eventually we realized it was our last chance. We were in and out of marriage counseling for a year, trying three different counselors in the hopes that someone could fix us. But it was too late to start using the tools we should have been using throughout our marriage.
Tip 3: Ask your counselor for ways to work on your marriage during separations.
In most military marriages, going to counseling seems impossible when half of your party is gone all the time. When my ex and I started with counselor one, we fully worked the program she prescribed for us. And things between us improved. But then the Navy kept shipping him off, interrupting whatever progress we had made and depositing him back home at square one. By the third counselor, he only attended a small percentage of the sessions, and we were just going through the motions because we never asked for tips on working the program while apart.
Tip 4: Don’t let your title as a military spouse become your entire identity.
Overall, I think my divorce perspective has taught me the importance of staying true to who I am as a person. I completely lost Heather when I was a military spouse. And that wasn't my ex-husband's fault or the military's fault. That was my fault. I became who I thought he wanted me to be, who I thought I was expected to be as a military spouse. I allowed my entire identity to become "Heather, the military spouse." But there was so much more to me as a person that I’m finally discovering now that I’m divorced.
Tip 5: When your spouse is no longer in the military, remember all those life lessons the military taught you.
I try to view everything as a learning experience. And all that I learned as a military spouse -- independence, flexibility, the ability to pack really well -- has taught me how to survive as a divorced single mom. Your spouse won’t be in the military forever. But the lessons the military taught you as both a couple and as individuals can last a lifetime.