I’ve been called an advocate for military marriage. Truth be told, I’m for all marriage, but mine has been a military marriage from the start…so, yeah. I support military marriages. And, truth be told again, many of the struggles in a military marriage can be found in civilian marriages too. However, there are some elements that are different, that do lend themselves to challenges specific to a military couple.
I should probably tell you that my husband doesn’t do year-long deployments. We don’t skype when he is gone. We don’t live the military life you may have seen on television. So, I can’t speak to exactly what those wedded couples face. I can tell you, though, about life in the Navy world we live in and the effects it has on marriages that I’ve seen up close and personal. And, I’m definitely advocating for these marriages – mine and those of my dear friends and our submarine family.
So let’s start at the beginning – dating. Dating a submariner is an interesting task. Their schedule is such that they’re out of contact for months at a time. In this day and age, you might have email contact or the ability to send a letter once or so a patrol, but that’s about it. You’re safest bet is to assume you’ll hear nothing back from this person that you’re trying to get to know. You might, but if you plan on it and don’t…disappointment is rough. You definitely won’t get to see your sailor. No kissing, holding hands. No late night phone conversations. No dates at all. For months.
Then the boat will come back and you’ll get to reintroduce yourselves to each other. Depending on the relationship you have, there may be worries about faithfulness on his part and worries that he didn’t miss you on your part. But you need to give each other a chance and see where you’re both at. While he’s on land, you can date more normally. A sailor’s schedule isn’t always consistent, though, possibly switching between day and night shifts and long hours, which is a similar challenge to many a civilian relationship. And, although that can certainly be a struggle, at least there are phones, computers, and the ability to say hi in person every now and then.
I, for one, appreciate those technologies because our dating relationship was also a long distance relationship. We are high school sweethearts and had a decent foundation to build on, but during those years before we wed, while we were determining if our relationship was going to go that far, we were thousands of miles away. I did a lot of journal style letter writing that he responded to in ten sentences or less. We talked for hours when our schedules and the three hour time difference allowed for that. And we grew in the quiet spaces. For us, that worked. It doesn’t for everyone.
If you are able to navigate this odd mating ritual successfully – months of feeling like things are on pause followed by some semblance of normal until you’re paused again – without letting your imagination get away with you, then you may find yourself engaged! Congratulations!
Planning a wedding comes with the same difficulties as dating someone in the military. You often can’t consult with each other, at least not in a timely manner. Getting leave time to marry near your family might also be tricky. My grandmother was pretty certain that May would be a lovely month for my husband and me to marry, but he couldn’t come home then…so we went with June. I don’t know how many times we had the same conversation.
Grandma: “Can’t you just have him ask his Captain to come home a few weeks earlier?”
Me: “No, Grandma. He can’t do that. June will be fine.”
Grandma: “Do you want me to call the Captain? The wildflowers are so much better in May.”
Oh, Grandma. Love her spirit. But we ended up saying “I do” in June and driving our U-Haul cross-country for our honeymoon. That’s actually a pretty common honeymoon for military families. And there’s nothing like a long road trip to let you know more than you ever wanted about each other!
So, now you’re married to a submarine sailor. What’s next? Likely, patrol. That cycle of months out to sea, time on land, months out to sea doesn’t end because you’re newlyweds. Every new marriage has adjustments – the mingling of finances (who handles them and how), the tackling of cooking and cleaning, and blending of personalities and traditions. Now imagine that you’re on your own half the year and your spouse is coming and going. There are many ways to make these adjustments and you’ll have to find what works for you, but be prepared for some trial and error. The spouses that find a balance in themselves of confident, independent person when he’s gone and part of a committed couple when he’s home succeed the quickest. That’s sometimes easier said than done, though. Communication will be key, as it is in any marriage, but military folks have to learn to how to be succinct while trying to settle into their new lives.
Assuming the first year or so of marriage is survived, you’re now veterans in the eyes of the other couples around you. This was a surprise to me. Remember that grandmother of mine who really wanted me to wed my husband in May? Perhaps that’s because that’s the month she and my grandfather were wed. And when all was said and done, they were married for more than 60 years! That was the bar I was checking our marriage against. But, in the military, the vast majority of the people around you are in their 20s and 30s. You’ll find a few who’ve got anniversaries now counting in the double digits, but most are just starting like you. This hit home to me just after we’d celebrated our 6th anniversary. I truly thought I was still figuring things out but found that I was also someone others looked to as having a successful submarine marriage.
So, while you’re still trying to really get a handle on whether to decorate for the holidays a month in advance or on the eve of (this was definitely a discussion in our house), other wives are asking you about how to be supportive of their sailors’ careers when they’re feeling frustrated with the Navy. Or how to balance trying to have a career of their own with wanting to move with their spouse. I’ve discovered it is okay not to have all the answers or even experiences similar to what others are asking you about. I think what’s actually being sought out is someone who understands this way of life and can listen in a way that doesn’t make either spouse or the Navy the bad guy. At least that’s the support I try to give.
If you have children, they really have an impact on life! (I know, understatement of the year.) Your sailor may or may not be able to make births, depending on his schedule, which is why many families choose to wait until shore duty to have kids. Even so, if your sailor stays in beyond the initial commitment then they’re headed back to sea duty again. And patrols get harder when you’re not only dealing with your emotions over saying goodbye, missing your love, and welcoming them back, but now you’re dealing with a little person’s too. And little ones don’t always know how to express what they’re going through. Our youngest said he hated my husband for months before we were able to figure out the differences between hate and being mad at him for leaving, being sad that he wasn’t home, and missing him fiercely.
In the midst of all this…there’s even more schtuff complicating marriage too! Think in-laws, sex, secret work atmospheres. That’s right, submarine sailors do a lot of things that we aren’t in the need to know about. So, even as your sailor’s closest confidant, you may not truly understand what he does at work. Sailors also work in a world of rank. So, you may meet someone at a social gathering who you get along with swimmingly, but when you have a chance to tell him about your new friend, your sailor looks like a deer in headlights.
“The Commodore’s wife?”
“I don’t know, maybe.”
And is doesn’t matter what rank he is, there are always people above him and it’s weird to think of you hanging out with their wives. But that doesn’t mean you can’t. There are wives out there who won’t give you the time of day because your sailor is lower than their sailor. Most, though, enjoy you for you and don’t care what your husband does on the boat. The time you spend socially with other spouses isn’t spent talking about what the boat is doing anyway. It’s during these times – at support groups, social groups, etc. – that you get to be you! Assure your husband you won’t give away his secrets and go have dinner with the girls! Talk about your hobbies, your kids, your dreams. And be you.
The next stage of life would probably be getting out of the Navy and navigating that change together. We’re not there yet, but I’ll still be your cheerleader! Whether you’ve been married to a sailor for four years or twenty years, you’ve been through change. You have strategies that you can call on during another transition in your lives. Apply those strategies and support the dickens out of each other!
So, what does it all boil down to? What’s my most ‘go-sub-spouse’ advice?
- Communicate openly and often: When it’s hard, let your husband know. When it’s fun, tell him that too. When you don’t know what to do or how to get through the next patrol, definitely tell him that too. You are not expected to be married alone. No your sailor can’t always be with you in person, but he can love you and support you every day no matter where he is. Be honest with him about what support you need.
- Have friends – in and out of the Navy: It’s fabulous to have people who are truly in the same boat as you and go through similar emotions at similar times. It’s also really great to connect with friends that don’t know a thing about submarines and will just dance with you or laugh with you.
- There is an end: Whatever your sailor is going through, and therefore you’re supporting him through, that may be making your marriage ever more of a struggle – it will end. Patrols end. Sea tours end. Chiefs that ‘just don’t understand’ transfer. Take the struggle and meet it with the knowledge that even if it’s not resolved, it will be over in time.
- And support the dickens out of each other! (I know I said those exact words a few paragraphs ago, but they’re so important.) In the words of my grandfather – yes the one married to my feisty grandmother for over six decades – “Just keep kissing.” It’s hard to argue with your lips locked. It’s hard not to have hope when you can feel your lips pressed together. And even when the kisses are more like pecks because you’re running one way and he’s running another – keep pecking. Love each other and the rest will happen – Navy or not.