What Military Spouses Are Unwilling to Say
There is no doubt that serving as a military spouse is honorable and meaningful. While our soldiers train and perform brilliant and complex missions, the military is clear that it is the families at home that provide the stability for them to do their job. Specifically, it is the spouses that hold down the fort at home that the military works hard to support. Unlike the civilian sector, the military offers spouses programming, childcare services, and benefits galore to improve their quality of life while at home without their soldier. Yet the latest budget cut threats are beginning to reveal a new Army, one that is causing great stress upon the soldiers and their spouses.
More than ever I am seeing acute depression and anxiety in especially our spouses and the straw that caused me to break my own silence was hearing the numbers of military spouse suicides. Perhaps some of these underlying issues that are leaking out have always been inside the military culture, or perhaps the system is beginning to backfire on the very population it was so eager to support.
In the psychotherapy world, we say “Secrets make you sick.” It is the idea that when you hold something in long enough, it will begin to show physical and emotional symptoms. Military families are increasingly struggling with higher divorce rates, separations, rage-filled family episodes, substance abuse and the before-mentioned suicide and it’s not just the soldier anymore. One of the biggest problems is that spouses are not talking about it. They are remaining silent. Being a spouse, myself, I can understand why. Yet, what happens when you shove feelings, hurt, mistreatment, and lack of self-care down for months and years? Like a two year-old shaking a Pepsi, something is going to explode and someone is going to get hurt.
There are many reasons why spouses don’t speak up. The current military cultural climate is like a giant vacuum where they feel both privileged and trapped. Any temptation to speak out is followed by a reminding thought of how honorable it is to serve our soldiers and country with gratitude (I have spouses constantly apologizing for what they are saying in a confidential therapy session). We might share with another close military spouse, but we generally fear that if we share with civilians they will give us a look of “didn’t you choose this lifestyle?” So spouses are staying in the inner circle of those who understand. The problem is, there are things they feel they can’t say out loud in the military bubble either and I am watching a generation of spouses die, from the inside out.
“If I say it out loud, it will affect my soldier’s career.”
In the military culture, the spouse can make or break a soldier's career. I read a study once that correlated a soldier’s success to his wife’s involvement in the Family Readiness Groups and mentoring other spouses. While there is no doubt that the family support programs are crucial to the family’s survival by providing a fulfilling opportunity to serve each other, spouses easily get confused about whether or not the military genuinely cares. Why? On the one hand, spouses have been invited into meetings, have playgrounds on every corner, offered resiliency programs, and are even asked “Do you have any questions prior to the deployment.” The culture embraces spouses and tells them they are the backbone by providing amazing benefits that civilians would beg for (and who frequently remind them). This creates a sense of entitlement, and they get caught in the trap of believing that the military owes them something for sending their husband into war when the truth is, the soldier is an employee and the military honestly owes them nothing.
So spouses volunteer to stay connected and serve the others in the belief that a soldier whose family is happy and supportive to the needs of the military will most likely get promoted. And that sounds rewarding...up until the nostalgia wears off, fatigue and marriage problems set in, and suddenly you see the other side of the coin. People often remark that our culture feels like the 1950’s, where women feel that speaking out of their pain can directly effect the soldiers career. If you don’t participate, they know. If you attract negative attention, they ask what’s wrong with your wife and marriage. If you have to miss work to take care of your crumbling family, they may be “supportive” but now there is a negative perception of you and your family. And so you don’t say anything. Command sees the negativity as a problem to be addressed. Acting out, making a mistake, falling apart “too much” when you kiss him goodbye only causes embarrassment on the soldier when asked about it later. On the most basic level we see that the military needs its employee and it doesn’t have to care about the family. The sequestration, the budget cuts are only beginning to reveal the truth. The voice spouses thought they had, feels one-sided, and real motivations for the care received for years is beginning to show. Spouses have more-so been “managed” to decrease the consequences of multiple train-ups, deployments and emotional/moral injuries on our families for over a decade, because it affects the “readiness” of their unit.
Spouses feel their only option to break the silence is to remain anonymous, and yet, to them, there is no way to remain anonymous. We have military chaplains and counselors who are confidential, but most fear it can still get back to command. Off-post therapists are an option, but some expressed that no family is stable enough to see real change happen. How can a soldier and his wife work on their marriage with consistent counseling when the soldier is consistently unavailable? I believe this repression leaves a desperate desire for a loud un-confidential voice. But the moment she thinks to let out the internal screams, she quiets herself with “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth and express your pain because it will eventually come back on your soldier. It’s just plain unpatriotic. After all, my soldier had it far worse than me while deployed so I have no room to complain.” There is no adequate comparison between the military spouse and the soldier. They are both hard lives, for different reasons. The moment we begin comparing is the moment we trample the sacred moments of pain and accomplishment for both individuals. But using the soldier’s deployment to repress personal difficulties only builds up more resentment for later.
“I can’t speak because of the judgment of other spouses”
What once was a beautiful culture of women mentoring other women through the pain of separation and war, has recently changed into a generation of isolation and judgment. I believe the Old Military has gone or is going away. Senior spouses are rightfully tired having been through more deployments than any marriage should handle. Mentoring is fizzling as Facebook becomes our new coffee-group and spouses stay inside their homes rather than outside greeting each other. Research shows the higher ranking the soldier, the more isolated and alone the senior spouse, even correlating them to the same isolation felt by a pastor’s wife. The pressure of not being authentic out of fear that it can affect your soldier’s career is compounded by the pressure and perceived judgement from other spouses. Even though we aren’t employed and given a rank, the volunteer system has us working along side the spouses of those ranked above our soldier. There is no way to be authentic when a higher ranking spouse that is supposed to be mentoring you is married to your soldier’s boss. Introductions are often made by asking “Where were you stationed before?” and “How many deployments have you been through”- sorting out those who will mentor and those who will need mentoring. And so they mask feelings, stay strong, and push it all down.
I recently had a new military wife tell me that she screamed and latched on to her husband as his bus was getting ready to pull away. Part of me wanted to tell her “Good for you! I wanted to do the same thing.” Yet, I am now ashamed to say that I would have been lumped into the group of women who pulled her off her soldier and told her it was “Time to pull her big girl panties up. This is not how a military spouse behaves.” Meanwhile, I’m sure the soldiers were ragging her husband on the bus.
Judgement comes from both directions as younger spouses judge tearful, exhausted senior spouses as weak leaders. If other spouses are supposed to be our life-line and we can’t be authentic, then we have a serious problem. There is only so much the human psyche can push down and contain. After years of perfection and forced adaptability to change, spouses will eventually react and be judged for it. I have seen them both implode by losing their identity or explode by divorcing and losing their self-control in reckless abandon- and who wouldn’t?
“I can’t let go of control when control is all I have.”
There is a bumper sticker that says “Army Wife: Don’t confuse your RANK with my AUTHORITY” and it gets mixed reviews. When I do play-therapy with children, parents often ask why the child is refusing to eat or obey. My response is typically to ask them if the child feels they have any sense of control at home. When you have no control of the environment around you, you control whatever you can. Military spouses are the most adaptable creatures you will ever meet. We are conditioned to not want anything or need anything. The “needs of the military come first.”, we say with pride. My husband and I have an inside joke saying, “it can all change in a lunch hour” because in the military- it can. I think he is surprised sometimes by my “whatever” mentality to our life, but you have no other choice. One of my own spouse-mentors says sarcastically “Apparently I missed Option Day”, meaning we may have chosen this lifestyle but that often feels like the last time there was a choice.
This can lead an extremely go-with-the-flow persona while controlling everything else possible. After years of vacillating between being a geographical single parent to a unified parenting team trying to share responsibilities, eventually she will become the all encompassing home manager. While the lack of stability can create wonderful opportunities for personal growth (if desired), it can also lead to controlling everything that is non-military. For soldiers, it doesn’t seem to work to share control with your spouse when things are always changing, so many resign to let their spouse maintain control. What will military marriages do when the war draws to a close? We will have marriages in turmoil, and no one in whom the spouses can confide?
“I can’t talk to my soldier...”
Add to that the military contradicting its message of care for the families with the “don’t upset your soldier” message. After a long deployment, spouses are told to push down their needs further by not asking too much from their soldier. “Give him time, let him adjust, don’t rock the boat.” And so spouses push down every desire to flee and care for herself, again, possibly for another three to six months until their soldier comes home to say they are training up for another deployment.
Is there a solution?
Of course, as a clinician, I would say to anyone repressing feelings that the first step is beginning to have safe appropriate conversations with the right people. Only then can you distinguish between internal lies that keep you quiet, and the truth. This however, must involve other people to make that possible.
If you are a civilian, be willing to listen to military spouses. One of the best things you can say is “I may not fully understand, but [that] must be difficult for you.” We need someone to say that the hardship is not worth the benefits. Tell her that she has a voice with you and that it is not unpatriotic to hate the military sometimes.
Soldiers, do not give in to the cultural lie that your spouse can break your career. While it is not wise for a spouse to voice her opinions to your command unsolicited, her voice in more appropriate places will bring her life! Listen to her, serve her when you can and encourage her to care for herself. Protect your family by setting boundaries at work when possible and learn to differentiate when you can’t. Remind others and lead those below you that work ethic promotes a career, not family. While it may be the norm to stay after five o’clock to put in extra work, it is not always necessary and by staying you may be adding to the peer pressure. If they come down on you for your spouse being appropriately real with other spouses, stand up for her as a leader and mentor and ask them to leave her out of your job. The military wants to protect you, but often results in enabling some soldiers to remain boys by not letting them handle personal consequences. Take ownership for your own stress level and maturely state if she is handing you too much too fast. It is often when we mess up that we have the opportunity to grow, and reintegration is that for both parties. Removing the employer as the middleman in the marriage can make a lot more room in the marriage bed.
Spouses, what saddens me is that the fear I am seeing mimics what I often see in a controlling relationship. When you are told to push feelings down for the sake of your soldier, to not disclose to those who could make his job more difficult, and stay strong for the other spouses, you will eventually implode/explode. Sacrificing self-care to the god of rank and patriotism only results in brokenness. If being a soldier is a job, then it is not completely true to believe that we as a spouse can destroy our soldier’s career. Our soldiers are responsible for doing their job while we are responsible for being a mature, confident woman who can practice self-care. We are believing a lie if we fear others have that much power over our life. While it is never professional to storm our husband’s boss’s office (or his wife) with our opinions, that doesn’t mean we do not have a voice. Only a victim believes she has no voice, and one thing a military spouses is not- is a victim. She is courageous, flexible, and willing to do what is right for the sake of her family. She believes in etiquette and the love behind a thank you note and she understands that a good neighbor becomes a life long friend. It’s time to be authentic, confident, and led by wisdom. We have to be the change in our own culture and bring back the Old Army that supported one another and mix in the creativity of the upcoming generation of spouses. We have to have the courage to maturely speak vulnerably for the sake of our sanity and the sanity of other spouses. It may start off in the counseling office, but must eventually end with honest talks over real (not digital) coffee. Ask your soldier to set boundaries by taking accumulated leave to spend quality time with the family.
When they ask for questions, ask. If you feel betrayed by our government, tell them you are tired of feeling like you have no voice and remind them that they are hurting those whom they promised to serve and cultivating a climate of fear and silencing with benefits and programming. Utilize the programming that is offered by using the counseling services for issues your neighbor cannot handle and being a real human example in any one of the resiliency classes on-post, maybe even invite a younger spouse.
Few are beginning to speak out by testing the waters, but many are afraid. I am not advocating mass hysteria, I am advocating reducing the stigma of fear and hiding and the re-installment of mentoring by experienced spouses.
Senior wives- be authentic by telling us when you are weary and need to sit back. Choose where you put your energy wisely, but do not disappear from the culture you once inspired.
Experienced spouses- be authentic and serve the senior spouses by picking up the mentoring that is so desperately needed and thank them for the wisdom they have committed their life to give. Teach the new spouses who are isolated and hurting how to also be authentic with maturity and without fear.
Perhaps it isn’t the spouse that is screaming in the parking lot that needs to be helped, it’s those of us who are quieting her.
New spouses, come out of your homes and join the groups. Ask real, honest questions of those who have wisdom to give. If you have had a negative experience with the FRG and coffee groups, the only way to make it better is to be part of changing it.
There is sickness in remaining silent. What would happen if we were authentic with each other? What would happen if spouses voiced their concern for each other to a government who feel forced to financially abandon the “backbone” (family) of their army. What would happen if we changed our perception of our benefits and programming to seeing it as a service, but not designed to appease the pain inside? Regardless of rank, we are a group made up mostly by women, human, and needing each other to be real. We are tired and weary. We are scared and lonely. We may be hurting and feel betrayed by those who invited us in. We may feel misunderstood and some even trapped. As the pendulum swings, we must learn how to use our voice responsibly by confidently beginning the change, and sometimes calling the bluff of the apparent consequences to being human. We too can be Army Strong, united in the cause of protecting each other, but it begins with being vulnerable, sincere and transparent. “The strength of our nation is the Army, the strength of our Army is our soldiers, the strength of our soldiers is our families.” (Chief of Staff, Raymond Odierno) Unfortunately our families are not as strong as they appear from the outside, and the cracks are beginning to show. When we stand together, we are not alone and there is nothing to fear.