Sunday, 20 April 2014

Rules of Engagement: Spouses

I've been labouring over this for two weeks now - I'm into my second year of writing this blog; I am no more (and no less) "military wife" than I am soldier, and still I haven't mentioned them once:


Being the spouse of a serviceman (or a servicewoman) must be one of the toughest jobs going *) :
  • You spend a lot of time on your own, when your partner is away on exercise or on deployment; even when he is back home, he might not actually be around much;
  • You will be excluded from large parts of his life;
  • Your partner misses out on a lot of important events: anniversaries; births; school start ... And you have to make up for it, cover up your own disappointment and "soldier on" - even organise second birthdays or anniversaries;
  • You might be on your own when important decisions need to be made - you can't rely on your partner to be around to "quickly fix something";
  • You have little choice when it comes to housing and where to live;
  • You will be expected so socialise with other spouses with which you might have very little in common - other than the rank and regiment of your partners; and you will be competing alongside your partners competition for promotion;
  • There will be a "third party" in your relationship: rules, expectations, standards and norms - a lot of them unwritten, and you might not even know that you have signed up for it;
  • Your behaviour, the way you talk and dress will be under close scrutiny;
  • Your conduct can, ultimately, impact on his chances for promotion;
  • You give up on your career and aspirations, you become part of the "military family" - without much of the closeness and camaraderie your partner will experience;
  • A lot of the time you will worry.
There are positives, obviously:
  • You share the sense of commitment - of a "greater good". Yes, I've heard that many of you supposedly hate "the military". But, let's be honest, he's not away on a business trip selling cars or insurances.
  • Even though you might have to move more often than you want and might not like the accommodation - at least you don't have to "house hunt".
  • There's no denying ... he does look gorgeous in uniform.
  • And, yes, you will move up the ranks with him.
Then, when your partner is around, you need to switch into a different mode
  • You now need to include your partner, make him (her) feel part of the family, without overloading him.
  • Your partner might need help to unwind, relax and "come home" - especially when he returns from deployment; these days, there are only 48 hours between the heat in the desert and the school run.
  • No matter how long the break, or what happened while you were apart, you need to find a way to reconnect, and you need to help your children do the same.
What you cannot say is:
  • "Thank God, you're finally back. I need ... I want ... you have to ... can we please now ...
The serviceman has dedicated his life to the military. As his spouse, you have dedicated your life to supporting him. (I imagine the wife of a vicar must feel the same. Or the wife of a policeman. And there will be others.) You will look after the children, socialise in a way that supports his career, give up on your own; you start living among other military wives - accidentally thrown together, far away from your family and old friends.

And then the question:
How are you?

He doesn't want to know about your fears, your frustrations, your struggles - because he will have to go away again at some stage and he will want to know that you're alright, that you can cope.
     The CO's wife might make the rounds - but she doesn't have time to listen to your worries - after all, she has experienced them herself and is also expected to "get on with it".
     The Family Liaison Officer might ask you how you are - but he is busy, it's not his main job and if you appear too needy, it reflects bad on your partner.

On the other hand, you will never really know how he is. "I'm fine now - glad to be back home." You accept that; what choice do you have? Just like a vicar's wife, you might have the reassurance that what you do is important, that it serves a higher purpose. You know that he depends on you. He needs you while he is away - the knowledge that he will come back home to you.

Should the unthinkable happen and he gets wounded, you will be brought in. You're not alone. You're part of the big military family - according to their rules. You still have to play a part.

You are a couple, a unit - and yet you are forever separated. His closest bond will not be with you - it will be with those whose lives depended on him and whom he trusts with his own life. We say "blood is thicker than water" - that's why we come up with ideas like "blood brothers" or "band of brothers". That is a bond you have to experience, be part of to understand it. There is something you will never share.

"He is always so kind, so calm. He wouldn't ever hurt anybody."
I am sorry, but you're fooling yourself. You don't know your partner in battle. He harms, he hurts, he lives a life you can't imagine. That is a side of him you will never get to see. He leaves it out there (unless something goes badly wrong).

Probably your number one rule of engagement is "you don't step outside". You are a pillar of support - but you do it quietly. You don't publicly complain about bad treatment or accommodation. You praise him for his achievements and stand proudly by his side. You don't comment in any detail on his failures - you bear his frustration and go on supporting you. You can bask in his glory - and you will fall with him. It's not your place to defend him, certainly not in public.

Whatever bothers you - at the end of the day, you swallow it and "get on with it". End of story.

It can be one of the toughest jobs going.

And if you have survived all this and are still a couple, then you are thrown into new turmoil when he leaves and has to adjust to life outside of the military.

Nobody has ever taught you how to become a military wife - and you are forgotten again in the transition into civilian life. He might have access to resettlement, to some form of support and training. But spouses?

Again, strangely enough, this is a topic we came across in the research project I coordinated ten years ago. So I've decided to call my next article "spouses in transition".

*) I will focus this article on the "serviceman" with a female partner. That relationship is complicated enough. It becomes even more of a challenge when the roles are reversed or follow less traditional patterns.

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