According to the Defense Department, the divorce rate among military couples has been steadily increasing for the past 10 years, from 2.6 percent in 2001 (when the U.S. forces began operations in Afghanistan) to 3.7 percent in 2011. To understand what it's like to go through a divorce when one spouse is in the military -- a process which can be made even more complicated if he or she is in active combat during the separation period or legal proceedings -- we spoke to former Navy wife Ava Smith*, 29, from Wilmington, NC. Here, she shares her experience.
My ex-husband comes from a family of multiple generations of Naval Officers on both sides of his family. The family was full of Navy tradition -- and I absolutely loved being a Navy wife.
While I don't think that the military lifestyle itself was the reason for our divorce, the miscommunication of expectations as related to the lifestyle certainly revealed some deep-seated issues that we ultimately couldn’t overcome.
The trouble began when my ex and I got engaged. His parents expressed concern over the fact that I was a professional woman with a hearty dose of independence. None of the women in his family cultivated careers -- rather their career was being the Naval Officer's wife. I don't wish to cast judgment on any woman's decision as to whether to work or not, but I'd worked tirelessly for the last eight years to go to college, graduate school and make a professional career for myself. If the Navy was a core part of my husband's identity, my professional life was a core part of mine.
My ex seemed perfectly supportive of this arrangement, at first. After all, my boldness and grit were qualities that said he adored about me when we were dating. When I was a high school teacher, I requested the classes with the kids who had parole officers, learning disabilities, challenging home lives and a milieu of other issues. He was fascinated by this -- he thought my moxie was incredible. He'd never met anyone like me.
After our wedding, all of this changed. It seemed that whenever I took a job, our relationship suffered. My ex never acknowledged this, but the pattern was there. Being at work meant that I wasn't on hand to do last minute things with the other spouses, or to take care of the house in the same way I could when I was home.
Soon, everything became about appearances. One Christmas Eve dinner was ruined when his mother and grandmother asked where I'd registered for "my silver" (as in forks and knives). I said I'd found pretty stainless steel ones at Macy's. For this, they called me lazy and worthless. My ex said nothing to defend me. He had always been the dutiful son.
I finally sought counseling (individual) for what I thought were "readjustment issues." I also tried medications (anti-anxiety) to see if that would help me regain my balance and composure. When that didn't work, my ex and I sat on the couch -- I remember it so perfectly -- and he said, "It's more important that you're happy than for me to be married to you. Do whatever you need to do -- even if you want a divorce."
At face value, that sounds pretty sweet. Upon closer examination, I felt that it was a real indicator of where we were in the relationship. From his perspective, he was "fine" and I was the one who was "broken." That's not the way I thought marriages were supposed to work. When I asked about couples counseling as an option, his response was something to the effect of, "Sure babe. I'll help you work through your stuff..."
We went for about six months. In that time, I started developing odd food allergies to things that I'd eaten my entire life. I'd break out in hives on my lips for no reason and so I went to a specialist to see about getting the shots. After receiving a full food panel of skin-prick test (64 needles, in succession) the lab came back and the results were that I had no allergies. The doctor told me that he thought I developed an autoimmune reaction due to long-term chronic stress. He said that I had to fix it, otherwise I would be looking at some serious health issues down the road.
That was the final straw. I came home from that appointment and told my husband that something had to be done because now I had a doctor telling me that I was literally destroying myself. He looked at me and said, "This has been coming for a while. Let's talk to a lawyer." I agreed. And that was it.
Shortly after deciding to divorce, my ex got orders to go to Afghanistan. We didn't have time to untangle our lives, so instead of parting company immediately, he left for training, and I stayed in the house. We didn't separate finances. I paid all the bills out of our joint account. I took care of the cars, and the house (which we were renting, but still required TLC) as needed. It was like I was housesitting for a friend.
I think as a military spouse you get an extra dose of pragmatism, and build up a tolerance for the nontraditional. In a lot of ways, the deployment made things easier. I didn’t have to worry about ‘running into him’ at the grocery store or the gym … you know, those chance meetings that rise up to sucker punch you. I had none of those.
I moved out about a month before he came home. I had the place cleaned, as well as his truck detailed. Oh yeah, and I didn't touch his bank account.
But, don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t amicable simply out of the goodness of my heart. I knew that I wanted to leave the marriage as the independent woman I’d entered as, and I needed time to find a job and a place to live. So even if I had wanted to lash out, that sort of behavior would've served no benefit to myself, or my ex -- who I still wanted to come home in one piece.
Emotionally, his deployment gave us the physical and communicative distance that many couples don’t get to have. When I was processing various stages of grief, anger, hopelessness, and disappointment that I'd left my home, career and friends to follow him for the last three years, I couldn’t just pick up the phone and chew him out. He still called or emailed about once a week but, perhaps because he was in a combat zone, those conversations were typically pleasant.
In fact, the hardest part of the whole process was giving up my identity as a proud Navy wife. The military has such a rich, unique culture. There are parts of it I will surely miss. Spouses are instantly invited to join various social clubs to help them avoid feelings of disconnection and isolation in their new home. There were ample opportunities to volunteer on base, which is how I cultivated most of my friendships.
Even now, I miss feeling having that sense of belonging here in North Carolina. This was my home because of the military. When my ex and I separated, I instantly felt that I didn’t belong in these on-base social circles any longer. My feelings of estrangement originated from within me, not from other spouses judging or making me feel unwelcome. (In fact, most rallied around me, trying to tell me It might work out or He might change his mind.)
My church, my volunteer groups and my gym were on base. Now that I'm completely detached, it's like starting all over again. And when did groceries get so darn expensive?! (Plus, let's not even touch the health insurance issue -- I forgot how chunky that bill can get too.) But the biggest challenge is that I feel like I need to wear a sign that says "Military Ex…No Adultery." Because that's what everyone assumes. And when that's not the reason, people are like, Well, then what?! as if cheating is the only valid excuse in the world for splitting.
As for my relationship with my ex, we still talk when we need to. I'm still the cosigner on his car, which is laughable because he makes about four times more than I do at the moment, but I don’t mind. When my truck died, and I didn't have money to put a down payment on a new car, he told me to take some money from our savings (at the time we hadn't yet split the finances) for a down payment, and that he would just deduct that from what we split later.
What I learned from dissolution of my marriage is that, unfortunately, the expectations we hold for a spouse are often reflections of our upbringings whether we like it or not -- at least, that was the case with my ex-husband. As soon as we made the decision that I wouldn't be his wife anymore, our relationship improved immensely. My ex is fine with who I am as a friend, but not as a wife, a partner who is a reflection on him. In the realm of friendship, I think we're now both able to be fans of each other.
As told to Natasha Burton.
* Name has been changed