In honor of Memorial Day, we talked to four military spouses about what what their marriages are really like, especially when one spouse is far away or in combat. They shared some truths about their lives, which are often misunderstood by civilians.
1. Military couples put duty first -- not their marriages.
While common marriage advice holds that a person should place his or her marriage above all else, military spouses often don't. Living with this reality often requires a lot of patience, said Alison Perkins, who serves as the editor of a military spouse resource website, SaluteToSpouses.com. "In a military marriage, duty is first; everything else second,” said Perkins, who lives in Honolulu with her husband, an active-duty soldier in the Army, and their four children.
2. Military wives are not as likely to cheat as their deployed husbands.
A misconception about military marriage is that it frequently involves infidelity, according to Perkins. "People sometimes assume that lots of military wives cheat when their husbands deploy," she said. "I don't doubt that it happens. But in my experience, it isn’t as common as military husbands having an affair with a female soldier while overseas."
"I know many couples that divorced as a result of a relationship that began in the war zone," Perkins said. "It is a huge, unaddressed issue that can cause significant stress for military spouses."
"There would be rumors about military wives hanging out at the clubs while their husbands were in the field," said Sgt. First Class Kent Phyfe. "Being a career soldier, I can say that ... while not unheard of, it does not happen very much at all."
"The military is a cross section of our society, and just as in civilian communities, there are always promiscuous men and women," hd said. "The type of work soldiers deal with tend to attract partners that have similar attractions to duty, honor and commitment," added Phyfe, who served in the Army from 1980 to 1996 and now works with VetDogs, an organization that provides guide, service and therapy dogs to members of military with a disability.
3. Military spouses can lose their sense of self, since their partners' career of service often takes precedence over theirs.
Laura DiSilverio spent 20 years in the Air Force. Her daughter was not yet 2 and she was pregnant with her second child when she found out that she would be stationed in England. The entire family picked up and moved abroad and her husband became a stay-at-home dad. “I had a squadron command that was very demanding, so [Tom] took up the slack at home," recalled DiSilverio, who has been married 19 years to her husband, an Air Force reservist.
"It was very challenging for him to take on that role with virtually no support system in a foreign country," she said. "A lot of military spouses have trouble with their sense of identity, especially when the kids get older. It's especially hard on men who are socialized to get such a large part of their sense of self from their careers."
But, just because the career of a military spouse takes precedence at one point, that doesn't mean it always will. "Marriage is about sacrifice, about one person's job taking precedence right now, with the understanding that the other spouse’s needs will take precedence in the future," DiSilverio said. When she retired in 2004, she and her husband switched roles and she became the stay-at-home parent.
"My husband sacrificed his career goals for most of the years that I was on active duty, with the understanding that I would retire," she said. Now, DiSilverio writes mystery novels and parents her kids full time. “Spying was easier,” she said. Her ninth novel is scheduled to come out in June.
4. Military spouses can have a harder time finding work than their partners who served.
Marie Ruediger, from San Diego, Calif., said that she has been seeking employment since March 2011 but has not had a single interview. Even though she expects to earn her master's degree this year, employers seem to be more interested in speaking about job opportunities to her husband, who retired from the Navy in 2010.
"Whenever folks learn that I am the wife of a military veteran, they always ask for my husband to be the person that they hire," she said. "It's ironic because my husband does not want to be the primary breadwinner now; he wants to go to school to get his bachelor's degree. We had even agreed that I should be the primary breadwinner [now that he's retired] because I have the academic background.”
5. Military couples can't plan anything in advance -- not even their kids' birthday parties -- which can continually test their marriages.
“Before I could plan my son's fifth birthday party next month, my husband had to put a request in to make sure he would not be put on duty that weekend and miss it,” Perkins said. Her husband's schedule is set only a month in advance and it's very hard for him to change it. “Any day that you absolutely need to have off, you should request a leave day," she said. "You cannot make plans until it is approved."
"And even then they can withdraw your leave if they need you to work, regardless of what you have planned," Perkins said. "It can be very frustrating."
Perkins believes that she's learned a thing or two about resilience from being a military spouse. "Ever try moving 4,000 miles with three kids, a very pregnant wife and a large dog with only six weeks' notice?" she asked. “That alone could make or break you as a couple. Now, try doing it a half a dozen times or more over the course of a marriage. You either learn to work together or you break apart trying.”
6. The logistical aspects of being a military spouse can be a welcome distraction from the fact that your spouse could die at any moment.
DiSilverio compares the fear of her husband getting hurt -- or worse -- in the field to a constant headache, "always lurking, keeping you a bit more on edge than you would normally be." When her husband was deployed to Iraq, her daughters were 3 and 5 and she was working as a deputy group commander.
"I almost welcomed the logistical difficulties of keeping our lives running, of coordinating day care and school and job and activities because it kept my mind occupied so I didn’t dwell on the danger [my husband] Tom might be in," DiSilverio said.
Phyfe said that because the stakes of service are so high, military marriages require a certain degree of strength, which he said can ultimately help keep military couples together. "[We] deal with life and death daily so the fear that has to be overcome is something that creates a friendship and love like no other," he said.
7. Homecomings might be happy, but they aren’t easy on either spouse.
Many people think that coming home is the best part, Phyfe said. While the reunion is great, he said that his wife "readily admits" that the process of him reintegrating back into their family life is one of the hardest parts about being a military couple.
"While I was away 'doing Army things,' my wife had to be the wife/husband/mother/father all rolled into one and handled all of the other daily chores. When I came home, I wanted to jump in and take back those roles that I felt were mine," he says. "My wife did not want to go through the process of releasing those duties only to be thrust back into them again at a moment’s notice. This strain of that coming and going is amplified in a military family."
8. The military is culturally progressive when it comes to marriage.
While the military as an institution might be perceived as being overly traditional -- even closed-minded -- when it comes to marriage, Ruediger believes that the military made her interracial relationship possible. She is an Asian-Pacific Islander, while her husband is white. The military gave her husband exposure to different ethnic backgrounds, she said.
"My paternal grandfather was in the U.S. Army, my older brother was in the U.S. Navy, and I grew up on Guam, U.S.A., which is very diverse," Ruediger said. "So my parents were more accepting of our marriage compared to my husband’s rural Missouri relatives, who have not been as tolerant because their community is primarily white."
9. Married service members can't share details of their work with their spouses, which can be frustrating to both partners.
When most spouses come home, they swap stories about their days. Military spouses can't let each other in on some of the biggest details about their jobs. "One of the hardest things is not being allowed access to what your spouse really does," DiSilverio said.
"I was an intelligence officer doing highly classified work, and I couldn't talk about it with my husband, kids or friends. They couldn’t visit my office, except maybe for a Christmas party, and so felt distanced from what I did every day." Most civilian spouses can relate to what their wives and husbands do each day when they hold familiar jobs -- like teacher, lawyer or accountant, she said. "Not so with the spouse who flies an F-22 or serves as a C-130 loadmaster."
10. For military spouses, respect for their partner's service can make the time apart more bearable.
"People assume that deployments, weird work schedules and frequent moves put too much stress on marriages," DiSilverio said. "Those things do stress marriages, but military couples seem to have coping mechanisms or realistic expectations or something that enable them to weather the separations and anxiety."
This hardiness might have something to do with the pride that spouses feel for their partners’ willingness to serve and the deep sense of respect this fosters.
"It's uplifting to know your spouse is serving the nation, defending this country, not just chasing the almighty dollar," she said. “My husband is retiring from the reserves this summer after 30 years, and thinking about his passion for the military and the sacrifices he’s made -- career-wise and family-wise -- to serve his country can bring me to tears. He's the best person I know."