If you're in the military and are also married to a service member, you know that the dual military lifestyle isn't easy. Juggling the demands of two hectic careers and trying to stay connected during the inevitable separations can strain even the best relationships. Yet dual military relationships can survive and thrive when spouses learn techniques for balancing work and family life and develop effective strategies for dealing with the stress and sacrifice they are sure to encounter.
Anticipating the challenges
Couples who foresee the challenges of a dual military marriage and confront hardships with eyes wide open will have an advantage over those with less realistic expectations. These tips can help you understand and prepare for the realities of your demanding lifestyle:
Accept the certainty of separation. Family separation due to deployments and remote or unaccompanied assignments is a fact of life for military families. If you are a dual military couple, you are likely to spend even more time apart than the typical military family does. Dual military couples should not expect to be together at every duty location throughout their careers. And a demanding operations tempo sometimes means that one member of a dual military couple comes home from a long deployment just in time to say goodbye to a deploying spouse.
Expect difficult career decisions. During the course of a marriage between two active duty service members, most couples will have to make trade-offs between career and family. Passing up a career-enhancing assignment or school to stay together, or accepting a less desirable job so the spouse can advance, are decisions almost every dual career couple has had to face. As service members progress in rank and responsibility, these decisions often become more difficult.
Acknowledge the likelihood of sacrifices by children, extended family, and friends. Dual military couples, especially those with children, frequently have to call on family and friends to make sacrifices in support of their military service. Your family members may assume the role of caregiver to your children for short or long periods of time. Asking children to make sacrifices and accepting help from extended family and friends can sometimes become a source of guilt and a cause of conflict in dual military relationships.
Understand how differences in rank, career management fields, and branches of Service increase challenges. There are at least three conditions that magnify challenges for dual military marriages:
- When two service members of different rank marry, they may not have the common experiences and understanding of each other's career expectations that couples who are closer in rank have. These differences can be especially difficult for officer-enlisted marriages.
- Difficulties being assigned together are greater when spouses belong to different career-management fields or communities, or have incompatible specialty designators (e.g., the same low-density specialty or different specialties not needed in the same locations).
- Members of dual career relationships between service members in different Service branches tend to undergo the greatest hardships. To be together, they have to rely on coordination across branches and on the chances that their assignment managers will be able to find suitable assignments in areas where both Services operate.
Developing positive coping strategies
There are skills, habits, and attitudes you can adopt as a dual military couple to help you work together to manage the realities of your lifestyle. Do your best to:
Focus on communication. Communication is an essential ingredient of all healthy relationships and a critical skill for couples balancing family and two demanding careers. Good communication involves making a commitment to talk to each other often, even if it has to be by email, video chat, or phone. Dual military couples usually interact frequently to plan and coordinate family responsibilities around demanding duty schedules-but it's also important to reserve some time together for expressing your thoughts and feelings.
Honor each other's career and personal goals. Dual military couples married for a long time say that consideration for each other's career aspirations is one of the main reasons for their success. Honoring your partner's military goals means taking his or her career as seriously as your own. Sometimes it means making sacrifices in your own career choices. It can also mean learning as much as you can about your partner's career field so you'll be in a better position to help him or her advance.
Be prepared to switch roles. Dual career couples learn quickly that they can't have rigid expectations for their relationship roles. They need flexibility to accommodate both careers. With a deployment or change in duty for one spouse, the other spouse may suddenly have different family responsibilities. Picking up children from child care, preparing meals, paying the bills, staying home with a sick child, or maintaining vehicles-these are examples of activities that can shift in response to the demands of military duty.
Develop career relationships with people supportive of your goals. As a dual military couple, you may encounter people who have difficulty accepting others in nontraditional roles and relationships. In your professional and social activities, it's wise to seek out people who understand and support the dual career lifestyle and avoid spending time with those who don't. Having a mentor who gives you sound advice on managing your career while married to another service member can be helpful, too.
Take advantage of professional support services to help you manage dual career challenges before they threaten your marriage. Communication, negotiation, and the ability to juggle competing demands on your relationship are skills that don't always come naturally. If you and your spouse need to improve your relationship, don't wait to seek help. Military OneSource, your installation Family Support Center, or your chaplain can help.
Remember to recognize and appreciate the benefits of dual career military life. It's easy to get caught up in the difficulties of balancing work and family and lose sight of the rewards. In a successful dual military marriage, spouses are able to appreciate a special kind of bond. You understand each other's experiences and can relate to the other's career triumphs and challenges in ways nonmilitary spouses can't. Be sure to stop and reflect on the positive aspects of your lives together and recognize that your experience with teamwork and shared sacrifice make your relationship even stronger.
Actions every dual military couple should take
If you and your spouse understand the challenges of dual military careers, accept the demands on your marriage and family, and plan to stay in the military together, you can take steps to improve your chances of achieving personal and professional goals. Here are a few suggestions:
Take a proactive role in finding joint assignments. Each branch of Service has a program for assigning married couples to the same duty location or within 100 miles of each other. Programs such as the Air Force Joint Spouse Program and the Married Army Couples Program do their best to ensure joint assignments, but there are never guarantees.
Seek agreement on dual career expectations. To avoid marital conflict resulting from different expectations for joint careers, it's important to come to an understanding as a couple about your career aspirations. Having a shared vision for your future and a commitment to joint decision making when choices have to be made will help you keep career goals from getting in the way of relationship goals.
Have realistic contingency plans with options for different scenarios. After completing the required Family Care Plan, you may also need to develop contingency plans for different situations that go beyond the military's requirements. For example, you will need a plan to make sure your bills are paid and your finances are in order when you, your spouse, or both of you are deployed. And your plans for the care of children may be different during the summer and during the school year.
Give your best to every military assignment. It may seem obvious, but service members in dual military marriages improve their chances of favorable consideration on dual career issues when they work hard and do an outstanding job. Your chain of command will be more invested in keeping you in the Service and together with your spouse when you are a proven performer. It's also likely that commanding officers will take a greater interest in both of your careers when they know you both, so participating in each other's command activities may have benefits beyond simply being there for each other.
Reach out for support when you need it. There are resources available to help you manage the demands of being a dual military couple. Non-medical counseling services available through Military OneSource or Military and Family Life Counselors (MFLC) are free, short term, and solution focused, and address a variety of issues, such as improving relationships at home and at work, marital issues, grief and loss (normal reactions that would benefit from short-term support), adjusting to a change in situation (such as a return from deployment or permanent change of duty station), and other issues that are non-medical in nature. You can access Military OneSource online or by calling 1 (800) 342-9647, and you can find out about MFLC services through your installation Family Programs. You can also reach out to your installation chaplain for confidential counseling services.