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Safeguard Your Marriage

How to handle stumbling blocks that are unique to Soldiers
©Shutterstock
©Shutterstock

To the outside world, Brian and Ashley Morgan are a typical young married couple, living a normal American life complete with one adorable tot, two equally adorable golden retrievers, two careers and two sets of supportive grandparents.

But the Morgans face obstacles that never cross the paths of their peers, because both are captains in the Minnesota Army National Guard.

So far, those challenges have included Ashley’s deployment to Afghanistan while they dated; coordinating parenting time around drill schedules; managing stress while they’re apart during training; balancing civilian careers with soldiering duties—and absorbing the ever-present knowledge that, at any time, one of them could be called up for a mission.

This fall, Brian was away in Georgia for training, so Ashley was on her own to take care of their feisty toddler, Sophia, among other things.

“Separation when we’re training is a more consistent level of stress than deployment,” Ashley says. “There are moments when it’s overwhelming—when I have dogs not behaving and my daughter is screaming. And then I wish he were here to experience it, too. I admit it—I get resentful.” 

The Morgans aren’t alone—and neither are you. According to the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center, Guard couples “face a variety of distinct issues that add stress and complication to their lives and can either directly or indirectly affect marriage and relationship quality.”  

But those issues do not preclude you from a happy marriage. Here’s how to approach some of the most common hurdles, with suggestions from Kentucky Guard Chaplain (MAJ) William C. Draper and insight from Guard couples themselves:


REUNITING AFTER DEPLOYMENT OR LONG SEPARATION
Deployments carry their own unique pressures, but most couples don’t struggle until after they’ve reunited, Draper says. Changed family dynamics that occur during separations can strain relationships. 

“A lot of times when downrange, you put off issues that may be dormant: finances, major purchases, trust issues. So when you come back, you revisit them,” Draper says.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Be aware of those issues before the separation occurs, says Lena Winburn, who is married to Captain Chris Winburn of the Kentucky Guard. 

Lena is a war widow—her first husband was killed in Iraq in 2006. So when Chris deployed to Iraq in 2010, it was particularly hard on them, she says. “Being aware of stress that separations can bring is a great step forward. Then when you are aware, ask yourself: ‘What can I do to make my partner feel better about being apart?’ ” Lena says. 

Draper says, “A lot of times, it’s just a breakdown in communication—not that you don’t love each other, but that you let guilt or resentment creep in. On the homefront, there is guilt about mismanagement of money, making bad decisions, feeling like you’re not supporting your Soldier, trying to keep up with kids … it’s a lot of stress.”  

If you have trouble communicating deep-seated concerns or issues, turn to resources like Strong Bonds, Family Assistance Centers or confidential couples counseling with your unit chaplain, Draper says.


EMOTIONAL WELL-BEING AND PTSD
Simply put, both of you can be strapped into an emotional roller coaster at any moment.  

“In most cases, the problem is the fear of the unknown,” Draper says. And that fear goes both ways, whether you’re the one at home worried about someone on a mission, or you’re the Soldier, worried about how things are going at home. It’s also common for Guard spouses and children to feel pride in the contribution they and their Soldier are making to our country, but at the same time feel anger over being left behind with the burden of family responsibilities.

Additionally, post-traumatic stress disorder can strike without warning. “You could be four years down the road and have a trigger that brings you back to a place in Iraq that was not good,” Draper says. 

PTSD symptoms include avoidance, emotional numbing and hyperarousal. These effects can devastate spouses seeking to reconnect emotionally with their Veteran, only to encounter resistance or rage.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Seek help immediately, starting with the VA’s Vet Center Program. Centers provide free, confidential counseling and are normally run by a licensed clinical social worker who is also a combat Veteran, Draper says. 


EMPLOYMENT AND FINANCES
Many Guard troops who deployed to combat zones during the past decade made more money than they would have at their civilian jobs. So lack of money isn’t always the issue, Draper says; instead, it’s how that money is managed. 

Additionally, Draper has observed younger Soldiers quitting their civilian jobs before deployments because they felt their employers weren’t supportive. They are then faced with finding new jobs after returning home, which adds stress to marriages. Factor in many of these couples’ ages—19 to early 20s—and emotional immaturity can wreak havoc on money management discussions, he adds.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Rather than avoid financial obligations, talk to lenders who can set up payment arrangements, Draper says. Your state’s Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve office can also help you with employer issues or with finding another job. 

Aim to be open with your spouse about finances, and agree on a system that will work for both of you. For the Morgans, “We have no separate pots of money,” Brian says. “I manage bills and track everything with a master spreadsheet. If I’m going away, she has full access to it.”

The Winburns take a different tack—they each have a personal account but also share a separate account. “Bills get paid out of the mutual account, and we both contribute to it,” Chris says. “Our system grants each of us autonomy with a portion of our earnings, while maintaining a contribution to the family as a whole.”

Also check out MilitaryOneSource.mil, which offers free financial counseling to Soldiers.


KIDS AND PARENTING
Ever try parenting from 7,000 miles away? If you’re a Guard mom or dad, you may have. Soldiers who are downrange may feel helpless or guilty for not being present when a child is struggling with issues ranging from potty training to bullying. Conflicts can arise easily between spouses over how to handle kids’ challenges.  

Any length of separation between parent and child can create stress, especially given the unknown of how a child will react. Ashley said a previous separation from Sophia proved difficult for both Mom and baby.

“I went to Annual Training, and my in-laws watched her,” Ashley says. “She almost rejected me when I got back. It was emotional and tough. She was bawling and would run away, and it was weird. She kept calling for Grandma, too.”

WHAT YOU CAN DO: When it comes to parenting, Draper says, “The first thing you have to do is not fight among yourselves. Your spouse is not the enemy. Understand that you have to work together.”

Also, reach out to resources that can both help your child and assist you with communicating your kid’s needs. School guidance counselors, for example, can shore up support from teachers to help your child during the school day. Or tap your state’s National Guard Family Program for referrals. Other resources include your chaplain, Military OneSource and Strong Bonds.


SUICIDE OR DEATH OF A LOVED ONE
While deployed to Afghanistan, Draper spent hours on the phone with a Soldier’s stateside wife who was contemplat-ing suicide, finally convincing her to drive to the nearest military post, where she was able to get immediate help. He has also helped Soldiers cope with the loss of comrades. “Death—particularly suicide—changes the dynamic of the deployment and sets a mood among the Soldiers,” Draper says.

And whether or not they are combat-related, deaths can affect marriages, too, because everyone grieves differently.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: If your Soldier tells you about the death of a comrade, “the first thing to do is comfort them,” Draper says. “Then do what we do as Americans—pay your respects. Go to the visitation or the funeral, check on the family. And try to talk. Chaplains are confidential sources, so refer to us or your own clergy. Even if you’re not religious, you can still talk to the chaplain.”

And be mindful of the grieving process. “It’s normal to grieve,” he says. “But when you withdraw and don’t eat or are acting out … that’s when it’s time to seek a professional’s help.”

 

Photos courtesy of the Morgan and Winburn families