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The separation of a deployment, the pressures of reintegration or just the overall challenges of life in the military can put a strain on couples and families. Strong Bonds, the chaplain-led program that provides retreats for spouses or partners (some events include children too), can help you deal with those issues and more. At these retreats, you’ll get practical advice on how to improve communication and how to prepare for and manage conflicts. And you’ll meet and learn from other couples who understand what you go through. But don’t take our word for it. We asked three couples who recently attended a Strong Bonds getaway to share what they learned.
SFC VICTOR AND AMANDA LOPEZ
HOME: Riverdale, NY
OCCUPATIONS: Victor works full time out of the Jamaica Armory in Queens, NY, as a readiness NCO. He deployed in 2007/2008 with the 1/258th Field Artillery Battalion to Afghanistan. Amanda’s a fashion designer who works in Manhattan for the Jones Group.
YEARS TOGETHER: Dated for four years; married for one year.
BACKGROUND: After meeting online and dating for two years, Victor, 42, proposed to Amanda, 26, at the top of the Empire State Building. Victor’s 11-year-old son, Camil, rounds out their family. They enjoy an active lifestyle, which includes rollerblading and going to the gym.
WHY THEY WENT: As an NCO, Victor was familiar with Strong Bonds, and when his chaplain suggested the retreat would be a great way to get premarital counseling, he and Amanda agreed. Shortly before tying the knot, they attended a couples’ retreat in West Point, NY.
WHAT THEY DID: The retreat, titled “The 8 Successful Habits of a Healthy Marriage,” concentrated on a variety of interactive exercises. Working with other attendees, Victor and Amanda learned techniques designed to improve their communication as individuals and as a couple. One of their favorite exercises was drawing a picture of what the perfect partner would look like.
Amanda drew a shoe. She explains: “There are [many] types of shoes. Some of them are impractical, but they look good, and some are practical, but they’re not very stylish, and some don’t fit. So it’s all about finding the person who’s the right fit.”
Victor drew a family. “Family is important to me,” he says. “So I thought of the family, the circle [we form] and the trust [that comes from that].”
FAVORITE PART: “Date Night,” where a couple shares an evening out, was a high point. Amanda was charmed by the chaplains who ran the event. “They did some role-playing that was very funny,” she says. “Some of them pretended to be the wife!”
SURPRISES? Group discussions about intimacy were an unexpected aspect of the retreat, but the couple embraced it. “They got into a lot of sexual details,” Victor says. “But it wasn’t uncomfortable or anything.”
TAKEAWAYS: “They taught us the proper ways to work on our differences and communicate as a couple and a family,” Amanda says. This was especially applicable to them as they began their lives as a stepfamily. They also came away with a renewed sense of themselves as a couple, understanding the importance of keeping the romance alive in their relationship despite the challenges of parenthood.
ADVICE TO COUPLES: “We would say do it! Even if it’s not something you necessarily need, it reminds you why you’re together and what you may be forgetting as a couple,” Amanda says.
CPT JOHNNY AND ERIN BROWN
HOME: Columbia, SC
OCCUPATIONS: Johnny is a full-time aviator who deployed to Iraq and Kuwait from 2011 to 2012 with the 1/151st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion. Erin is a mom and works as an executive at Isagenix.
YEARS TOGETHER: Married for eight years.
BACKGROUND: Erin, 31, and Johnny, 33, started dating in high school and have been going strong ever since. They have three children: Brooke, 5, Joshua, 2, and Brynne, 3 months. In their free time, the couple enjoys watching movies. They’ve also just been cast in a play at their church.
WHY THEY WENT: Six months after Johnny returned from Iraq, he and Erin attended a family retreat to build on the reintegration work they’d begun.
“We wanted to continue to reconnect to those things that help you build and mend relationships,” Johnny says. Plus, “time together away from home, with child care provided, was a simple yes for us,” Erin adds.
WHAT THEY DID: In one event, everyone played a game in which they rated themselves on spiritual development, communication, trust and other areas. “There was this magnetic board, which we still have, which has a meter and you rate yourself on it. Everyone would use the meter; then we’d go around the room and talk about it,” Johnny says.
They also watched videos that led to a group discussion. “I discovered that sometimes when we get angry, there’s a tendency to shut down and stop listening to each other,” Johnny says. Erin says she explained that sometimes you have to make yourself vulnerable. “My example was that if we’ve had a miscommunication and Johnny has shut down, I make myself vulnerable by stripping away my clothes and just walking around. And I tell him, ‘You know what? If you wanna talk to me, I’m here; I’m ready to talk.’ ”
When that happens, “That will normally change my attitude pretty fast!” Johnny says, laughing. Erin says a woman at the retreat took her tip to heart and tried it that day. “She said it worked perfectly.”
FAVORITE PART: Listening to the older couples and hearing how they shared similar issues was great for the Browns’ marital morale. “They’ve figured out how to stay together and work through those issues,” Johnny says. Erin was a big fan of the open discussions.
SURPRISES? The fact that the retreat was laid back despite being so organized.
TAKEAWAYS: They developed a deeper understanding for each other as individuals, especially regarding how things affect or even irritate the other person.
ADVICE TO COUPLES: “I would personally encourage anyone who’s married, whether they’re having issues or not, to just go,” Johnny says. Erin concurs. “It’s easier to face [your problems] together than from opposite sides of the ring.”
COL JONI AND RIC MATHEWS
HOME: Sun Prairie, WI
OCCUPATIONS: Joni is the chief of staff for the Wisconsin Army National Guard; Ric works for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
YEARS TOGETHER: Married for 24 years.
BACKGROUND: The Mathewses have two children, Shannon, 16, and Lindsey, 14. Joni attended the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA, for a year, graduating in 2011 with a master’s degree in strategic management. They met at Fort Rucker, AL, in 1987 when Ric was an air traffic controller and Joni was a helicopter pilot. “She flew into my airfield, I heard her on the radio, fell in love with her voice, went down and met her, and the rest is history,” he says.
WHY THEY WENT: Joni’s stint at the War College was, in effect, a deployment. So they attended a family retreat to prepare for the changes they knew they would be making. “The whole purpose of going was to get us all on the same sheet of music,” Ric explains. “It really, really prepared us for what we didn’t know we were getting into.”
WHAT THEY DID: The first evening featured an icebreaker that enabled the attendees to get acquainted. Ric was surprised by how comfortable he felt, and that set the tone for the entire weekend. “All of a sudden, you’re laughing with people you didn’t know a few minutes before,” Ric says.
One of the exercises required attendees to fill out a questionnaire, then discuss the answers. “It really drove home the importance of communication—how important it is to talk with your kids and be honest with them,” Joni says. Team-building exercises, which included the entire family, were also a feature they enjoyed.
FAVORITE PART: Seeing everyone open up emotionally. “Some of the people were quiet and reserved at the beginning, but by the end of the weekend, everybody was engaged and participating,” Ric says.
SURPRISES? “I was surprised at the amount of tools they gave us,” Joni says. Ric agrees, adding that he and the kids used them while Joni was gone.
TAKEAWAYS: Many of the interactive exercises clarified the communication process for the family, especially when they added a technique called “active listening” to their toolbox. “We learned we have to listen to each other, feel the emotion, and provide good feedback and good conversation,” Joni explains. “I think the biggest piece we brought away from this is the importance of family meetings. Sit down, talk to each other, and either clear the air or refresh the air,” Ric says.
ADVICE TO COUPLES: “Definitely make the time to go!” Joni says.
Ric agrees wholeheartedly. “Initially, I went to the retreat reluctantly. But I came away saying, ‘Oh, wow! I want to do this again.’ ”
HOW TO FIND A STRONG BONDS EVENT
Go to StrongBonds.org to look for a retreat in your region.