Marriage: Learning Your Language

Relationships don’t always last, especially when you serve in the military.

I didn’t think too much of this reality when I was a kid watching my dad’s relationship with my mom.  He had a failed significant partnership before with the mother of his son and my mother ended her marriage to my biological father despite having three kids to support.  (Her and my dad later had a child together.)  Their partnership was something I always wanted for myself.  It was easy to not focus on their arguments but the playful way they supported each other.

One of my fondest memories is seeing how he wrote “D” on the envelopes of all the cards he gave her; I loved how instead of writing her full name, he left an impact with the simple ‘D’ for Dawn.

As kids we don’t always see the struggles our parents have in their partnerships and certainly, it’s hard to see how military service (and frequent separations) can place greater demands on a married couple.  My mother divorced my biological father who served in the Navy and not surprisingly, she found another sailor who made her happy and became the last love of her life.  I am my mother this way; I wasn’t intentionally drawn to guys in uniform but my proximity to them made them my them my preferred partner options.  That sounds silly, doesn’t it?  However, it’s not like any of us go to great lengths to scour this earth for a partner.

We tend to find people who naturally come across our path.  When I served, I did not set out to ‘find a man’ but to find a purpose in my life following a journey started by my friend, Barton Carroll.  I knew I might find someone to date over time but that was a normal life experience, and I thought I could retain some control and privacy over that area in my life.  I thought anything shared with my work family would be of my choosing, not that my work family would choose what was their business as it related to my personal life.

It was easy to see early on during my short Marine Corps career dating was a tricky area.  I could not date and have my partnership be a private matter.  To this day, it bothers me that my privacy was not respected.  I was eager to separate my dating life from my work life but others would not permit to go unnoticed; it’s funny too because people often thing women are full of drama but I found men are just as bad, sometimes worse.  The transition from dating into exploring marriage was also under scrutiny.

I naively thought my command would be respectful of my decision to get married, but I was subject to stories of their marriage trouble.  These tales were not woven from hearts guided by leadership to encourage me to think wisely about the promises I entered into but instead tales of insecurity spoken without any real purpose.  These men were taking a moment (a really inappropriate moment) to bitch about their wives.

In my opinion, it’s ok that not everyone gets married.  If the “leaders” at my second unit were a bit more mature at the point they decided to get married, I don’t think they would have shared the same stories with me years later in 2006 when I married my husband.  Instead, I think they would have focused on the values to keep in mind for good and bad days because we all have them.

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Not too long ago I was happy to find some important advice as it relates to partnerships in Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  He describes love as a verb and a feeling.  I’ve never hear someone describe it as such before and his poetic explanation is something I hope to remember often.

“Proactive people make love a verb.  Love is something you do…[l]ove is a value that is actualized through loving actions” (p. 80).

Looking back, I was quite frustrated trying to figure out why I was more serious about my relationships than my partners.  Back then, I thought dating could be simple.  I love you, you love me. I thought I could be the perfect partner by not being like the “last girl”, the woman who left and essentially “took it all.”  I recognized we all bring some emotional baggage into our partnerships but I thought that we could treat the baggage as just a conversation piece, like a note you unfold and toss when no longer necessary.  I did not realize how often it was more tangible, like real luggage that occupies physical space and requires energy to move around into a more convenient location in someone’s life.  Like you move luggage from the hallway to the closet so you don’t trip on it all the time.

As a child, I did not see my parents’ emotional baggage.  I didn’t know how hard it was for my dad to not develop a strong relationship with his son because his ex was spurned.  I didn’t know how much my biological father disappointed my mother.  Instead, I saw their marriage dotted with overt sentimentality.  I could see the gifts and hugs but I did not see the difficult conversations, especially those brought on by the difficult landscape of a military career.

My husband and I also traversed similarly difficult landscape.  Early in our marriage, I thought sharing the same branch of service and MOS tidied up the landscape for us.  We could bond over the fun parts of the Corps (seriously, the Marine Corps birthday is the best!) and complain about the same things like how ridiculous it is to have your room inspected EVERY. SINGLE. WEEK.  (We did not yet experience what it was like for both of us to have deployments.)  Unlike many of our peers, we did not come into our relationship with children from past relationships and I also felt this ‘freedom’ provided us an opportunity to take directions in our partnership not always accessible to those who must share custody with former partners.  I speak very much from personal experience when I say it’s not difficult to love someone who bore children with someone else.  It’s just a giant pain in the ass to know there are restrictions when that person must share custody and be less biographically available to take new opportunities.

To people who don’t know me well it will sound strange to say early on in my partnership my husband and I decided it would be best for the longevity of our partnership for me to take the chance and switch units.  Junior personnel took personal offense to our partnership, despite the fact they felt if roles were reversed it would be “no big deal.”    We felt our relationship would be under less scrutiny if we did not work together.  When the opportunity to work elsewhere came along we took decisive steps to guarantee a personal change of duty station and along the way got tugged between the new unit indicating I would and later would not be deploying to Iraq.  (I ended up deploying anyway after we were pretty happy with the notion of not deploying.  C’est la vie!).

Unlike previous relationships, I learned quickly a business-like tenacity was required and he was either onboard or wasn’t and because I had been disappointed before, I was more blunt than I’ve probably been with anyone else.  I wasn’t looking for someone to fulfill me.  That just wasn’t happening in my life.  I would make some over-the-top effort to show someone he was appreciated and each effort ended terribly with me feeling like I wasn’t worth being loved, otherwise why would those people rebuff me the way they had?  Instead, I looked for something else.  I wanted to go out and have a good time.  I looked for something simple.  I wanted us to split the cost of the experiences we shared together.  Maybe it’s weird to say I set ground rules (because I didn’t) but for probably the first time I made sure we approached decision making together.

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Many of the decisions were quite mundane but I wanted to know I would be ok if he left.  I would be ok if it didn’t work out.  I didn’t want the situation to be too risky and then feel blindsided when/if he became risk adverse about the future.  I would still have a path to follow if my ‘business partner’ left the partnership.  Certainly, there is a way that I loved with complete abandon that was part of my past MO that I struggle to bring back, to offer to my husband.

I see that attitude in how I talk with certain girl and guy friends.  It’s often confused for romantic interest or conveys to people a friendship longer than our true investment in each other.  It’s never intentional to exclude my husband from that carefree/barriers down/adventurous spirit I possess but I know with others I don’t have the same responsibilities.  For this reason, there are many times I slip into this mindset without thinking of it at all; I just jump in wherever we last left off until we have to unfortunately say goodbye again.  They can love and hate me all in the same week and we won’t be stuck seeing each other late at night when either one of us is at our ugliest throwing up from the flu and someone needs to buy crackers and ginger ale.  I won’t be sitting across from them waiting for support when my daughter pushes my buttons one too many times and an unfortunate swear word slips too easily off my tongue and I’ve hurt her feelings.  I don’t need my friends to rescue me from those moments but I definitely need them from my spouse.

Tomorrow is my 11th wedding anniversary (Ok, like 10 minutes from right now since it’s 11:50pm) which is why I’ve felt it crucial to talk from a real perspective.  No person is perfect.  No marriage is perfect.  Just because I don’t lay bear every mistake I’ve ever made does not mean I do not make bad decisions or have a carefree life.  Society often crafts a message that marriage should be this blissful experience ALWAYS.  The message gets warped further that the other person should love us and risk everything because that’s what love really is, after all.  Not quite.  These tainted messages make us think that a good marriage is out-of-reach or that marriage is the epitome of happiness.  I know plenty of people who are happy without being married to their partners and others who, in spite of arguing all the time, truly enjoy each other’s company.

My husband’s job is to help me accomplish my goals as my responsibility is to help him accomplish his dreams; it’s not that either person has a greater right to having their needs met but that we equally work towards shared goals, particularly financial stability and personal satisfaction.  We won’t equally bring in the same paycheck nor will be always be on the same success trajectory with our careers, but we can support each other during transition points.  We have a lot of work probably for the duration of our lives based on the deployment stress we encountered but we talk about those things just like we also talk about fun stuff (vacations, extra money, etc.).  To the people who didn’t want to jump in a long term endeavor with me, I am fairly certain they will (or have) found out the same things I did.

Compromise and sacrifice make marriage work and also make work of marriage.




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