Their rugged combat uniforms and shining ceremonials, the belts, boots, and berets, confident strides and courteous mannerisms – there is so much that makes military personnel so attractive and hard to resist. Once the whirlwind romance and initial thrill of dating settle, the reality of military relationships challenges begins to rear its head. That’s when you realize that maintaining military relationships takes a different kind of mettle and level of commitment.
As a military spouse for over a decade, these trials, tribulations, and the rollercoaster of challenges have always hit too close to home for me to know that there is nothing easy about choosing to love your partner and honor your commitment to them day after day. While military relationships are hard, they can also be worth every ounce of effort that goes into sustaining them, provided you’re with the right person.
Irrespective of which country your significant other dons the uniform for or which part of the world they’re out in defending their motherland, your struggles as their romantic partner remain more or less the same. As someone who has been able to navigate these challenges somewhat successfully, I’m here to share in the journey of fellow military partners and spouses and offer some military relationship advice to make the experience somewhat less taxing for you and your SO.
Are Military Relationships Hard?
If there was ever a question that answers itself, it’d be this. Amirite? Anyone who has been a part of a military relationship, whether newly dating or married for years, can agree without a moment’s hesitation that military relationships are hard. While all relationships go through problems of their own, these can get amplified when you throw perpetual distance, high stressors, and uncertainty about the future into the mix.
A fact sheet on Relationship Challenges During Military Deployment identifies infidelity, poor communication, stress, anxiety, unmet relationship expectations and needs, and shaky trust among the top military relationship challenges that couples have to grapple with.
Another study carried out in the UK throws up similar patterns of struggles in maintaining military relationships, highlighting “childhood adversity, limited support for and from partners, being in unmarried relationships, financial problems, deploying for more than 13 months in 3 years, and work being above trade, ability, and experience” as the key factors behind relationship difficulties.
Related Reading: 10 Best Military Singles Sites To Try In 2022
Among these, infidelity emerges as one of the most pressing military relationship challenges that threaten a couple’s future. According to military relationships statistics in a study, titled Attachment and Perceived Infidelity of Military Spouses During Active-Deployment, the risk of infidelity is 32.7% higher in military relationships as compared to their civilian counterparts. And about 60% of military couples who seek therapy cite infidelity as a major cause of relationship strain.
Add to these potential landmines a lethal mix of likely mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), and it’s not hard to see why military relationships are hard. However, this is not to say that all military relationships are doomed to fail. Just that you need a different emotional skill set and outlook to figure out how to make military relationships work.
13 Military Relationship Challenges And How To Overcome Them
When I was younger, I often said I’d date anyone but an army man. Having seen the struggles of so many other military spouses in the family, I knew military relationships are hard and was convinced this pack-and-move lifestyle riddled with domineering odds at every step of the way just wasn’t for me. But the heart wants what it wants, and in my case, it wanted a 6’2” hunk in uniform I’ve had the privilege of calling my best friend.
Even though I was dating my best friend, the relationship wasn’t free of its share of troubles and tensions. Nor were those early years of marriage where I was finding my feet as a military spouse, and as a couple, we were yet to find a rhythm to life that worked for both of us. This period was fraught with fights, arguments, screaming matches, disappointments, and crushed hopes. In hindsight, I see in them lost opportunities to make the most of the time we had together.
Today, with consistent efforts from both our ends and some solid military relationship advice from those who had waded through these waters before us, we have managed to build a happy, stable marriage. While there are no set military relationships rules or magic wand to make it all fall in place, I hope to help you do the same with this rundown on the most common military relationship challenges and tips to navigate them:
1. Frequent separation
The biggest reason why military relationships are hard – and the root cause of all the other challenges that follow – are the frequent spells of separation that a couple has to contend with. Be it deployment on foreign soil or guarding a nation’s borders in remote, inaccessible areas, your partner will spend a considerable amount of time away from home.
Depending on the nature of their job, the separation can last anywhere from a few months to a couple of years. Even when you are together, the next prospective separation hangs like a sword over your relationship. You spend a better part of your life navigating the dreaded challenges of a long-distance relationship.
How to cope: These spells of separation might be inevitable, but the toll it takes on your relationship doesn’t have to be. Here are some ways you can make these periods of absence easier on your relationship:
- Make communication a priority, talk to each other as often as possible
- When your partner isn’t available for phone or video calls, send them text messages
- Share the details of your day with them and listen to whatever they can share with you
- Send them care packages
- Create rituals to keep hope alive in the relationship (my partner and I, for instance, count DLTGH – days left to go home – whenever we’re apart and it somehow blunts the sting of being apart)
2. You have to move a lot
One of the military relationship rules that I live by is to be with my partner whenever circumstances allow for it. Given how frequently they’re posted from one place to the next, this means adapting to a pack-and-move lifestyle, which is yet another challenge you have to navigate in military relationships.
You just don’t get to put down roots anywhere. By the time you begin to feel at home in a new place, it’s time to bundle up your entire life in cartons and boxes and start over. This can also be a great impediment to your career, adding to your frustration and sense of unfulfillment, possibly triggering resentment in the relationship.
How to cope: The answer to how to make military relationships work is flexibility and adaptability, especially in coming to terms with the nomadic way of life. Here is how you can make these frequent transitions easier:
- If possible, reinvent your career so that you don’t have to compromise on your goals and dreams to be with your partner
- Remote job roles, work-from-home opportunities, and freelance work profiles are some ways to strike a work-life balance in a military relationship
- Find hobbies and interests you can pursue on a typical military base to stay productively occupied
- Use these as opportunities to bond with like-minded people so that you have a life outside of your relationship even in a new and unfamiliar place
Related Reading: 9 Reasons Relationships Are Hard But Worth It
3. Their world can feel alien to you
The beginning of military relationships can feel a lot like stepping into alien territory, especially if you come from a civilian background. From the endless array of acronyms that your partner may casually throw around in conversation as if they’re common knowledge to customs, rituals, and ceremonial events, it can all be too overwhelming to wrap your head around.
Besides, the bond your partner shares with their buddies can make you feel like an outsider even in the most casual social settings, leaving you wondering if you even belong in their world and triggering a host of relationship insecurities.
How to cope: The simplest military relationship advice to deal with this inevitable curveball is to embrace your partner’s way of life. Here is how:
- Show interest if your partner shares something with you
- Make an effort to learn about their way of life
- Ask questions but don’t push them to share things they aren’t comfortable talking about
- Socialize with other military partners/spouses to learn the ropes
4. Duty comes first, always and every time
Before your partner committed themselves to you, they took an oath to serve and protect their motherland, even at the peril of their own life. To them, duty comes first, always and every time, and there are just no two ways about it.
When duty calls, they will drop everything – from a date night to their own wedding, an anniversary celebration to witnessing the birth of their child – to be where they need to be. Knowing that you will always come second is one of the things that make maintaining military relationships so hard.
How to cope: How to make military relationships work can be a tough question to answer when you know that you can never be your partner’s top priority. Here is how you can cope:
- Acceptance is your best friend in dealing with this relationship challenge
- Remember resisting this inevitability will result in futile tensions that will only harm your bond
- Don’t hold it against your partner, this isn’t something they can control or change
- Make up for missed milestones by celebrating when you’re together; remember it’s the sentiment that counts more than a date on a calendar
Related Reading: Expectations In Relationships: The Right Way To Manage Them
5. You’re on a one-way street of understanding and patience
On account of duty taking precedence over everything else, military relationships can feel a lot like a one-way street of understanding and patience. It can get taxing to always be expected to understand when your partner is not around, to wait around for them patiently, find things to fill your time with when they’re not around, and put your life on hold when they’re back.
This can leave you feeling like you’re the only one making the effort to keep the relationship afloat. That, coupled with the weight of your unmet expectations and a mounting pile of disappointments, can easily make resentment seep into your relationship.
How to cope: To avoid negativity from taking hold of your relationship dynamic, it’s imperative that you both set certain ground rules from the get-go:
- Discuss relationship expectations and state your needs, wants, and desires clearly
- Set clear boundaries in a relationship, and tell your partner how far you’re willing to go to accommodate their way of life and where you draw the line
- Whenever you feel let down or disappointed, communicate it to your partner
- Even if they may not be able to meet you halfway all the time, they have to be prepared to put effort into the relationship to the best of their ability
6. Military relationships are emotionally taxing
Military relationships are a roller-coaster of emotions. You spend a significant portion of your time missing your long-distance partner, longing for their company, and worrying about their well-being. As you start getting used to the idea of not having them around all the time, they come knocking on your door.
The excitement and exhilaration of being together again are accompanied by the unfortunate reality that you have to get used to their presence all over again, making room for them in your home and your life. Besides, a part of you is always worried that sooner or later they’d have to leave again. Your moments of togetherness are on borrowed time, the countdown begins as soon as your partner walks through the door and you’re forever emotionally adjusting to their presence and absence.
How to cope: One of the simplest military relationship rules to cope with this roller coaster of emotions is to give up resistance. Here how:
- Learn to accept togetherness and separation as a way of life
- Live in the moment
- Savor the time you have together
- Make a conscious effort to avoid the spiral of worst-case scenarios when your partner is away or incommunicado
7. There is a part of them you can never reach
As a new military spouse, I once pressed my husband to share what goes on in military exercises. He said, “We’re divided into two teams, each with guns with different color paint pellets. We go out there and shoot each other, and the team with more people standing at the end wins.”
“That sounds an awful lot like paintball,” I said and saw him grinning mischievously. That was my lesson to never prod for information he was not comfortable sharing. As challenging as it may be, you have to accept that your partner’s experiences when they’re deployed in operational areas may never be yours to share.
Apart from the fact that the rules of their employment may prevent them from sharing classified information with anyone, including their significant others, the emotional toll of some of these experiences may be hard to put into words.
How to cope: A reluctance or inability to share things with you may make you feel as if your partner is emotionally distant and aloof. Here is how you can navigate this common challenge in military relationships:
- Look for activities you can bond with your partner over
- Exploring shared interests can give you a lot to talk about
- Just because your partner can’t share certain things with you doesn’t mean you can’t pour your heart out to them
- Whenever they do open up, listen
8. You’re a de facto single parent
Another common struggle that leaves people wondering how to make military relationships work is that of raising children. There is no doubt that parenthood changes your relationship with your partner and your life in unimaginable ways but the toll is a lot higher when you’re in a military relationship. If you have children with your partner, the responsibility for their upbringing will largely fall on you. Given the amount of emotional and physical labor that goes into raising a child, this can leave you feeling overwhelmed, isolated and alone.
Not only will your partner miss out on being a part of your children’s growing up journey when they’re away but also when they’re around, the demands of their profession may prevent them from giving their 100% to their responsibilities as a parent. From first steps and first words to missed school recitals and birthdays, there will be a lot of heartbreaking moments where you’d have to swallow your own hurt and disappointment for the sake of your child and also your partner.
How to cope: This can honestly be one of the hardest parts of military relationships but you can find a way to push through with tact and maturity. Here is how to cope:
- Accept and be prepared for this reality before you decide to bring a child into this world
- Remember it takes a village to raise a child
- Don’t hesitate to ask for help from family and loved ones
- Cultivate strong community relationships so that you have the right support system to see you through this time
- Daycare, creche, house help – invest in whatever resources necessary to make sure you are not left feeling overwhelmed
- Create room for your partner to be as involved in your children’s lives as they can be
Related Reading: 12 Tips To Be A Successful Single Mother
9. Your partner may not be comfortable expressing emotions
Years of military training and service, and time spent in operational areas may harden up your significant other to a great extent. As a result, expressing emotions and displays of affection may not come easily to your partner. When you’re already struggling with the challenges of physical distance, dealing with an emotionally distant partner can make matters worse. There may be moments when you even find yourself questioning why you’re in a relationship you get so little out of.
How to cope: One of the simplest military relationship advice that will hold you in good stead in these moments of self-doubt is to reach out. Here’s how:
- Express your emotional needs in the relationship as clearly as possible
- If your partner tends to clam up, make an effort to talk to them and draw them out
- Convey your disappointments as they arise, do not bottle up your feelings
- Understand your partner’s love language
10. Your partner may be dealing with mental health issues
Losing a fellow soldier, taking human life, watching dismembered bodies being brought home, being holed up in the most hostile environments for days, weeks, or even months on end, spending every waking minute ensuring that you stay alive… Such high stressors can keep the brain in a perpetual fight or flight mode, triggering a host of mental health issues, ranging from panic attacks to anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
The cost of war is the highest for people on the frontlines and their loved ones. When your partner is struggling with mental health issues, it can take a toll on your quality of life as well. All the other struggles of maintaining military relationships can pale in comparison to this.
How to cope: Helping your partner get better should be your single-minded focus for overcoming this military relationship challenge. Here’s how:
- Educate yourself on the mental health issues military personnel are most prone to
- Don’t overlook any warning signs or early symptoms
- Draw your partner’s attention to these
- Encourage them to seek professional help
- Do not take it upon yourself to heal your partner, it is neither your responsibility nor are you trained for it
11. Constant fear is one of the major military relationship challenges
Even though the advent of technology has made spells of separation somewhat easier for military personnel and their families, it can be hard to shake off the worry and concern for their well-being. When your partner is deployed overseas or in an ongoing operation, a part of you lives in the fear of what could happen. These are not common fears in a relationship, and only a military spouse or partner knows how hard in can be get through yet another sleepless night spent fighting worst-case scenarios in your head.
It can be hard to let go of the awareness that one bullet, one IED, one blast can change your life forever and take away the one person that means the world to you. If only there were military relationship rules that could make you turn off your thoughts, it’d be so much easier to survive those hours, days, weeks of not knowing if your partner is well and safe.
How to cope: These moments of panic and fear are an unavoidable part of military relationships, but you can learn to manage these emotions better. Here is how:
- Live by the mantra “no news is good news”
- When you find yourself agonizing over your partner’s well-being, find a productive distraction – exercise, a hobby, work
- Talk to a friend or someone who understands what you’re going through
- Spend time with loved ones and family
Related Reading: How I Coped After Losing My Partner On 9/11
12. Your mental health may suffer
All of these military relationship challenges are bound to take their toll on your mental health and well-being as well. From spending long periods yearning for your partner to constantly worrying about their well-being, there are so many facets of this relationship that can leave you always feeling on the edge.
Studies show that 32.5% of military families suffer from various mental health issues, of which strained relationships, anxiety, and depression are the most common. Maintaining military relationships can get a whole lot harder when your mental health has taken a hit.
How to cope: If you are dealing with mental health issues, self-preservation and healing should be your top priority. Here are some ways you can cope:
- Be aware of your feelings and emotional state so that you can recognize early symptoms
- Practice centering exercises such as deep breathing, mindfulness, and journaling
- Don’t bottle up or push away your emotions
- Seek professional help as soon as possible. If you’re looking for help, skilled and licensed counselors on Bonobology’s panel are here for you
13. Risk of infidelity runs high
When there is so much physical and emotional distance in a relationship, there is enough room for a third to come in. That’s why infidelity is one of the most common relationship problems military couples have to contend with. Going through so much on their own, both emotionally and logistically, with intermittent support from their SOs at best, military partners may turn to someone else for support.
Before they know it, a shoulder to lean on may turn into a deep emotional connection, paving the way for emotional cheating or a full-blown affair. Likewise, living through and surviving life-threatening moments and operational challenges every step of the way may act as a catalyst in bringing two soldiers close to one another during their time on active duty. The rapport may soon translate into a romantic connection.
The goal here is not to rationalize or justify infidelity but to simply drive home the fact that cheating is a real risk and to help you understand how to make military relationships work in such an eventuality
How to cope: The blow of infidelity can be harder to survive than most other challenges people face in military relationships. However, it’s not impossible. Here is how you can deal with a partner’s affair or your own:
- Be aware of the risk of infidelity and make a conscious effort to cheat-proof your relationship by prioritizing openness and honesty
- If you want to rebuild your relationship after infidelity, begin by working on reinstating trust
- Seek couple’s therapy to heal from the setback and stay together
- Focus on redefining relationship boundaries, improving communication, and expectation setting
- Treat it as a fresh start once you’re ready to leave the betrayal in the past
- Military relationships are hard
- Distance is one of the biggest challenges military couples have to contend with
- Mental health issues, strained relationships, and infidelity are other common problems
- Accepting that military relationships are more demanding and making a conscious effort to subvert the challenges as they arise is the key to building a happy, fulfilling bond
There are no easy answers to how to make military relationships work. It takes a Herculean effort from both partners to keep such a relationship afloat, and the lion’s share of this effort falls upon the partner/spouse. Before you jump in with both feet, make sure you understand the odds and are prepared to accept and deal with them as they arise.
The length of a military relationship largely depends on the nature of the connection between the two people in it. According to a study of marital relationships in the US military, more than 1,200 serving personnel involved in active duty have been married for over 15 years. However, there is no concrete data on other romantic relationships. However, another survey on long-distance relationships indicates that the first four months are the trickiest and the couple who tend to make it past the eight-month mark are likely to stay together.
According to data shared by the Pentagon on military marriages, the divorce rate has remained stable in the range of 3 to 3.1% from 2014 to 2019. However, there are no concrete military relationships statistics to indicate how many couples who are not married stay together or part ways
A military relationship is certainly harder than one with a civilian, however, if you’re with the right person, all the challenges and the effort it takes to tide over them can be worth your while. That said, it is important to go into such a relationship with both eyes open, aware of exactly what’s in store for you.