Relationships are not always easy and perhaps they were never meant to be. They take time and dedication, and anyone who has ever been in one knows that sometimes stressful situations arise. The reality is that it is how you deal with these situations that is the real test. Rather than turning on each other in the relationship, it is about working together and finding ways to overcome the situation, with the couple working together to find a mutual agreement that works for both people.
“As a military-connected couple, so either one or both of you are in the military, there are stressors related to presence and absence, so being deployed, being away, getting ready to leave, getting ready to come back, so everything about being away or being at home and all the transitions associated with that,” said Spinks.
Ellison and Spinks have both compiled a list on how to overcome these unique stressors and how to come together as a couple to become a stronger, collective unit.
Communication is key
“Communication is the biggest factor that can keep people together or push them apart,” said Ellison.
If there is a lack of communication, Ellison noted this is what can drive couples apart. Couples need to communicate the things that bother them.
“Some of them can sort of not seem like a big deal like the husband keeps forgetting to put the toothpaste cap on the toothpaste and you think that that’s such a simple thing. But, when this has been happening for a long time with no communication, then that can be one of the problems,” Ellison added.
Spinks said couples need to have open lines of communication so that they can have open and honest conversations, the courageous conversations and the awkward conversations.
Internal or external?
Couples within the military community have a unique set of stressors and strains compared to those couples within the regular civilian setting.
“There are stressors and strains related to relocations that you can’t always predict and are out of your control, so you have no or very little autonomy with that. You have stresses and strains related to fear, risk, responsibilities related to the job that are unique,” said Spinks. “What we know about stresses and strains on relationships, it’s important to be able to identify what the stressor is. Is it external or internal?”
Spinks identifies external stressors as situations as:
- You are being deployed and I am afraid.
- You come home and you go out with your buddies and I need you at home.
- We may or may not be moving so I don’t want to dig my roots too deep.
- People don’t understand.
- I do not have a sense of community in the neighbourhood we are living in because nobody else is a military spouse.
- Internal stressors include feelings of sadness, loneliness, fear, or uncertainty.
“Once you get a handle on what the stressors are, or what’s contributing to the strain on the relationship, then you can start setting a plan on how you’re going to deal with that,” said Spinks.
Ensure you both feel heard, respected, and understood
“If somebody’s feeling not heard or understood or respected, they’re just opinions, then they tend to follow it up with building up walls, becoming resistant, becoming defensive, feeling insecure, feeling unappreciated, unloved, and it just goes on from there,” explained Ellison.
When these walls are built up between a couple, Ellison said it’s these walls that tend to drive couples further apart from one another. He added that it’s not only important for your partner to feel heard, respected, and understood, but that you also feel this way and find a way to feel this way.
“I don’t mean stomping and yelling, demanding that you be heard and respected, but you try to find ways. Whether through communication or healthy communication through counselling. You try to create a foundation where that can occur with other people,” Ellison added.
Finding resources to make your life easier
If you find you’re becoming overwhelmed with things needing to be done around the house, Spinks suggests finding outside resources and services to help you out and alleviate stressors. This could be things such as childcare to give yourself that alone time, housecleaning services, yard services, or the new phenomenon of in-home spa services.
“You’ve got two little kids, you can’t get out, your partner’s away, you haven’t had your hair cut in months. Services now come to your home. You can get your hair cut at home, you can get a pedicure at home, you can get a massage at home, you can get your eyebrows waxed at home,” said Spinks. “Sometimes those kinds of services make it a little easier to handle the stuff that you can’t.”
Find your love language
When Ellison counsels couples, he often suggests they read “The 5 Love Languages” by Gary Chapman based on the foundation that everyone has something in their lives that they need to feel loved and appreciated. Chapman also wrote a book specific to military couples, The 5 Languages Military Edition: The Secret to Love That Lasts.
The five languages of love include quality time, words of affirmation, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. It is important to remember everyone’s language is different.
“Like me, I don’t need gifts, so if my partner were to bring home something nice, that’s nice and I appreciate it, or for her to say, ‘Oh you’re amazing and I appreciate you’ and all that, I appreciate it, but what really is important to me is time,” he said. “I want to spend time with my partner because she’s important to me and I feel good with her, so I need time.”
Ellison suggests figuring out which love languages you identify with most and communicating that with your partner. He also recommends working on this together as a couple and ensure you are offering that to your partner. Visit here to learn more about your love language.
Control what’s in your control
So you can effectively manage that which is out of your control. Spinks said this is a phrase she often uses within her practice. She said when you control the stuff that is within your control, you will have the energy and the ability to handle the stuff that is beyond your control.
“What you can control is how you respond to moves and relocations, your attitude, your self-awareness, your willingness to pause and look at the situation to take control over what’s in your control,” she said.
An example of something you can’t control would be relocation. Spinks said you could either be anxious about an upcoming move, angry about having to pack up your life again, about having to find new activities for your kids or having to find a new dentist or doctor.
“You can be angry about that, or you can see it as an opportunity for a new adventure, for an opportunity to start fresh, for an opportunity to purge and keep things more feng shui, more centred, you get to be together as a family, you get to try a new community. The rest is just logistics,” she added.
Spinks uses the acronym DETOURS in her practice and suggests using it as a little checklist in order to keep yourself in check.
- Delegate (jobs, chores)
- Eliminate (stop doing unnecessary things)
- Teach (teach your kids, teach your spouse, teach yourself, teach others)
- Organize (organize differently, organize efficiently, organize, organize, organize)
- Use your resources/use your network
- Realign or reassess your priorities
- Simplify (find easier ways of doing things)
“Take a detour. If you can’t do any of the detours, then it’s time to sit down and ask for help,” said Spinks.
Spinks also suggests utilizing your local Military Family Resource Centre if you are feeling stuck or lonely. MFRCs often offer free classes and programs to help simplify your life, and it’s a great way to meet other military families and helps you to stay connected with your community.
Laugh or Cry
Spinks said sometimes all you can do is laugh or cry about a situation. She recalls one news interview about a lady who lived in a town that had experienced a flash flood. The lady was ironing when a wave swept through her house and took her ironing board with it, and she began laughing about it. She had her health, her family and friends were safe, the rest was just stuff that could be replaced.
However, if it’s no laughing matter, then Spinks said having a good cry helps to release those feelings of anger and sadness.
“But if you find you’re having a good cry all the time, then it may be time to bring in professional help,” Spinks added.
If you need to talk to someone and you are military personnel, a military spouse, or a veteran, call:
- Members Assistance Program 1-800-268-7708
- Family Information Line 1-800-866-4546
Chris Ellison is a clinical social worker and therapist at Ellison Counselling and Mediation in London, Ont. Ellison helps couples deal with stressful situations on a regular basis. He helps couples understand their issues by assisting them to find common ground and come to a mutual agreement through counselling and mediation. Within his practice, he is also a trauma counsellor for men and women who serve as police, firefighters, and paramedics. Consequently, he understands the unique situations of Canadian Armed Forces servicemen and women face.
Nora Spinks, CEO for the Vanier Institute in Ottawa, Ontario. Spinks helps couples who face these unique situations within the CAF.