It was a Saturday night and I was alone. Scratch that. I was sad and alone. I was a military girlfriend with a deployed service member and I struggled to balance waiting by the phone with getting out of the house and enjoying life. I mean…
Do you stay or do you go?
I laid down on my couch getting ready to watch a movie, wondering what he was doing at that very moment in Iraq. I always had a feeling about him from the moment we met. The feeling like he might be “the one.” But…
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We weren’t even officially together. We were growing a relationship, yet everything was ambivalent. Our future one big fat question mark.
The phone rang.
It was him. In exactly half a second I transformed from sad and alone to overwhelmed with giddy excitement. On the inside, I was jumping on Oprah’s couch like Tom Cruise did back in the day when he was in-love with Katie Holmes.
But on the outside, I was calm and cool. Because when your semi-boyfriend calls from half-way around this world, this is the exact moment you should avoid being creepy and try to act normal. Repeat: try to act normal.
This was seven years ago.
Five deployments, one military marriage, countless trainings, two babies, multiple TDYs and one giant overseas PCS move filled those seven years. Much has changed since my first months as a military girlfriend.
Back then, I naively thought that being in a long-distance relationship would somehow prepare me for military life and marriage. The truth is that it doesn’t get easier.
But you do lean to arm yourself with a useful set of relationship tools to lessen the blow. Here’s how.
10 relationship-saving tools for military couples.
This is a list of relationship strategies I learned from researching marriage and long-distance relationships, personal experience and talking with other military spouses. These tools will help keep your relationship thriving during deployment.
Do the obvious.
Yes, you should write letters and send care packages. Even when it feels silly. Or trivial. Or it seems like it doesn’t matter. It matters.
Think of your relationship as a beautiful brick wall built by both you and your service member. Each letter, care package, and email you write is another brick on your wall, making it stronger each day.
You aren’t always able to call or FaceTime when you want to with each other. Sometimes you may go a month without communication. But communicating even when you can’t communicate is important.
Create a series of open-when letters and send them with your service member before he (or she) leaves on deployment. Write letters at home and send emails even when you know he won’t get to read them for a long time. Eventually, he will read all of it, and it’s going to mean the world after not communicating for so long.
Don’t lead yourself to water.
The saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” But…
And this is a big but: after several months of dehydration, the horse will probably drink whatever you put in front of him.
So if your service member is a tall drink of water, don’t put yourself in situations where there are a lot of other tall drinks of water hanging around. Wink. Wink. Even the most trust-worthy people will start to make mistakes when put in tempting situations.
Do things “together”
Even though you aren’t together, you can still do things “together,” such as read the same book or watch the same TV series on DVD. You can also relive your favorite memories together through photo albums.
Create two photo albums of your favorite memories together. One for you and one for him. Page through it together over a phone call. Or go through the photo album and write a letter to him about it. During a time when you don’t feel like you have much in common, this is going to help you relate to each other and offer you a way to feel connected.
Build the foundation.
Before he even leaves, communicate expectations and talk about how you can meet those needs for each other. Those who set clear expectations ahead of time are more likely to cope better during separations.
These expectations and needs can include how often you realistically will communicate to how often you will send photos to how you will budget during deployment.
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Keep your walls down.
It’s OK to let yourself feel the emotions of deployment. To cry. To phone a friend. To get a punching bag. To let it all out. And it’s even OK to share it with your service member.
Being open and transparent is an important part of every relationship. We aren’t doing each other any favors by keeping our emotions a secret. Obviously, you don’t want to pile drive your service member with an emotional onslaught every time you get on the phone, but thinking through your emotions and sharing them in a genuine way will bring you closer together.
Don’t keep score.
You can’t keep a tally of who sent the most letters, who said the most ‘I love yous,’ and who made the most sacrifices. Because the truth is that it will never be equal. Keeping score only builds resentment and breaks down your relationship. You may send 10 letters and he may send one. He may send three emails and you may send one. If you are both giving it your best, then the tally count doesn’t matter.
Talk about difficult things.
If certain topics make you uncomfortable…get uncomfortable. Talk about wills and powers of attorney and what you both would want if you could no longer speak for yourself. Nothing is worse than diving fresh into difficult conversations in the middle of a legit crisis, such as an injury or illness.
Live your own adventures.
Your independence will only bring you and your service member closer together. He’ll feel more confident that “you’ve got this.” And you’ll feel happier and more fulfilled by doing things that you love and enjoy.
You don’t have to sit on the couch sad and lonely, waiting for the phone to ring. Instead, take sailing lessons, learn to tango, or head out to dinner on a Saturday night with friends. You can do both. You can keep a strong relationship during deployment and continue to live the life you have right in front of you.
Just remember to take your phone with you. And “hold space” for when he calls.
Never give up.
Did you know that biggest success predictor of long-distance dating relationships versus geographically close relationships has little to do with distance? The true predictor about whether your relationship will survive deployment are the characteristics of your relationship and the tools keep in your relationship tool belt.
So when your deployment relationship feels too strained, too far gone or too empty, remember this: relationship tools will grow the connection.
These tools will make the difference between your relationship surviving versus thriving through deployment. And I promise they will make that first homecoming kiss all the more sweeter when it comes.
Want more on military life?
- 15 Must-Do Things to Prepare for Deployment
- The One Thing You Miss Most During Deployment
- The 7 Stages of Deployment Anger (And How to Manage Them)
- 9 Relationship Truths Only a Modern Military Spouse Will Understand
This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of MSB New Media & Unilever. The opinions and text are all mine.