All marriages have stress in them. Military and first responder couples, however, have an added level of stress that most couples don’t have to endure.

Dyer’s job is to help couples anticipate the difficulties that can arise in the future and develop a plan for how to deal with them. A professor emeritus with the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University, he currently works with the Mastering Your Marriage program, which features a curriculum for military, veteran, and first responder couples to sustain healthy and resilient marriages. The added occupation-related pressures that these couples encounter during their marriages underscore the need to identify areas of the relationship that need work before they walk down the aisle.

“Couples need to talk about the realistic aspects of watching your husband or wife walk out the door with 40 pounds of equipment every morning,” he said. “What happens when they get home and, all of a sudden, they are called back for an emergency where they’re probably going to risk their lives?”

Military and first responder couples can have long, fulfilling marriages. But before they say “I do,” each partner should set realistic expectations of what their marriage will look like and build a strong foundation of communication skills for when times get tough.

The Specific Challenges They Face

In addition to the issues encountered in a typical marriage, military and first responder couples will face specific challenges as a result of the occupations of one or both spouses. These challenges can include:

  • Separation from family and long deployments.
  • Erratic schedules.
  • Uncertainty of and fear for a partner’s safety.
  • Stress of demanding jobs.
  • Uprooting of community and support systems.
  • Feelings of isolation.
  • Trauma and vicarious trauma for partners.
  • Feelings that one partner is taking on the burden of household duties.

Dyer believes it’s important for these couples to understand what the future holds when they get engaged to be married. Young couples, in particular, may have very unrealistic expectations of marriage and what service or first responder life is going to be like.

“Sometimes 17- and 18-year-olds see the military and first responder jobs as an exciting, adventuresome kind of lifestyle, and it may certainly have some of that to it,” he said. “But those things also make it very difficult.”

The stress of not knowing when and if your partner will return home extends to all of these couples, whether they are leaving for a long deployment or a daily shift. The constantly changing schedules can mean not being around for important family activities.

“You’re not only missing ball games and those kinds of things, but also some of the major life events like graduations,” Dyer said.

5 Steps for Healthy Structured Time

Creating structured time can be easier said than done for military and first responder couples because of their changing schedules and deployments — but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. Dyer offered these suggestions:

  1. Daily Sharing

Set aside 20 to 30 minutes every day at a consistent time that works for you and your partner. Use the following questions to get the conversation rolling:

  • “What’s happened in the last 24 hours/since the last time we did daily sharing?” and “How do you feel about that?”
  • “What are you expecting/what’s on your agenda in the next 24 hours?”

Don’t try to resolve any conflicts during daily sharing. The experience should be a pleasant and enjoyable time. Offer each other at least one affirmation.

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2. Deal with the Conflicts 

Once a week, for an hour and a half, work through the following:

  • Review the conflicts that you may have identified during daily sharing. These are not limited to interpersonal conflicts and may include pragmatic issues such as budgeting or planning trips.
  • Talk about and work through each conflict individually.
  • Develop a plan for how to address that conflict.
  • Keep an eye on the clock, and don’t go beyond the allotted time. (After an hour and a half, couples tend to stop using conflict resolution skills.)
  • Acknowledge if an issue is not resolved, and commit to addressing it at a later date.

3. Have Fun Together

Carve out a minimum of an hour and a half — but extend as long as needed — to continue the types of activities you and your partner have enjoyed in a dating relationship: going to dinner, watching a movie, attending a concert, going dancing, or snuggling on the couch.

4. Be flexible

  • Adjust the schedule based on the time constraints and limitations of your or your partner’s job. Instead of doing daily sharing, you can switch to weekly sharing.
  • Use different channels to communicate such as email, video chats, and letters, but maintain the general structure of sharing.
  • Try to maintain consistency. If you miss a day or a week, don’t allow that to become the norm.
  • Don’t be rigid. Remember that your partner doesn’t always have control over when they will be called back to work.

5. Decide What to Discuss

Military personnel and first responders must be careful about how much they tell their partners — not only does certain information need to remain confidential, but partners can also experience vicarious trauma. Avoid hiding important issues or problems that you are facing from your partner. In fact, some people may want to hear if their partner was in a life-or-death situation that day.

Don’t make decisions about what to share on your own. Talk with your partner about what they do and don’t want to hear. Come to a mutual understanding of what kind of information should be shared. Communication does not require a couple to share everything.

Whether they choose to seek out a certified counselor, a religious leader, or even relationship mentors, couples should take stock of their needs and expectations as they enter a marriage. While marriage provides fulfillment and joy, it also comes with particular challenges that often require teamwork to navigate.

“Marriage ought to be a shelter in the storm,” Dyer said. “There’s so much stress to everyday life for all couples that they need a place to escape that.”

Adapted with permission from Baylor University Online Master’s in Social Work Program.

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