What will become of us? I thought as I finished packing my rucksack on the morning of my deployment. How will four months of separation affect our marriage?
My husband, Jamie, and I rode to the airport in silence. Neither of us knew what to say. Sitting in the terminal, we played a competitive game of UNO to take our minds off the reality of my heading halfway across the world. When it was time to board, Jamie stood to help me. We said, "I love you" and kissed each other goodbye.
Neither of us shed a tear, but Jamie later told me that watching me leave was like having his heart torn from his chest.
Strength and silence
I suppose it comes with the territory: Two people with military training should show strength and composure in tough times. But beneath that strength are the needs of real people who long to be open with one another. Marriages suffer if these needs aren't met.
I've deployed once, and Jamie has deployed twice. We've experienced firsthand the pitfalls that result from a failure to make communication a priority. Gradually, we've learned to be intentional about staying connected and seeking to understand one another. True, every marriage needs to make communication a priority. But the unique challenges of a military marriage mean that we've had to pursue deeper communication in unexpected and inconvenient ways.
The barrier of busyness
Like in many marriages, our early years were filled with the activity and excitement of our careers. We were both active-duty Air Force officers, and there were days we had almost no time together. The weeks before deployment were particularly challenging. Household duties, finances, work tasks — our to-do lists were endless. Unfortunately, staying connected with each other wasn't on the agenda.
It seemed my husband had built a wall around his feelings, needing to appear strong during high-stress times. It was, perhaps, a coping mechanism for the coming physical separation, but I felt like he'd emotionally checked out.
Help came in the form of a tool that we called the "rule of three." Jamie and I periodically scheduled discussions in which we asked each other three questions about the impact of the coming deployment. The questions had to be personal and introspective, not related to a task that needed finishing. This simple, deliberate exercise freed us to express and discover how we were each processing life's challenges.
Across the miles
When I deployed to Kyrgyzstan, I had 24-hour access to email and a telephone line. I was initially excited about having constant contact with Jamie. But there is something about converting a marriage to a long-distance relationship that makes basic communication challenging. There is a reason God designed marriage to be a partnership of physical presence.
Our physical separation was separating us emotionally, and communication was often marred by misunderstandings and impatience. One phone call ended with my heartsick husband extremely upset that I wasn't being more attentive during our conversations. I knew I couldn't take him for granted. Jamie's love and support were getting me through my deployment. I needed to see my time with him as a privilege.
We also started praying together during our phone conversations, alternating short prayers that let each other's concerns be known without complaining or blaming. We'd pray for each other's faithfulness, time management and decision making. We'd pray for each other's faith. God's presence helped bridge the great distance between us, and we gradually saw our marriage growing stronger.
Life changes people. Circumstances change. Priorities change. Desires change. In a military marriage, those changes often go unnoticed until a couple is reunited, when they have to learn to live together again.
When Jamie first returned home, he was ready to pick up life right where we'd left off. But I had grown accustomed to doing things a certain way, and I felt like he was disrupting an improved system! I expected him to get with the program. He felt I was being too controlling.
In other ways, the time apart had changed us. It felt, sometimes, as if our expectations had been reversed. We recognized our need to intentionally communicate those changes to each other, both during deployment and homecoming. Understanding each other's changes and expectations helped us set common goals for what our marriage should look like.
What will become of us? I'd once asked myself. By making communication a priority, my husband and I have learned to thrive throughout the distance and difficulties of a military marriage.Ryaja Johnson Rhone is the author of Chronicles of an Airman: Discovering Purpose 6,500 Miles from Home.
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