Keeping Your Marriage Strong Despite Distance

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Or so they say. For my marriage, absence has rarely had that effect. If I’m honest, deployments and training trips are the root of many stresses in my marriage. With many service members reporting that family and quality of life are their top reasons for leaving the military, I don’t think I’m alone.

So, can we just take a minute and acknowledge that military marriage is hard? Because it’s not just the trips and deployments. It’s the little spats you have leading up to them because you’re stressed out about what’s coming, the struggle to maintain a healthy relationship when it’s not always easy to communicate, and the multi-faceted difficulty of reintegration. It’s not just hard when you’re apart — it’s hard when you’re preparing for the inevitable and when you’re recovering from the separation. And marriage is only one stressor among many during each of these stages.

wedding rings

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of reading and searching for ways to stay connected with him, and while some were pretty corny, there were a few that really helped us.

Check Your Expectations

My greatest disappointments as a military spouse usually come from unrealistic expectations (which is a can of worms on its own). After a while, I realized that a quick conversation was all I needed to prevent hurt feelings. When your spouse is headed off on a trip, it’s important to have a conversation about what communication will be like. Talk about the schedule, tempo of work, and the potential for “dead zones” or times when communication will be totally cut off. Also, be sure to discuss how your spouse might feel throughout the trip — is this a stressful trip where he might be a little bit testy? Talking about it beforehand can help you remain calm and see that your spouse isn’t intentionally trying to wound you if he gets snappy.

behind a screen

Plan the Best Time to Talk

When my husband was deployed, he frequently called about an hour before the end of my workday. I work from home, so there wasn’t technically a problem, but it stressed me out to be interrupted as I tried to finish my daily tasks. When we had several less-than-happy conversations in a row, I realized that it was because I felt stressed and that I needed to shift my schedule to mirror my husband’s (since his wasn’t as flexible). You may only have limited windows for communication, but you should try to plan your conversations around the best times for your personalities, as well. If one spouse is extremely cranky in the morning, the odds of having a healthy conversation during that time are limited.

Keep It Steamy

This one was hard for me. I grew up in the Bible Belt, where it definitely wasn’t OK to talk about “steamy” things (*insert blushing emoji here). But the reality is that keeping it steamy doesn’t mean that you need to be a pro at talking dirty. It can be as simple as letting your spouse know that you still want them — or letting them know when you’re thinking about them in that way. Keeping this element of your relationship alive will make reintegration just a little bit easier, so even if it feels awkward at first, I highly recommend you try it!

gratitude for your husband

Gratitude Journal

When the world falls on your shoulders and it’s not easy to talk through relationship problems, contempt for your partner can easily sneak in. Contempt is a love-killer. But the best cure for it is gratitude. Gratitude isn’t just a biblical principle; it’s a scientifically backed key to happiness in life and relationships. Studies have shown that couples that expressed gratitude toward their partners had more positive feelings toward each other. Other studies have shown that the opposite is true: focusing on negatives and irritations can decrease your happiness. Keeping a journal is a way to intentionally focus on things you’re grateful for in your spouse. These may be little things (like the way he looks at you when you say something funny) or big things (like they ways he has helped you through difficult times).

Don’t Fall into the Digital Communication Trap

When you go days without any communication and the first response you get from your partner is “I’m fine,” it’s easy to jump to conclusions. Texts and emails make it difficult to read emotions and consider circumstances, which can quickly lead to fights that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. If you think your spouse is angry, it’s easy to begin an imaginary fight in your head, thinking about what they might be upset about and how you intend to respond. But that’s a trap, especially when you are both extremely busy. Remember that digital communication isn’t always very clear before you jump to conclusions. And if you aren’t sure how your spouse is feeling, ask before you imagine yourself into an unnecessary fight.

digital communication

Don’t Just Say You’re Sorry

Some people are able to sweep every marital problem under the rug during a deployment. I am not one of those people. I’m far too outspoken. That means that when my husband is gone, we still fight sometimes. But it’s much harder to find a satisfying resolution when we can’t just resume a normal life together. That’s why we changed the way we say we’re sorry. We don’t just say the words; we also explain what we’re sorry for and what we’re going to change to avoid the argument in the future. Without body language and daily activities to help our brains release the conflict, we’ve found that more explicit apologies fill the void and increase our confidence that an issue is really resolved. (And, P.S., remember that there’s probably always a reason for BOTH people to apologize at the end of a fight … even if it’s just for speaking disrespectfully.)

intimacy and anticipation

Build Anticipation

Try to talk regularly about the things you look forward to doing with your spouse after he returns. You might even go so far as to plan a few things you will both be excited to do together during reintegration. Finding your old groove as a couple will take some time — the process is different for everyone. By taking the time to build anticipation, you can help each other frame this time positively as something to look forward to.