Military transition or retirement can look different for everyone, we can all use some tips for what to look out for, right?
Five years ago, our family lived a “revolving door” life typical of those assigned to a training center. Our soldier was always coming or going, week after week, late night after late night. Family stability was measured in days rather than weeks. Friends warned me that these years might be more challenging than expected. I figured we’d had back-to-back deployments; how hard could this possibly be?
The answer: Unexpectedly hard on each of us in unique ways. But, in the cracks and crevices of that tour, a vision for Pride & Grit began to take shape.
The initial vision wasn’t for a transition support organization but for resources and community—a place where stories of sacrifice, challenge, and perseverance were welcomed. Over time, the stories (and data) began to point us to transition as it became clear that thriving in transition was unexpectedly challenging.
As Pride & Grit approaches its 5th anniversary, we reflect on all you’ve taught us. So, buckle up; we’ve learned a thing or two from the (now) veteran spouses in this community. We hope sharing the most significant lessons will help you navigate your transition whenever possible.
1. Start Early, But Be Intentional
Four years ago, when we started focusing on transition programming, I naively believed starting early was THE solution to a spouse’s transition woes. I do still believe that doing your work, unpacking your experience, and owning the future you want as early as possible benefit the entire transition team. And I still believe that 2-4 years is an ideal window to start asking the hard questions of what life may look like after service.
But, I’ve learned from our community that there are aspects of transition you can’t anticipate or prepare for. There are some aspects of transition you must live through to both understand and appreciate. So, please do what you can, but know it’s impossible to be fully prepared. Show up with all the grace for yourself and your family.
Answering the “who am I” question continues to be one of the hardest for spouses, following closely by the “what do I want to do” question. Even if you can’t answer all aspects of these daunting questions, consider what you can answer. Do you have a journaling or self-awareness practice that helps to investigate these questions?
Tip: Consider what you can research and act on to inform this future life change but with a flexibility that matches your life. Sign up for class. Invest in professional development. Get a mentor. Pursue a certification. Invest in monthly date nights to reconnect. Get a therapist.
2. Prepare for Transition Alongside Life
I’ve learned from our community that it’s not uncommon to subconsciously expect that transition will steal the show and be the focus, only to be reminded that it’s just one line of effort. It might be an extensive line of effort, and the big decisions might feel consuming at times, but in the end, life is still happening around us during the transition. This seems like common sense, yet many spouses have mentioned how much this fact burdened them beyond what was expected.
Kids will go off to college. Aging parents may need caretaking. Your health burdens may emerge. The cost of family stability may be geographic separation during the final season of service. A location or job at the top of the list may need to be adjusted. Spouses have shared that it was hard to focus on their dreams or goals when in the thick of transition because they felt like keeping the family afloat, putting themselves on the back burner – one more time – was just the cost of the transition. But they didn’t expect it, and it brought its own disappointment.
Tip: Decide on a routine for keeping up with all the details. Whether checklists, weekly syncs, or a divide-and-conquer approach, be intentional.
3. Prioritize Communication
We’ve heard story after story about the transition’s impact on the marriage and the service member. Spouses shared how much it surprised them to see how their service member’s mental health was impacted by documenting and reliving their injuries and invisible war wounds. They shared how it reopened wounds from deployments for everyone, including the spouse. And, for some, the transition spotlighted the emotional connection gaps in their service marriage. Any one of these realities feels heavy. Layered and unexpected, they can add to the emotions of the experience. Knowing this going in may help you recognize the signs and label the change.
We’ve also heard spouses talk about how surprised their service member was at their own identity loss. They’ve spent a career being able to achieve their mission, sometimes without all the information, resources, and support needed. So, it’s common for service member’s to feel pretty confident about their ability to figure it out. And they will. But, there may be some periods in which they find themselves questioning who they are and what they want. It can be unnerving and overwhelming. If they don’t have a mentor, it’s a great suggestion. You can be their support, but having an outside person ask the hard questions may have value too.
Tip: Invest in your marriage early and often. Focus on communicating well with each other. If you feel like communication has been a casualty of military life within your marriage, don’t hesitate to reach out for outside support – chaplain, MFLC, or therapist. External resources can give you the tools that may serve as part of your transition journey, whether for you, your service member, or the couple.
4. Brace for Community Loss
We’ve been talking about identity since the beginning. However, interlocking identity with transition created an opportunity for a deeper conversation. The loss of community continues to be one of the most significant topics for newly minted veteran spouses requesting support. Leaving behind the built-in housing community or unit community can be hard for military spouses who have spent decades relying on these same networks to survive back-to-back deployments.
Spouses have shared their surprise at how this change impacted their and their children’s lives. Community loss is hard to protect against. But we hear from spouses that transition is a season when they must step further outside their comfort zone. When you join a non-military community and cannot lead with a military connection, it can make more effort to find common ground. The tactics that have served you for 1-2-3 decades may not work as well.
Tip: Center yourself in your values. It can help you find circle that you want to be a part of, whether it’s connected to your children, a hobby, or volunteering. Be patient, but consider stepping a little outside your comfort zone.
5. Be Ready To Redefine Success
Often, transition is talked about as something with an endpoint. And for sure, there is a date after which you are no longer an active-duty military family. Your service member no longer wears a uniform. But the transition is a process, not an endpoint.
What we’ve heard from spouses is to make room to redefine what a successful transition looks like. Is it a mistake to move to Montana and realize you miss being close to family? Is it a mistake to take a job that sounds amazing and find that working 70 hours a week doesn’t meet the family’s intent of reconnection and memory building? What does a successful transition look like?
The more you have defined success for your family, the easier it will be to align your decisions to that endpoint. Ultimately, make the best decision you can in the moments you have, and then be prepared to pivot if that is what life – or new dreams – require.
Tip: There is no perfect transition. All we can do is make the best decisions with what we know at the time.
Bonus Tip Embrace the Unexpected
As military families, we are used to unknowns and unexpected twists and turns. When it comes time for transition and post-military life, it’s not uncommon to crave stability. It’s also not uncommon to gravitate toward novel experiences. Woven in the stories of military spouses who’ve thrived in transition – or in the years after – is a curiosity and welcoming of the unexpected.
There is so much life to be lived on the other side of service. And maybe the transition process isn’t unicorns and rainbows, but building a new dream, new career path, and a new home can be as inviting and exciting as you make room for in your life. Embrace it, friends. Your family has supported your service member through a service career; this moment of new potential is for each of you.
“I thought I’d be good to go, but I was surprised how much this or that impacted our transition.”
This is what spouses tell us most often. Know that, when you are ready, no matter when you are ready, we are here to support you through this season.
Jen is an active-duty Army spouse, mother of two, organizational development consultant, and the founder of Pride & Grit, a transition support community for seasoned military spouses. As a career Training & Development professional and a Certified Strengths Coach, Jen specializes in identity coaching and team development using the CliftonStrengths assessment. Through her coaching and facilitation, Jen helps individuals and teams develop pride in their unique talents and cultivate the grit to use those talents to find fulfillment within and beyond their role(s).Transition
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