Three Tips for Managing Expectations in a Military Marriage

Military marriages exist in dog years. A five-year military marriage passes in a blink, feeling more like two-and-a-half short years. And yet simultaneously you feel like you’ve learned enough about marriage, about hard, about love, to rival the average 10-year marriage. You experience double the growth in half the time. 

Thirteen years, seven moves, four new duty stations, five deployments, two kids, and one fish that didn’t last a year. 

Military wedding, bride and groom embrace.

On our wedding day, I was everything I usually am not. A stressed-out bride, playing the what-if game about the details of the big day – that’s what everyone, including me, expected. But instead, I was calm. I was running late, and I didn’t care. I was loud and confident when it came time for vows. I was visibly excited to marry this man, as a friend in the pews would later tell me. And she was right; I couldn’t wait.

And then the hard came. We’d planned and pulled off a wedding amid unit activation and deployment preparations. It wasn’t until many years later that I’d genuinely appreciate all it took, from so many, to pull off not only a wedding but also a honeymoon during such a busy time. 

So, there was no time to build a foundation, to identify or address any “now that we’re married” concerns. There was no time to adjust to our new identity, married. We jumped into the deep-end of marriage and treaded water the best we could until that wasn’t enough. 

As a newlywed, clear, and concise communication was not my strength. Asking for what I needed seemed too obvious. “You’re my husband; you should know me and know what I need.” My immature communication style did not serve us well as a new couple. Back then, my husband lacked patience and enjoyed being right a little too much. So, you can imagine how well those early arguments went. We can laugh about it now, but there were moments in that first year when I think we both wondered if we’d made the right decision.

Fast-forward eleven years. I was attending a farewell from our unit and had an opportunity to share some lessons learned. So, can you guess what talking point made me cry? 

Invest in your marriage!

And it made me cry for all the right reasons (besides the fact I cry if the wind changes direction). It made me cry because we’d just emerged from what many would consider THE hardest assignment of one’s career. We’d make it! And we weren’t broken. 

I knew far too many friends of friends whose marriages had not survived what we’d just endured. And it became my standard advice to others – invest – in the big and small ways. I wanted others to know that the investments matter: the dating, the intention, the fireside chats, the honesty, the trust, the expectation management.

To me, expectation management was the secret-sauce in our ability to endure this hard season. Might sound sort of business-like, right? Perhaps it’s even a bullet point on a PowerPoint slide at a briefing somewhere. But for us, expectation management was life to our marriage. 

And for me, expectation management boiled down to two key things: Calendars and Trust.

Couple sitting my computer

Prioritize a Calendar Sync. 

If I could go back in time, this is THE thing I’d add to our marriage earlier. We didn’t figure out until far too many disappointments that this was a critical element in a military marriage. Military life is riddled with unknowns, from the next location, to order dates, to deployment and redeployment timelines, to training schedules, and the list goes on. So much about this life is unpredictable. And THAT is why finding predictability where you can is so crucial. You can’t control how good a unit is at managing their training calendar. But there is ALWAYS a calendar.

Find it, know it, and believe it will change. For us, calendar sync became a Sunday event. We’d talk about work events, late nights, family events, future events. We’d talked knowns and identify unknowns. I’d walk away with a clear understanding of when he’d be home for dinner and when he wouldn’t. Or at least when it was a reasonable hope. I’d be clear on when I’d have support for my commitments and when I needed a sitter. I’d know what was going on. And it changed everything. 

Over the years, I’ve seen that my resentment tends to stir when we’ve broken from our processes. We both grumble when it’s time for calendar sync, but we know it’s better than feeling uninformed or surprised by things that were only a surprise because we didn’t take the time to invest in managing expectations. There were entire years when I assumed he’d not be home for dinner. Assuming the worst meant every instance when he did make it home for dinner was a gift. And it brought positivity. If I’d gone the opposite, well, those years wouldn’t have been fun for anyone. 

I get it. Every unit is unique. Every job has its own challenges. Some years this will be easy, but in other years, this effort will seem impossible. Even if the military calendar isn’t available, go through the process anyway. There is a ton of value in your spouse being aware of days when you’re slammed with commitments. Or that you have something coming up, like an interview that you are anxious about. 

Listen and Trust 

What does trust look like in a military marriage? I’m sure there are a hundred different answers to that question. Everyone comes to a relationship with their baggage. What I learned over the years, and what I truly wish I’d given into sooner was trust. There was a time, early on, when my narrative for my husband not being home for dinner with us was that we didn’t matter. Or his work was more important. Once I listened to him enough to really hear him, I learned that yes, he was a guy that was going to give 110%. But, I could trust that if he wasn’t with us, he was where he needed to be, finishing up whatever he felt was necessary for the day, week, or month’s mission. 

I hear friends often talk about how the job comes first. For me, there is a world of difference between the family being a priority and the family coming first. As we grew, I came to realize and sincerely trust that we were always his priority. If we needed something, if I needed him, he’s rarely not moved mountains to be where I needed him. But, it was on me to choose those moments deliberately. Showing up in the moments that count is critical. But, I have a responsibility to be honest about where I am, what I need, and where I think we’re falling short. 

For us, after fifteen years in this military life, those are probably the two things we’ve learned that made the most significant difference in our outcome. 

What are your tips? What are the biggest things you’ve learned? Or something you wish you’d realized sooner?

Jennifer is a military spouse of 13 years, 7 moves, and 5 duty stations. She’s a lover of tea, travel, lazy Saturday mornings, and Italian wine. 

View more stories from Jen Pasquale

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Pride & Grit is a Trademark of Hinshaw Consulting Group, Inc. 2020© All rights reserved.