(Note: Besides being America’s relationship expert, I am a Navy brat and grew up on bases. I know in a deeply personal way how traumatic the longing for a loved one can be.)
It’s important to remember that our love relationships are crucial to our emotional well-being but they can also bring upset when things go wrong and the distance makes repair seem impossible.
But there are things you can do before you leave that can help prevent miscommunications and heartache in the field:
1. Before you go.
Eliminate low-criteria relationships. If you are in a vulnerable new relationship or one based on more sex than love, you might hold false hope that this kind of relationship can sustain you over time and distance.
But a tenuous relationship that isn’t sexually exclusive and emotionally committed is more likely to fall apart while you are away. And when you are on the battlefield, even the loss of a thin string can feel like a catastrophe.
So, be strong. Let go of light relationships before you go — and tell your mom, your sister and your aunts you’ll be in regular contact for moral support.
2. Get support for your partner.
If you have a spouse or girlfriend and children back home, understand that life is about to get harder for them, too. The feelings of loss and abandonment (especially on kids) can be traumatic.
Talk about this before you go. Find trustworthy friends and family and enlist them to be a support structure to replace you while you’re away.
While you are away, you need to focus on your work and not about being assaulted with teary texts from a lonely spouse. Talk all this through before you go.
“Despite all the forms of communication, couples suffer
because they don’t make a commitment to their dreams.”
3. Schedule communication.
If you know you’ll have contact via text, Skype or email, make a schedule of communication with your partner you can practically maintain.
The brain works like a clock and feels secure with a consistent schedule of communication, even if it’s only once per week. Make it the same time if you can.
And always choose phone or Skype over text communication. Text is void of body language, vocal tone, facial expression, even pheromones. It’s like listening to your favorite band without the lead singer or the drums. There is much room for misunderstanding.
4. Divide up chores.
When you are home, you are able to be a more active participant in the daily lives of your family. But when you are on a tour of duty, you may only be able to tend to a few things, if anything at all.
Have this talk with your spouse. Decide what things you can and can’t do from afar. Depending on your assignment, that may range from online bill paying or helping the kids with homework via Skype, to absolutely nothing but a paycheck sent home.
Make sure you and your spouse have a plan for this. And when things change in the field, communicate that rather than snapping at your spouse that she is asking too much of you.
And when you return, realize that you’ll have to make the switch back to equal participant.
5. Make a NO-BREAKUP rule.
Discuss with your partner the trauma that a relationship breakup can cause to a soldier on the battlefield. Make a pact, that no matter what, there will be no breaking up while you are on a tour of duty.
Explain the special importance of being a military love-partner. Ask your partner if they are really up for this challenge.
You are not asking for a lifetime commitment. You are asking for a commitment of sexual and emotional faithfulness until you get home. (This is why those low-criteria relationships need to go.)
Remember, short-term love begins with sexual attraction and hormones but long-term love is an intellectual decision. Love is a choice. And for you two, making the serious decision to remain exclusive, supportive and in love can save a soldier’s life.
6. Make a future relationship goal.
During the Second World War, troops maintained their hope and sanity with a single photograph and a perfumed love note. Their emotional health was sustained by the big plans that were ahead of them back home.
Today, despite all the forms of communication, couples suffer because they don’t make a commitment to their dreams. If your relationship is secure, loving and supportive, discuss your dreams together.
Whether those dreams are to get married, buy a house, go on an amazing vacation, or have a baby, make a pact to focus on your dreams together. And have your partner remind you often of that end goal.