Sustaining a Sacramental Marriage in the Military

By: Bevin Landrum, Director of Communications

I’m lucky to have parents who enjoyed a rich 75-year marriage before my dad passed away.  They were married before World War II started and my dad was still serving during the Korean War.  Five kids. Countless moves and separations. Best friends to the end.

My in-laws have also been married for almost 50 years.  They are from big families and through Army service, work moves, and life changes have always anchored themselves in the roots of family.

Our families have set a good example for us and encouraged us through rocky times.  I am so grateful because it can be difficult to sustain a lifelong sacramental marriage in the military. We needed support.  Everyone needs support to nurture their marriage.

I’m not sharing these tips because I’m an expert on marriage.  This quarantine time at home with my husband has revealed any expertise to be false.  But, we have managed to stay married for 26 years–all of it “owned” by the military.

These six tips are what I refer back to when I need encouragement in my own marriage or am called to support one of my military sisters. Marriage always demands that we humble ourselves before our God, our husbands, and (sometimes) the military.  It requires us to explore what it means to be truly unselfish. And building a solid marriage is not easy work, in case that wasn’t already obvious.

Tip #1

The key to staying married is to just stay married. Talk about the obvious.  Right? Clearly we entered into a sacramental marriage where two became one.  In our Pre Cana classes, we were encouraged to consider the new entity “us” and leave behind words such as “me” or “I”. Your priest may have asked if you were both indeed prayerfully ready to go all-in with full commitment to your future spouse, just as Jesus did with His bride, the Church.

But in the back of our minds perhaps the fear of failure lingered.  Daily ups and downs, deployment stress, and the constant moving and uncertainty of a nomadic life can stretch a marriage.  The little failures of a spouse can wreak havoc on our perception of the whole relationship. Divorce may even seem like a fallback option. 

Delete the divorce word from your vocabulary right now!  Period. 

Agree with your spouse that under no circumstances will either of you throw out that threat in an argument.  Don’t allow the idea of divorce and separation to hold space in your mind and heart. Failure is not an option.  Pray daily for God’s mercies on your marriage and each other and for God to strengthen your lifelong commitment to your spouse. 

Goal Action: Wake up every day and commit to staying sacramentally married.

Tip #2

Put the other person’s happiness ahead of your own. This should be so ridiculously easy.  We love our spouses.  We do! But we are also human and imperfect.  And Satan loves to whisper in our ears that we deserve things and that if our spouse really loved us, they would never [insert your biggest pet peeve].  

It’s such a slippery slope to begin prioritizing your own desires over those that support your marriage.   

Know his favorite restaurant? Pick that to make reservations on date night.  Flip the radio station to his tunes. Put back the new pair of shoes and surprise him with a “just because” tool or electronic gift.  Pray for him to have a good day. Let him waste five hours on football without reminding him about the mile high grass.

Maybe you do this for 99 years and your spouse never reciprocates.  Not the point. The point is that God will meet you in your desire to love your spouse more than yourself, and He will reward you with graces beyond what a spouse can give.  Your spiritual bank will grow.  

I have a hard time with this one and make myself refer often to my own tip.  The truth is that when I am faithfully praying for my husband and practicing unselfishness, it has always come back to me tenfold.

Goal Action: Do something just for your spouse every day.

Tip #3

Invest in your marriage. Choose your husband over outside activities–even ones that may seem worthwhile such as continuing education, hobbies and time with friends, or part-time work.  None of those things is wrong, but if they are solely for YOUR best and take away from the core relationship and time for your marriage then perhaps you should reconsider.  

Dating your husband is a hot trend these days.  I don’t remember it being a thing when my kids were little, but who had the money or a sitter? However, you can create special, private time with your spouse by going out or staying in as your budget and schedules allow.  

Don’t talk about the to-do list and don’t focus on the looming PCS when you are on a date.  Talk about your future dreams, ask about stories you may not have yet heard about your spouse (e.g. their prowess on the baseball field or the time they tipped the canoe over on the lake and lost a favorite fishing pole).  Share things you don’t normally get to discuss with the kids around and that helps you connect as partners in life.

This is also an awesome opportunity for families in a parish to look after each other and offer to swap childcare or for empty nest families to support those with littles at home.  

Goal Action: Choose an action every day that builds connection: a kiss good-bye, nightly prayer together, a special note tucked in a spot they will see.

Tip #4

Embrace the crazy life of a military family. Our spouses chose a military career. For some this was before we married them and for others after.  Either way though — we know they are in the military and we agreed to this. We didn’t agree to always like it and never feel shortchanged, but we are in the game.

Note: If you are truly that unhappy as a military family then talk to your spouse and pray about whether remaining in the military is right for your situation.  For purposes of this tip, I’m focusing on those who are opting to remain active-duty families.

Our spouse’s happiness is often tied to their career success and it can seem that we are coming in second place.  Who hasn’t said or thought, “Well, if you loved me as much as you love the military then…”? 

Please, please do not set up the comparison of you/family vs. the military.  Don’t allow yourself to compare your daily life with what your civilian friends experience.  We all know a three-day business trip is not the same as a TDY or a deployment.

Let go of your expectations for how the military should treat your spouse, you, or your family.  The reality is that they “own” your service member and the more we respect that position of authority in our lives the easier it will be to manage our expectations and reduce disappointments when they receive orders to leave in two days, are extended in the field, or are stuck doing the change of command inventories while you are pre-op for emergency surgery.

Speak positively to your spouse and kids about the military even in times of stress.  How you react often sets the tone for your whole family. Try to avoid extra tension in your marriage by not fighting this crazy slice of life we call normal.

Goal Action: Recognize the authority of the military in your life and let go of daily expectations.

Tip #5

Surround yourself with those who are an example of sacramental marriage.  This may be your parents or in-laws, other military couples, couples in your local parish, or friends back home.  It can be very helpful to seek out couples at different stages of marriage. This creates an opportunity for you to bless others and to be strengthened in your own marriage.

The important thing is that every couple on this list must believe in a faithful, sacramental marriage.  They don’t have to be perfect, but they need to be authentic. What good is a mentor or peer support who won’t truly share their own struggle and experiences for shared learning? Even better if they will pray with you, are trusted to speak the truth when you are not listening, and will guard your private life with the mantle of friendship and loyalty.  

Goal Action: Support other married couples in your life through daily prayer and friendship.

Tip #6

Look to the future of your marriage. Remember that your children will grow up and leave the two of you alone together.  This is normal. It is what we want to happen.  But it can feel so lonely when you experience the first fledgling leaving and then later when your nest is completely empty.  It was a much harder transition for us than reintegration after deployment, the teenage years, or even when we both worked and went to night school full-time.

But we found comfort in each other and the reminder from our priest that at first there were two.  The couple unit is the foundation of the home. The children are God’s blessing on the marriage. But God has bestowed special graces to the union of the husband and wife. Going back to those roots helped us re-center and re-focus on a new time in our lives.

This is an excellent chance to revisit that earlier  “date your husband” suggestion.  Learn a new hobby together.  Spend more time in devotional prayer or begin a shared Bible study for empty nest couples in your parish. 

Remember that, God-willing, you have many more years to spend married to your spouse, and the child-rearing years were but one part of that sacramental commitment.  God calls us to Him and to nurture each other in new ways as our marriage unfolds.  

Goal Action: Listen to His words daily and He will not leave you alone. God is present with you in your marriage at every moment of every day. 

In closing, I’m going to share a bonus hack for staying married — apologize often and first.  

My mama told me this one.  She also said it was the hardest part. That is so true! But, in a pinch, when tensions are high —  it works like a charm. Doesn’t matter if you think you are wrong or not. Simply say, “Honey, I am sorry.  I love you. I want to be married to you forever.” There is tremendous healing power for marriages in those words, even if it doesn’t immediately feel like it.  Trust God to do the rest.

Remember, the secret to staying married is to just stay married.