I have been with my boyfriend, a sailor in the US Navy, for over a year now. Though I hardly profess to be an expert — because as this post hopefully shows, I certainly am not — I will say that I have learned a great deal in the time I’ve spent with my sailor. I’ve heard of countless issues one faces when dating someone in the military, but oftentimes, I find myself facing problems no one warned me about. These things may be more relevant to some people than others, but there’s an ounce of truth to be considered with each; so whether you are suffering through a long-distance relationship with your service member or are only just considering a prospective military relationship, I hope my experience serves to enlighten and resonate with some of you.
1. You find it difficult to fit in with most people.
Whether you find yourself among civilians or married military couples, you often feel like you don’t really belong anywhere. Your civilian friends will never understand — and they often won’t want to understand, either — the difficulties specifically felt by people involved with the military. Unless they grew up around or have themselves dated military members, they couldn’t. Then there’s those military families that have years of experience under their belt — they married into it, grew up with it, and otherwise know way more about it than you. They have kids, they have base housing, they know their way in and out and through the system like I would know my way through a video game. Nothing makes me feel as self-conscious as being around people who have years of experience over me.
I went to a party last week with my sailor’s coworkers where everyone but us was married, and most had kids too. I had never felt so alone as when I had to mingle with these people and get to know them, when I was so new to everything (relatively speaking) and had so little in common with them.
I’ll make an exception for one thing though, and that is a military ball. In my opinion, a military ball is one event you’ll have to worry less about as a girlfriend (except for what to wear — that’ll definitely be your biggest concern!). You probably won’t be introduced to many people (since it’s such a big event, even your significant other won’t know everyone) and you’ll likely attend with a group of his friends, which will make it easier. But whatever military-hosted gathering you find yourself at, all you can do is get through it. There are plenty of nice people out there who will try to make you feel more included, but coping with the loneliness is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do yet as a milso. (For those of you who don’t know, a milso is just an abbreviated term for 'military significant other.')
2. Civilians and people unfamiliar with military life don’t understand why someone would essentially “sign up” for this.
Like I said before, unless your civilian friends have been exposed to a military environment, they won’t be able to get why you do the things you do. Why you would date someone who lives so far away, who might get deployed to another country where he’ll hardly have any contact at all, and get KIA? They don’t understand — and how could they? The fear of having your loved one getting shipped off to the other side of the world and never coming back isn’t a worry that hangs over their head every day. And if you, as a milso, find yourself talking about your particular struggles with them, they’ll often say that “you signed up for this” and “you should have expected it.” You’ll be alone on your birthday while your significant other is hundreds of miles away, or waiting by your computer in desperation for a notification that they’ve logged into Skype, while all your civilian friends are complaining that they miss their significant other for the 9 hours they’re working.
That’s just how it is; unless they’ve lived in your world, they’ll never be able to completely empathize with you. Some may listen more than others, but the best way to get through those times where you need someone to truly empathize with is to talk to someone who’s been there. So make friends with as many people who have dated, married, or been family to someone in the military. They’ll be your lifeline when your sweetheart isn’t around to talk to.
3. Keeping up with your significant other’s work conversations is like trying to keep your head above water.
One word: acronyms. Acronyms everywhere. It is completely overwhelming, especially when you’re a person that has absolutely no experience with the military, to hear terms like TDY and MEPS and BAS thrown around nearly every other word. But when you’re sitting there, awkwardly struggling to make sense of whatever conversation your service member is having, remember that they have been in training for months, or even years to learn all these acronyms. It is not something you can learn overnight, and you definitely aren’t the first person to be completely clueless when hearing such words being used. So just hold on, ask a few (and only a few) questions, and just be patient and accept the fact you won't learn everything. You will become familiar with time, and someday, it will be second nature to use the lingo when you inquire where he will be PCSing to and whether his BAH has come in yet.
4. When they talk about their work-related struggles, there’s really not much you can do but listen.
This is especially true if you’re not where they are and can’t do anything more than text or call them. Being the civilian means you’ll never be able to know exactly what they’re going through at work. So when their chain of command switches their duties to something awful, or when they are berated for three hours about something as small as having part of their uniform out of regs — just be there for them. If you can, give them a hug, hold their hand, and be still. Let them vent. Guys, especially, often prefer to just voice their problems — sometimes at great length — in order to get over a tough day. They don’t demand advice or sympathy; oftentimes they just need to talk it out, and once they’ve finished, they’ll feel better. Girls tend to ask for real sympathy and sometimes a suggestion for how to amend their problems, seeking feedback more than a punching bag to take all their stress out on. Either way, soft encouragement along with simple physical gestures — hand-holding, a gentle squeeze on the arm, a hug — will let them know you care without being too much. If distance separates you, listening is your greatest ally, along with your continued support and positivity. Remember, you are their anchor to the real world, a life that isn’t all about mustering at dawn and getting haircuts every week. You are their chance to live a normal life. Out of regs. With a real person they are so in love with. Remind them of that, and escaping the misery of their work will be easier for them.
5. You will learn just how badly you can miss a person, to the extent that it is physically painful.
I’m lucky. I’ve only had to spend about two months of my relationship away from my boyfriend. I have yet to feel the everyday struggle of surviving a deployment, wondering if I will ever see him again. I am grateful I haven’t had to yet; there are so many less fortunate than I. But that doesn’t change the deep and profound longing I felt when I was a day’s drive away, with only my willpower keeping me from driving out to see him. I know what it means to miss someone so painfully that I find myself thinking of no one else during every moment of the day. And you will too, if you find yourself in a similar LDR.
6. You’ll find yourself comparing your relationship to others, wondering if you’re doing it right, or if you have the perfect relationship.
Maybe this is true for any couple — but I never felt as strongly about it as I did when I started dating my sailor. I don’t really know why, but I often feel like military relationships can be so competitive. Even if you don’t find yourself jealous of others (which is a good thing – don’t ever feel like you have to live up to anyone else’s standards) there are plenty of military couples that pretend it’s all a game, one that they desperately want to win. Wives will brag about how long they’ve had to be away from their husbands, or use their rank to try and pretend they're more important. Guys will brag about places around the world they’ve been to, or how close to death they’ve been. There’s all kinds of one-upping in the military and all you can do is hope to avoid it.
7. You will endure countless “dependapotamus” jokes.
And it will either scare you, anger you, or simply remind you of the benefits of your relationship. Some people, honestly, are in it for the benefits, people who are willing to give up their single status for medical benefits, being provided for financially, and receiving all kinds of other opportunities not necessarily available to civilian spouses. Whether you intend to marry your service member or not, the relentless jokes on money-hungry significant others (which are almost wholly pointed at women, might I add) can definitely make you feel awful. Even if that’s not your intent, the idea that others perceive you as a gold-digger of sorts can make you feel just terrible.
Ignore the jokes and remember why you’re really with your service member. There is no stronger love than a military love.
8. The future will always be uncertain.
You will learn to accept change better than anyone you know because nothing, nothing can be taken for granted or guaranteed. The military owns your significant other. They are bound to follow orders or receive consequences for noncompliance. So when he is ordered to relocate across the country, or sent on deployment, or assigned TDY on your anniversary, that’s what’s going to happen. That’s just the way it is. 99% of the time, there's nothing either you or he can do about the hand of cards he's dealt. (And don't be like those military spouses that think they can approach their service member's chain of command when they aren't happy about something. Never. Ever. Do this.) If it’s easy now, it won’t be later; but if you’re struggling now, just know that the storm won’t last forever. If nothing else, know that everything you’re going through has been gone through before by someone else, and you are not — and never will be — alone.
9. Your partner may no longer have that feeling they get when they are “home” because of how often they (and you, if you live with them) move around.
When you’re homesick, even the most wonderful place on earth can feel dull and lifeless. Imagine being away from your hometown — a place you’ve known and lived in and loved all your life — for months upon months at a time, only getting the chance to visit with a few hard-earning leave days you spent months accruing. Now imagine you’re in the worst possible place on earth. Whether they’re deployed or simply stationed with thousands of other service members, things can feel like hell to someone who spends each day looking forward to the next time they’ll truly be home. Some places will suck the life out of them, no matter how easy their workdays are or how many friends they’ve got around them. It’s something that only they will truly be able to articulate; so when they tell you how little motivation they have to do anything, just remind them of what they’re anticipating. Tell them you love them and that everything they do will bring the two of you closer together and to where you truly want to be soon enough.
10. Depending on where they are stationed, your relationship will feel the effects of where they (and you) are located.
For someone who thrives in the chillier climates up north due to being from Massachusetts, my boyfriend constantly rues the heat and humidity of coastal North Carolina. We find it difficult to get out of the house because of how miserably hot it can be at times (though I’m a little better suited to it, simply because Kansas had surprisingly hot summers). Whereas I try to enjoy the scenery no matter where I’m at, he will never enjoy the feeling of sand between his toes. That’s just how he is. So all I can do is dote on him when he gets off work on a particularly blistering day, hand him a cool beer and offer to take off his boots for him. Don’t let their location discourage you from showing him how much you care — they will appreciate you all the more for it.
11. You will have to get used to not being taken as seriously by other people, especially those in the military.
As a girlfriend (or boyfriend), you will be seen by much of the military community as being “temporary.” No matter how long you’ve dated, the title itself of girlfriend/boyfriend denotes a level of impermanence you’ll find nearly impossible to remove, especially since it's such a trend for the military to marry very quickly. Until a ring is on your finger it is unlikely that anyone will give your presence in your significant other’s life much thought. So if marriage plans are in your future, know that this kind of treatment won’t last forever. Otherwise, just go with the flow; no one knows your relationship better than the two of you.
12. You will face important decisions much sooner than the average civilian couple will.
Some people will think this is because you are young, foolish, and overeager. The opposite is true; it is because you will likely have to come to grips with important parts of life sooner than others your age. At home, my friends are still in school, even though most don’t have an inkling of an idea what they want to do for a career, or what they’ll do with the rest of their lives. A few (more like a lot) have become pregnant, but mostly they work their part-time jobs, go drinking on the weekends, and spend too much time on Facebook. People my age don’t take much of life too seriously. And without worrying about whether your significant other might get deployed and end up a casualty of war, there’s no pressure to get serious about life anytime soon. But within mere weeks of our relationship, my boyfriend and I had discussed marriage, kids, where we want to live, what we want to do with our lives, and felt the agony of trying to navigate the military’s system in order to get situated with a place to live. So if you find yourself engaged at 19 years old with a baby on the way and have the whole world belittling your choices, don’t listen to those – usually civilians – who will criticize you for ‘moving too fast.’ As I said before, only you can know what’s best for the both of you.
13. You will, as most military couples do, learn to both love and hate Skype.
A long-distance relationship will teach you just how patient you can really be. When it comes to technology, we expect it to work — and when something as important as seeing the love of our life for a few moments for the first time in weeks gets ruined because of it, there are very few things that can incense us so quickly. Skype epitomizes the love-hate relationship when you begin a long-distance courtship with your service member; and as much of a pain in the ass it is, you’ll find that there are few things better than getting to see their face, even if for just a laggy, pixelated second before that stupid dropped-call noise sounds and you throw your computer across the room.
14. You will become overly sensitive to people criticizing and ridiculing the military.
It’s just part of the gig. Knowing what your service member has sacrificed to be where they are will only make overhearing someone bashing the military worse. It may come with a heightened sense of patriotism, too, when you begin your relationship with a military member, or it may completely ruin it altogether — it varies from person to person.
15. So much of your life will be controlled by other people — usually people you don’t know and won’t ever meet — that you’ll sometimes feel like the military owns you, too.
Making plans with your boyfriend or girlfriend isn’t a one-on-one decision anymore. If they’re asked to stay late to do some extra work, no amount of planning beforehand will guarantee they’ll be able to make it. You’ll find that they’ll miss out on Skype dates and fun get-togethers way more often than seems fair. Trying to plan around his schedule often seems like a vain endeavor. But no matter how many times you’ll find yourself hanging on to their worklife, remember that you have your own life to live too. If they’re working late then don’t skimp on your own needs.
16. The anxious last-minute scramble to find miscellaneous pieces of their uniform — cover, blousing straps, ID — and the panic that ensues when you don’t.
This may only apply to those who live with their military member, but it should be mentioned at least. When they have to wake up at 4:30 and are panicking because they don’t know where something essential to their uniform is, you’re not going to be laying there for long before he desperately enlists your help in locating whatever it is. Trying to get on base without an ID is a nearly impossible feat, and showing up late will often be preferable to showing up not appropriately attired — so give them a break if they rouse you from slumber to help find something they need.
17. The paranoia you experience when on base, meeting their higher-ups/chain of command because you’re a civilian and you don’t want to do anything wrong.
Most of the time, it’s not merited. There are very few things you can do to embarrass your service member or get them in trouble, but the paranoia is there, and it never really goes away. I have been around my boyfriend’s coworkers and higher-ups countless times and I have yet to feel fully comfortable in their presence. It’s natural and you’ll learn who you can be friendly and joke around with, and who you can’t, and most of all your boyfriend or girlfriend will let you know what is and isn’t okay. Don’t be afraid to simply be friendly; first encounters are just as effective here as in the civilian world, and even the most decorated chief is still just another human being like you.
18. Realizing just how trivial a 40-hour work week really is, and feeling little patience for those who complain about it.
Your civilian friends will get affectionately ignored when they whine about their work schedule, and you’ll find it hard to resist reminding them that some people would love to work only 40 hours a week. You’ll want to tell them how some people don’t even get a full night’s sleep because they’re working around the clock for weeks on end, taking only 2 hour shifts to catch some quick ZZZ’s before heading back to work. Don’t let it get to your head, but it’s okay to realize just how great some people have it in comparison to your service member. You don’t (always) need to remind people of it, but take it in stride and try not to let it bother you.
19. Airports will give you the most painfully bittersweet feelings.
There’s nothing like seeing their face for the first time in months — nor are there words to describe how difficult it is to let them go again afterwards. Seeing a familiar airport will conjure memories, and sometimes tears; no longer will you think of it only as a place to go when you’re going somewhere else. You’ll associate it with thoughts of them, of running to greet them and being lifted in the air and tasting their tears between your lips. And it will be one of the strongest feelings you’ve ever felt in association with a specific place.
20. Your relationship will be so difficult, so unlike any other relationship you’ve ever had or ever will.
It will be filled with uncertainty and pain and often miles upon miles between the two of you, but the good days — the times you can be together, the nights where you can sleep easier because you know you are finally in each other’s warm embrace — will make everything worth it. Sometimes it will last, and other times it won’t; but no matter what, know that a military relationship is not for the weak of heart. If you have the discipline and love it takes to make it work for a period of time, then there’s very little you can’t do.