Mastering Your Engagement: For Military and First Responder Couples

When a young couple, one year out from their wedding day, comes into a premarital counseling session with Dr. Preston Dyer and one of them says they like everything they’ve ever found out about their partner, he knows they have some work to do.

“What really gets them is when some big issue comes up and they’re not expecting it or prepared to deal with it,” said Dyer, a licensed clinical social worker and marriage and family therapist who has been counseling couples for 50 years.

“Couples need to talk about the realistic aspects of watching your husband or wife walk out the door with 40 pounds of equipment every morning.”

Dyer’s job is to help couples anticipate the difficulties that can arise in the future and develop a plan for how to deal with them. A professor emeritus with the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University, he currently works with the Mastering Your Marriage program, which features a curriculum for military, veteran, and first responder couples to sustain healthy and resilient marriages. The added occupation-related pressures that these couples encounter during their marriages underscore the need to identify areas of the relationship that need work before they walk down the aisle. 

“Couples need to talk about the realistic aspects of watching your husband or wife walk out the door with 40 pounds of equipment every morning,” he said. “What happens when they get home and, all of a sudden, they are called back for an emergency where they’re probably going to risk their lives?”

Military and first responder couples can have long, fulfilling marriages. But before they say “I do,” each partner should set realistic expectations of what their marriage will look like and build a strong foundation of communication skills for when times get tough. 

Understanding the Stressors for Military and First Responder Couples

Statistician Nathan Yau analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey to explore how divorce rates varied by occupation and industry. The good news: Rates for military and police couples were below the median rate for all occupations. Still, just over one-quarter of marriages for military personnel and one-third for police officers ended in divorce.

In addition to the issues encountered in a typical marriage, military and first responder couples will face specific challenges as a result of the occupations of one or both spouses. These challenges can include:

  • Separation from family and long deployments.
  • Erratic schedules.
  • Uncertainty of and fear for a partner’s safety.
  • Stress of demanding jobs.
  • Uprooting of community and support systems.
  • Feelings of isolation.
  • Trauma and vicarious trauma for partners.
  • Feelings that one partner is taking on the burden of household duties.

Dyer believes it’s important for these couples to understand what the future holds when they get engaged to be married. Young couples, in particular, may have very unrealistic expectations of marriage and what service or first responder life is going to be like.

“Sometimes 17- and 18-year-olds see the military and first responder jobs as an exciting, adventuresome kind of lifestyle, and it may certainly have some of that to it,” he said. “But those things also make it very difficult.”

Reality can set in early: In a 2016 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, researchers examined a large and representative sample of married Army service members and their spouses and found an association between prior deployments and lower marital satisfaction. The biggest difference in marital satisfaction occurred during the first deployment.

But the stress of not knowing when and if your partner will return home extends to all of these couples, whether they are leaving for a long deployment or a daily shift. The constantly changing schedules can mean not being around for important family activities.

“You’re not only missing ball games and those kinds of things, but also some of the major life events like graduations,” Dyer said. 

Setting Realistic Expectations

In order to set realistic expectations about what married life will be like, couples need to communicate about the aspects of their relationships where conflict either already exists or may arise. The first step is identifying those particular areas — but where to start?

Dyer is a certified facilitator for the Prepare/Enrich assessment, a tool he uses in premarital counseling sessions. The assessment helps break through idealism that couples may bring into sessions by allowing facilitators to gauge a number of variables that can affect relationships.

Relationship Variables to Consider

How do couples feel about the quality and quantity of their communication?

Conflict resolution:
Are couples able to discuss feelings and opinions and resolve differences?

Sexual expectations:
How satisfied are couples with the amount of affection they receive, and are they comfortable discussing sexual issues and expectations?

Financial management:
Do couples agree on important financial decisions and financial planning?

Relationship roles:
How do couples expect decisions will be made and responsibilities will be shared?

Family and friends:
How does each person feel about their partner’s family and friends and the amount of influence they have in the couple’s lives?

Partner style and habits:
How does each person feel about their partner’s personal characteristics and habits?

Leisure activities:
Do couples have similar interests and are they satisfied with the amount of leisure time spent together and apart?

Spiritual beliefs:
How important is spiritual expression to each partner and what effect does that have on their relationship?

The assessment allows facilitators to identify what a couple’s strengths are and where they have opportunities for growth. From there, counselors are able to home in on what a couple needs to address in order to set them on the path to marital success. The Prepare/Enrich assessment is just one tool that counselors can use, but what’s most important is that couples find a way to ask the tough questions in order to evaluate their relationship and make the necessary changes. 

If they are not willing to make changes, then premarital counseling won’t do much good. Dyer says that couples need to be open to at least postponing the wedding, or even possibly not getting married at all. He recommends starting counseling at least six months before the wedding.

“Once the invitations have gone out for the wedding, there’s not much chance of change,” he said. 

Developing Communication Plans

After a couple has identified opportunities for growth, they should begin to plan for how they can mitigate issues or address them when they occur.

“It really becomes a part of each partner’s responsibility to help the other deal with the stresses of life,” Dyer said.

Baylor University’s online master’s in social work program asked Dyer to share different communication approaches that military and first responder couples can practice before they are married.   

Create Structured Time

Creating structured time can be easier said than done for military and first responder couples because of their changing schedules and deployments — but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. Dyer offered these suggestions:

Daily Sharing

Set aside 20 to 30 minutes every day at a consistent time that works for you and your partner. Use the following questions to get the conversation rolling:  

  • “What’s happened in the last 24 hours/since the last time we did daily sharing?” and “How do you feel about that?”
  • “What are you expecting/what’s on your agenda in the next 24 hours?”
  • “Are there any conflicts between us right now that we need to work on?”

Don’t try to resolve any conflicts during daily sharing. The experience should be a pleasant and enjoyable time. Offer each other at least one affirmation.

Relationship Maintenance

Once a week, for an hour and a half, work through the following:

  • Review the conflicts that you may have identified during daily sharing. These are not limited to interpersonal conflicts and may include pragmatic issues such as budgeting or planning trips.
  • Talk about and work through each conflict individually.
  • Develop a plan for how to address that conflict.
  • Keep an eye on the clock, and don’t go beyond the allotted time. (After an hour and a half, couples tend to stop using conflict resolution skills.)
  • Acknowledge if an issue is not resolved, and commit to addressing it at a later date.

Leisure Activities

Carve out a minimum of an hour and a half — but extend as long as needed — to continue the types of activities you and your partner have enjoyed in a dating relationship: going to dinner, watching a movie, attending a concert, going dancing, or snuggling on the couch.

Finally, remember the following tips as you schedule your structured time:

  • Adjust the schedule based on the time constraints and limitations of your or your partner’s job. Instead of doing daily sharing, you can switch to weekly sharing.
  • Use different channels to communicate such as email, video chats, and letters, but maintain the general structure of sharing.
  • Try to maintain consistency. If you miss a day or a week, don’t allow that to become the norm.
  • Be flexible. Remember that your partner doesn’t always have control over when they will be called back to work. 

Decide How Much to Communicate

Military personnel and first responders must be careful about how much they tell their partners — not only does certain information need to remain confidential, but partners can also experience vicarious trauma.

  • Avoid hiding important issues or problems that you are facing from your partner. In fact, some people may want to hear if their partner was in a life-or-death situation that day.
  • Don’t make decisions about what to share on your own. Talk with your partner about what they do and don’t want to hear.
  • Come to a mutual understanding of what kind of information should be shared. Communication does not require a couple to share everything. 

Shift How You Communicate at Home

First responders and military personnel can sometimes have a hard time shifting from the way they communicate at work to the way they should do so at home.

  • Be mindful of the approach you take to communication once you’re done for the day. Are you using “you” statements instead of “I” statements? While this is a commanding way to assume authority in a work setting, it can feel like you’re barking orders for your partner.
  • Try using physical cues. For example, when a police officer returns home for the day, they can remove their uniform hat and replace it with a baseball cap. This signals to that person that it’s time to interact like a fiancé or significant other.

Whether they choose to seek out a certified counselor, a religious leader, or even relationship mentors, couples should take stock of their needs and expectations as they enter a marriage. While marriage provides fulfillment and joy, it also comes with particular challenges that often require teamwork to navigate.

“Marriage ought to be a shelter in the storm,” Dyer said. “There’s so much stress to everyday life for all couples that they need a place to escape that.”

Citation for this content: Baylor University’s online master’s in social work program.