A month ago today, towards evening time, after a day involving no cards, no bouquets, no presents, I received a ‘Happy anniversary’ message from my husband. He was in the UK and I was at home, in the Middle East. His message was seemingly confident but I could sense it was a brash attempt to brazen out his oversight. It’s celebratory tone belied the how-angry-is-she nervousness. Bunch of flowers mad or a diamond ring type fury?
He didn’t need to worry, or buy me either- I had also forgotten! Fourteen years of marriage and we not only didn’t celebrate, we hadn’t even remembered there was supposed to be a celebration. We laughed that at least we forgot together, united in our loose hold of the date.
I blamed my oversight on the fact that Jack’s job has meant we have been apart more than we have been together for our anniversaries. It’s just not something we have often had the opportunity to enjoy together. Iraq and Afghanistan always seemed to call him away in the autumn and work still seems to do that for different reasons.
We are currently considering whether to run the Marriage Course again in the new year. Will our diaries and absences allow us to commit to facilitating the seven sessions? As I was thinking it over today, I remembered writing something 3 years ago, around the time of our wedding anniversary, about another, rather weird period of separation that, thankfully, we haven’t had to repeat.
Hearing about a friend’s experience of a long deployment recently, and living amongst friends who frequently wave good-bye to one another, sometimes for extended periods, sometimes for shorter, more frequent spells, I thought I would post an updated version here. (You can find the original under ‘Life Through the Wire’ in Articles‘):
Whilst we were still living in the UK, when Jack was flying the Chinook, he came home one night with the news that it was his turn to do a week of national standby. I thought little of it.
National standby requires a Chinook and a crew to be on short notice standby at all times for national contingencies. The rules at the time meant Jack couldn’t leave the station for the week he was on call but our quarter was only a few hundred yards away.
To the extent I did think about it, I pictured less washing and more time in charge of the remote, whilst having Jack nearby.
I’m not sure I watched any television that week. Instead, I fielded telephone requests from my incarcerated husband for clean pants, more snacks and visits from the children. The bank holiday weekend was spent with Jack watching us through the fence playing at the park (sad) or with all of us in the mess (nightmare), our children terrorising the other inmates. (The rest of the national standby crew wasn’t visibly thrilled when our seven year old commandeered their play station, nor when our toddler lobbed food at them every mealtime.)
And yet, for all the stresses, I learnt something valuable that week. After our final visit to the mess, we left through the gate in the fence and I turned to wave but Jack was already heading back inside. Through the wire mesh, I watched as he retreated from us. It occurred to me later on that the fence I was looking through was also a construct in our relationship that goes up every time Jack is deployed or on exercise.
During our times apart, Jack worries about national security, I worry about keeping a mini Houdini safe; Jack experiences loneliness, I crave ‘me’ time, unable even to go to the bathroom without an entourage of children/dog; Jack’s freedoms are restricted, I can go anywhere. Since moving to the Middle East, that has flipped around; my freedoms are limited by the compound wall and the culture we live in, whilst Jack can enjoy greater freedom, here and on trips back.
Whichever roles and freedoms our situation at any given time affords us, we are always coping with the same separation on different sides of a fence, in very different worlds. National standby demonstrated this perfectly because we were actually separated by a fence.
The relationship fence usually goes up days, sometimes weeks, before a deployment or time apart, as Jack focuses on something I can’t even picture and I might start planning a children’s birthday party alone. Emotionally, we start to peel away from one another. Then there’s often a pre-deployment argument to ensure the fence between us is good and solid. The same dynamic is at play even we’re just apart during the weeks. The fence goes up and the weekend isn’t long enough to deconstruct so there’s strife.
We had been married eleven years (another anniversary spent part) before I saw the fence. I don’t know if others experience it? I would love to say that having had these lofty thoughts, I handled that particular separation better. I didn’t. It was towards the end of the summer holidays, I was tired and distracted from weeks of childcare and we constructed the fence as usual.
I belatedly remembered the fence and (I think) it helped to sort things out. I felt encouraged once I understood this dynamic in our relationship a bit better. I realised that neither one of us wants the fence there. To an extent, it’s not our fault that it goes up. Our subconscious cleverly works out that it will be easier to say good-bye if we are cross with one another and already disconnected. It’s a coping mechanism. In fact, if anything, it demonstrates the depth of our love for one another.
In films, we sometimes see star-crossed lovers separated from one another in distant locations, gazing upon the same moon. Wherever we are on earth, we always see the same side of the moon due to the speed it rotates on its own axis and orbits the earth.
As amazing as that is, as a Christian, I believe there is something infinitely better to gaze upon even than the moon. We can look to a God who is able to see over both sides of the fence- a Father who can help us bridge the divide. The challenge is to know how to let God connect us.
I still have so much to learn but these are a few ideas I have come across along the way:
• Better thinking
In my worst moments, when Jack used to deploy, I regarded him as a deserter, when he returned as an invader. Obviously, he’s neither of these things. He has a calling to serve, which necessitates time away, and I’m hugely proud of what he does. Reminding myself of this (when I remember! That’s a separate challenge!) can help to reduce negative emotions surrounding a period apart.
Being a military spouse, or a spouse in any marriage where there are periods of time apart, involves sacrifice and compromise. Most of us don’t marry someone because of their job, some may marry in spite of it. Jack’s career wasn’t something I personally prepared well for or knew much about before marriage, but whether we are liking or lumping that part of our relationship, it becomes part of our shared journey.
I think discussions about careers have to be part of an ongoing dialogue where we assess and reassess how we are feeling, whether resentment is building, especially where there are two careers, potentially conflicting. We need to try and respect our partner’s feelings and what they do.
The whole separation experience, with the build up and aftermath, tests us and our relationship. It can cause friction, small and big. It’s good to remind ourselves that the challenging parts of someone’s career aren’t always a matter of choice and to be generous with forgiveness if we fail to separate out the job from the person.
• Taking an Interest
I’m ashamed to say that there have been times when Jack’s gone away and I haven’t even known where he’s gone as I haven’t bothered to ask. I may have been too cross to enquire or too tired to find out. Because home is common ground and Jack can’t always tell me what he’s up to, we can have telephone calls when he’s away where I go on transmit and come away none the wiser about him.
Or more recently, with children going to bed later, different time zones, different ways of communicating with WhatsApp and Messenger, we might not really speak during a time apart. If it’s a long period apart, we may develop friends who know the details of our life better. It may seem a time-consuming exercise to try and keep our distant partner in the loop at the end of a long day. But it’s easy to become disconnected when we don’t. The old BT advice of ‘It’s good to talk’ becomes more and more relevant as landlines and phone calls become less popular.
The fence might becomes less divisive if we try to peek over it.
• Looking Up
Years ago we used to get a copy of the same Bible notes to read whilst we were apart so that we were focusing on the same things spiritually. Lack of Christian book shops here has meant we don’t do this anymore but it used to be helpful. Maybe we should revive that one!
If we lifted our thoughts heavenward, the fence might just disappear from view.
• Being Sensitive
The first time Jack came back from Iraq, I thought the garage was being burgled in the early hours of the morning but it was actually him, putting all of his kit away so he didn’t mess up what had become ‘my’ house. He’s very good at being sensitive to the fact that things at home will probably have changed whilst he’s away. My personal challenge is not to make him feel like a guest when he returns.
• Neutral Territory
A friend whose husband recently came home for R&R said it was good to spend the time they had together away from the family home. It’s easy to become territorial about the home when we have been left to run it alone. A holiday creates a more level playing field to readjust.
One of my favourite passages in the Bible is Ecclesiastes 3. It reminds me that, as with most things, there are seasons in marriage and every season has a purpose:
‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven… a time to break down, and a time to build up… a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.’
But whatever season we are in, Jesus calls us always to love. The song below could be sung as a prayer for marriage, reminding us that unity is something we cannot take for granted, it needs to be intentional, something we seek daily, whether together or apart.
Note: I offer these thoughts as someone who wants to do them, not necessarily as someone who does! I still have a long way to go before I graduate from marriage school and I am not a marriage counsellor (as some have called me since running the Marriage Course), unless repeatedly failing at something earns you a qualification…