How did you and your spouse celebrate Valentine’s Day? Did your service member partner come home from work with a dozen roses, or offer a few moments of undivided attention during a FaceTime call from overseas? Even small gestures can go a long way to making a relationship fulfilling. But the reality is, a military marriage doesn’t always end happily ever after.
“I stayed as long as I could,” admits former Army Spouse Selina Walker. She is divorced and forever disappointed with the lack of support she received from the Army after dedicating her life to supporting her soldier.
Walker was introduced to her ex-husband through mutual friends at a country club near Fort Bragg, North Carolina. There was chemistry between them. “We just talked and then he asked for my number,” she explains. They were both smitten and dated for two years before he popped the question during a lunch date. “I was very happy, I was in love with him very much,” Walker said. They were married in 2001 and were quickly granted custody of his two children from a prior marriage.
“It was wonderful. I never had my own children, so it filled a void for me,” she said.
However, a big void was on the horizon. Deployment would take her spouse into combat for months. Walker reflects upon this time and remembers being a confident woman in her 30s, ready to take on the challenges that were ahead as an Army wife.
The newlyweds discussed the future and decided it would be best for her to leave behind her blossoming career and focus on the family. “I jumped in with both feet with the kids,” she remembers.
“There were a lot of sacrifices, including nine deployments,” explained Walker. Her ex-husband was going through the cycle of promotions, training and combat action. Walker found stability through her family that lived in town and her home.
“We owned our home. The kids were safe and happy,” she remembers. However, her ex-husband was constantly faced with danger. In 2009, he was hit with an IED while serving in Afghanistan. He was okay and able to continue serving as an active duty member of the Army. However, his scars from the explosion ran deep. “I always think about how much he went through and his PTSD.” Walker had her own obstacles ahead too, the family was being moved to Fort Benning. The couple was feeling disconnected and not spending much time together. “I didn’t want to move with him if we were not going to be partners and leave my family and my home so we decided to attempt couples therapy,” Walker said.
“Military couples often have a short courtship. They meet, fall in love, get married and then the service member deploys,” said Dana Torpey-Newman, Ph.D., a licensed clinical therapist and expert on couples therapy. “They lose the opportunity to build a relationship on early foundational conversations.”
Torpey-Newman has also identified common issues within military relationships after her time at VA. These couples never have the opportunity to have a disagreement and break up—they just end up divorced because they are in a “less committed situation.”
Secondly, connection after long-term separation is really difficult. “It is too much for the partner at home to be dependent on their spouse and then have to pull back when they leave again, it is too painful. And so the service member never feels part of the family,” explains Torpey-Newman. The last factor is PTSD. Torpey-Newman says it really gets in the way of a romantic relationship. “PTSD changes the person and causes them to be withdrawn and disconnected. They are fearful of burdening their spouse.”
She says oftentimes service members with PTSD engage in “emotional avoidance behavior like video games, pornography, alcohol and drug use, and adultery.” The Walkers were facing two of the common issues identified by Torpey-Newman: PTSD and the inability to reconnect after separation.
Their therapy sessions lasted six weeks and took place off-post in order to keep their marital issues a secret from the command. “He was doing it to please me,” remembers Walker.
The End: A Broken Time
The Walkers ended up moving to Fort Benning in 2011 and Selina sought therapy on her own “for how I felt about the marriage.” At this point, she describes a feeling of suffocation, embarrassment, and being broken. “I didn’t feel like there was enough support for military spouses as far as therapists go,” she said. “I felt like no one was listening; they just wanted to save the soldier.”
She noted that all services on base were offered by men and she felt like she was talking to “a brick wall.” And just when the relationship couldn’t handle any more challenges, they received orders back to Fort Bragg in 2012. Walker started to have suspicions and hired a private investigator. “He was acting weird and eventually I found out he had been cheating,” explains Walker.
After 14 years as a military spouse she was done, two years shy of retirement.
Conflict of Interest
The Department of Defense released the most recent divorce statistics to MilSpouseFest. Here’s a breakdown: in 2020, 2.8 percent of married Active Duty members divorced. The Air Force had the highest divorce rate in 2020 (3.0%), while the Navy had the lowest 2020 divorce rate (2.6%).
Torpey-Newman says military couples don’t always have a fair chance to repair their broken relationship. She explains, “the problem is how often service members are called away for training or deployments, that makes it impossible for them to engage in regular therapy,” In these cases she says, the spouse often feels second to the military. The other piece is that service members are worried about the consequences of admitting to marital problems within the military.
There are practices such as “watch lists” created to track service members with marital issues. Torpey-Newman believes the military needs a therapeutic rather than a punitive approach and sees the situation as a “conflict of interest.” She claims when a relationship is full of conflict it is impossible for the service member to do their job without interference from those emotions. “In order for the service member to be ready to be deployed is to improve the satisfaction of the servicemember and their family.”
Finally, Torpey-Newman says there are just not enough providers available to deal with the specific challenges military couples are facing.
Happily Ever After Help
Torpey-Newman says it is crucial that military couples do not wait to seek help. Oftentimes military couples wait until someone in the relationship “is done” and in those cases, it is likely too late.
She says, “outcomes from couples therapy when people are still committed proves to be more successful.” Torpey-Newman also suggests ditching date night, and instead spending time together listening to or reading “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” then having a conversation.
She says if the marriage is already in trouble it is likely the couple doesn’t want to spend time together and they have nothing to talk about. “The book opens the door to have different conversations,” explains Torpey-Newman.
As for Walker, she has recently become open to dating. She doesn’t regret her military marriage and still believes in love. “I gave him the world and eventually he gave me the world, and you think it was supposed to last forever,” she said.
For now, she’s exploring the idea of forgiveness, not for the military and their lack of help provided to save her family, but for her ex-husband.
Don’t miss you on the MilSpouseFest Cast on Relationships and Communication this Thursday, February 24th at 12 PM ET. Our guest speaker Jenny Lynne Stroup, Outreach Coordinator with Cohen Veterans Network, is also a writer, blogger, podcaster, mental health advocate, milspouse, MOPS-alum, and recovering human being. We will have thirty minutes of breakout rooms to connect with other military spouses and chat.
REGISTER HERE: https://bit.ly/FebUniteandIgnite
Check out MilSpouseFest’s list of resources for military spouses struggling with marital issues, considering divorce or already in the process.
Military couples can attend retreat programs held off-site to build stronger relationships. The programs are limited and fill up quickly.
Air Force: contact chaplin
Navy, Marine & Coast Guard: https://usmc-mccs.org/services/relationships/chaplains-religious-enrichment-development-operation/
Chaplins are available to service members and spouses for confidential conversation. They are also well informed about local resources.
Most local religious organizations offer counseling and couples enrichment programs.
Reach out to your local church for more information.
Former Military Spouse: https://www.facebook.com/Military.Divorce
Divorce & the Military: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1516337625340148
Ex-Partners of Servicemembers for equality : https://www.ex-pose.org