The On and Off Switch of Military Marriage

The more separations, long or short, that Husband and I endure, the rustier my on and off switch gets.

Now, lest you think I’m speaking in kinky euphemisms here, let me explain (yes, I just used kinky in a blog post.  I can’t wait to see the list of incoming search terms now!).

I’ve spoken before about the numbness that comes into effect when you are dealing with a deployment or a detachment or a military separation of any sort.  A part of me shuts off.  I miss Husband.  I unavoidably miss him.  But most of my being is involved in consciously choosing not to miss him, because that’s the only way I can survive and stay up and functional and able to take care of my babies.  I feel numb.  Some days I will even feel highly disturbed because I am not sad enough in the missing of Husband. 

My independence also necessarily flourishes when he’s gone.  How could it not when I am entrenched in situations like the one I was in last night:  Holding tight to Little Miss’s hand, reassuring her, as she howls and screams and cries while her poor little forehead is being stitched up, while simultaneously juggling Baboo?  Even just figuring out how to get us all out the door and into our respective car seats last night while keeping the bleeding under control was an effort in independence. 

It’s not just situational independence that separation brings.  It’s also emotional independence.  Like it or not, what happens in my days, inside and outside of my heart and soul and mind are primarily mine to deal with.  I can share with friends, but friends have their own lives to sift through.  I can send an email to husband…  But I always have to wonder if my sending an email about how crappy I may be feeling is going to distract him and cause him to make a mistake on the Flight-deck that could cause him to be injured or worse.  And practically, writing an email once or twice a day just doesn’t allow me to get into the nitty gritty of my emotions and thoughts and feelings and hopes and fears.  Something special happens in the real time, real life exchanges of husband and wife that emails and letters and even phone calls just can’t capture. 

So I deal with things on my own.  I have to.  I have no other choice.  He does the same thing on his end.  So we are two numb people, married and in love as we always have been, but not feeling that fully because we have to protect ourselves and go on with our lives and dealing with our own high-stress situations completely separately.

And then, Husband comes home.  And suddenly, we are expected to switch ourselves back on again.  I have to be switched on and ready to share household duties, to remember how to function with him as a couple, to remember how to share my physical, mental, and emotional burdens.  I have to let the Novocaine wear off and feel again.  Suddenly he is there and we hope to have that instant depth of marital interaction just all of a sudden.

Now, I’m dealing with depression.  And part of the reason I’m dealing with depression is, ironically, because I’m so freaking functional when the ‘fit hits the shan.’  I get by fine.  I handle things fine.  I ‘deal with it’ fine.  But I’m finding that because I’ve so long been in a situation of having no place for my emotions to go, of believing that there isn’t room for them, that I’ve simply just released them inward.  As a result I find that I’m essentially emotionally imploding.  I’m still getting by, but the cost of that getting by is higher and higher.

The more separations we handle, the more effective the Novocaine to the heart seems to get, and the harder it is to just ‘switch things  back on’ when husband is home.

I’ve seen and have been seeing strong marriages (not my own) end at the end of long military related separations.  As I’ve grappled with the whys of this I’ve come to believe that this is partially because of things like PTSD…  Partly because one person in the marriage has literally been eating and sleeping and breathing only to stay alive in a war environment, while the other held down the homefront, and the changes those things bring about in the human psyche are difficult to reconcile into the marriage relationship.  But I think it also has to do with this flipping of the ‘on and off’ switch.  We turn ourselves relationally off for so long at a stretch, when we are together again we have to learn how to function in the ‘on’ position.  And sometimes the switch sticks, and we continue to just ‘deal,’ because that has been our default position for so long.

It’s a scary and fragile thing to deal with.  It is a scary thing to realize in myself.  Husband and I are, hopefully, coming to the end of our season of extended separations.  I am looking forward to having him home and to be given the opportunity to work on our marriage outside of survival mode.  The first five years of our  marriage have been exclusively survival mode years for many different reasons.  I’m not sure we’ll know how to function outside of it. 

I am recognizing that I am going to have to learn how to switch myself fully back ‘on.’  I am going to have to learn to feel again and I’m going to have to learn how to let Husband fully into my feelings.  I pray that we will grow into an even deeper level of intimacy.  Of course, that both frightens and excites me.

Even with this epiphany, I find that with each new separation the ‘away’ feels more normal.  The  numbness feels more acute.  We hardly skip a beat when he leaves.  We hardly skip a beat when he returns.  We are still so very connected.  We still love one another so very much.  But we have to work through our rusty on/off switches.  And that is often complicated by 12+ hour days and shifts that vary widely.  Sadly, in a lot of ways, sometimes our ‘off’ switches just stay engaged.  When the turnaround between away times is so short (two or three weeks or even less), there really is no way to fully renegotiate our marriage each and every time. 

We only have a few more away times left.  But those few still add up to a significant amount of time spent apart.  I pray that God would help us to stay awakened to one another.  I pray that he would help us learn to more fully enter in to one another’s respective emotional landscapes.  I pray that he would keep our relationship in the palm of His hand until we are together in a more stable way.

I pray too that those of you who have read this post (and bless you for reading this long thing!) would lift the families of our military members up in prayer.  I wish that you would lift them and us up not just in a general ‘God bless the troops and their families’ kind of way, but that you would pray specifically for the challenges this lifestyle poses for the family unit.  While we don’t want sympathy for the path that we’ve chosen…  While we’re proud to have served in our own small ways….  Being in a military marriage really is a whole different animal.  Prayer and support for husbands and wives going through these constant adjustments is so important. 

I don’t really know how to close this post.  I’m sure everyone is ready for my verbal ‘off’ switch to engage.  So without further ado, I’ll throw that switch. 



16 thoughts on “The On and Off Switch of Military Marriage

  1. My husband was much better at turning his switch off than I am, especially at the beginning of our marriage, and it used to bug me to no end. Especially because he had a lot of trouble turning it back on. I’ve gotten so much better, though, that even if he’s out for the night I sort of revert back to that ‘off’ mode. I do the same thing–I sort of drop the emotional stuff and tend to ‘just function’ when he’s away. The one thing I decided to do, that has actually helped a lot, is basically carry a notebook around with me when he’s deployed. I’ll write anything I would normally have told him, talked to him about, or would want him to know. If, when I’m done, it’s too emotional or moody, I can always tear it out. When he gets back, I give it to him (he does the same). It helps us catch up on how we were feeling when he was gone, and I also feel like it helps me flip my switch back to the on position. Although sometimes even when he’s here, I find myself looking for the notebook….

  2. I don’t think post was too long at all – it just takes that many words to express an idea like that. 🙂

    Reading this post has definitely been food for thought, thanks for sharing.

  3. Val~ This is such a powerful, honest, and courageous post. I’ve told you before that I cannot even fathom what you go through… this post gave me a tiny glimpse of it. The only thing I can liken it to in my own life is the 25 surgeries our daughter has gone through, some of them life threatening. My husband and I had a ‘switch’ for this part of our lives… a way to cope with the pain of knowing we might never see her again. The surgeries became this routine and I felt, numb, numb, numb. When I didn’t feel numb, I would cry and feel like a horrible mother… because there was this disconnected feeling and I knew it wasn’t normal… not the ideal. So I would take shelter in the numbness. A year with no surgeries and I’m still trying to thaw out. But I am thawing out… and I believe with all my heart that you will too, because I see here how much you love your husband, and how much he loves you too. And I will pray. Real heartfelt prayers for you and your husband and family. Prayers of the variety I would pray for my own family. Prayer is no small thing in our family, and I hope you can believe that I’m not just saying this as an empty promise. I mean it. I’m praying with my whole heart for you and yours… for your navy friends and their families as they struggle with this same hardship. So hold on, Val. I’m praying.

  4. Hubby’s on-off switch is easy to flip and mine is SOOooo not. I really struggled with this new job of his. 18 TDY trips in 5 months, home only 3-4 days a month but only 1-2 days of no work each month. It’s brutal. It took me a good 4 months to find my routine and learn to deal with this. It’s tough, that’s for sure.


  5. Val, I’ll say it again; how did you get to be so wise at such a young age? My prayers are with you and your family and most certainly not in a pitying way.

  6. You described the on/off thing very well. Much better than I’ve ever seen it described before. I’ll be honest, I’m glad those on/off switches are over for us but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think about you and everyone else who has to deal with this still.

  7. Val, this is a great post. I read the entire thing nodding my head, “yes.” The request for specific prayer is perfectly stated. Thanks for the effort you put into posting this!

  8. This post really touched me. I found your blog while searching for military-related blogs. My husband is deployed now and is due back home March 2009. While I don’t have kids, I can understand how you’re feeling, because I’m going through it too! It’s hard for me to express how I’m feeling and dealing to other people, but you did it beautifully. Much better than my last post (freak-out post!)

  9. I read this post and finally felt like my worries about next year when he comes home aren’t stupid. The on and off of it is that I’m scared to death one or both of us will be so used to off that being together won’t work anymore and feeling that way, makes me go even deeper into off so that it won’t hurt so bad then. Thank you for putting into words what I didn’t fully understand about what was happening to me. But you sound very together and rooted in a solid faith and I hope everything works out in the “on” of life for you!

  10. I hope you print this out and keep it in a safe place. It is amazing how long it takes to get that switch to turn back on when they’ve been gone for an extended amount of time. It took me over 3 months this last time to get used to him being around again. I’m praying for you.

  11. Val,
    I was looking for someone who could maybe explain to me what was happening to my relationship (I’m engaged to a military man). This helped… How do you know it’s worth it?

  12. I know I am late in posting to this, but I just found it while I was doing some “googling”. My husband has been gone for 6 months, and the communication has been minimal for 5 of those. We have another 3 before R&R even arrives. I’ve described myself to others as being in “survival” mode, but haven’t really been able to verbalize it very well. I think you summed it up nicely here. Thank you for that.

  13. Pingback: Riding the Rolls and Yaws and Pitches | Stumbling Barefoot…

  14. I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was great.
    I don’t know who you are but definitely you’re going to a famous blogger if you aren’t already 😉

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