By Dinah A. Dziolek, LMHC, LPC

Corie Weather’s interview with Sarah Drew was very authentic. It really connected the issue of pain and suffering, grief with service life. Sarah was vulnerable about her own grief with leaving one phase of her work with Grey’s Anatomy to move into a different and wonderful season of her career and life. She talked about how the “in between” of waiting and slowing down was difficult for her because she loves staying busy with work but saw it as a great opportunity to take care of herself and spend time with her family. Corie mentions the fear of the unknown within this period of waiting, not knowing what is coming next and relates it to military and first responder spouses’ experiences with military and service cultures. Corie explains that we as service spouses are faced with the “in-between” of waiting and the uncertainty of what is coming next with the ongoing work of serving the military mission and local community. She states for service spouses, finding the time for self-care is very difficult while balancing the demands of service life and family.

They talked about a very emotional scene Sarah plays as April in Grey’s Anatomy and how powerful that was from a faith perspective. Sarah explained she was able to help shape the role of April with writers and she felt personally connected out of her own experience as growing up as a pastor’s daughter. She said this role was very important and she felt great responsibility to represent April well from a Christian perspective as a loving human of faith. She explained, when it comes to pain, God is not indifferent to our pain and suffering and we have a brother in Jesus who knows and has experienced suffering just as we do. She went onto to say, as people of faith, suffering is guaranteed. Corie connected this with the Christian protestant community explaining that people have an expectation that choosing to live out faith means life will be easier but in actuality suffering is our reality and something we must embrace in order to grow and mature in our faith. Sarah then talks about how this scene from Grey’s Anatomy with April and this patient who is dying had a tremendous impact on people of faith in her community. She goes onto to talk about how she loves being a bridge builder and loved seeing how this particular scene really brought people of different faith backgrounds together.

Sarah talked about how her work in this film really hit home for her because she related it with the struggles she has had in her own marriage, how internally she silently struggled and how therapy shed light on the pain and helped her and her husband work through it to heal as a couple. She talks about how fear and shame hold us back from shedding light on our inner pain and suffering in the same way Heather struggled in this film. Sarah explained how she had always searched for a role in which she could tell her story of struggle and this was it for her. Corie went onto talk about this is especially relevant for Chaplain and Leadership couples within the military culture. She talks about how when she became vulnerable about her marriage struggles that people were amazed to discover she struggled with the same things they did and that sparked conversations about how Commander Couples may struggle as well. The kitchen scene was especially realistic and authentic for many military and service couples. They close the interview with Sarah talking about her experience as a pastor’s daughter watching her parents struggle in their marriage and have difficulty with being vulnerable about that out of the fear of being judged. She realized that being vulnerable in her role as Heather, the Chaplain’s wife, was so powerful in that it allowed her to let other people see that struggle and pain.

This film is truly the story of our military and service families and their inner struggles from the sacrifices of military and service life. As a chaplain’s wife watching the film with my husband, an Active Duty Air Force Chaplain was powerful.  It really hit home in many ways. In fact, even before I had the opportunity to prescreen the film, my husband and I were watching this particular interview over lunch at his favorite restaurant and this was at a point where we were struggling with reintegrating from his recent one year overseas assignment and subsequent PCS. We both listened intently as Corie and Sarah talked through the interview and when they brought up the kitchen scene my husband asked what it was about, as he had not seen the trailer. I described it to him in vivid detail as I began to cry in the middle of that restaurant, because this was our story too. He began to cry and told me “I’m not that guy.” This was the beginning of a turning point for us in the chaos of our “in-between” reintegration experience. We started giving the other the opportunity to understand the other person’s experience without judgment which brought us closer as a couple. We have always been friends but now we were back to being close as best friends. I have also felt the struggle with being vulnerable as a chaplain’s wife. I have chosen to be very open about my life and my struggles and have felt judgment for this. I think this is something that many chaplain and pastor’s spouses experience.  From my perspective, the reward of seeing people come to healing is worth the fear and pain of being judged. The reality is, judgement happens all the time, whether we are vulnerable or not. However, being honest about our pain and suffering, no matter who we are, is something that transcends all of that. It is the power of being in community and growing together. THIS is the most important part of all, my friends. I hope the message of this interview and the film INDIVISIBLE encourages you to step out of your comfort zone to bring you and the people in your community to a place of healing.

As the wife of an active duty chaplain and a licensed professional counselor, I work with military and first responder couples.

Every single day, I see men and women who struggle with what we call the “invisible wounds of war.” This is more than a battle against the memories of many harrowing experiences. It’s a battle for their soul, where they’re struggling to find peace and normalcy and to resist the temptation to harbor anger and bitterness and to isolate themselves from their community.

It’s a battle to live a life most of us take as a right. But for far too many people, their experiences on the front lines of conflict wall them off from help, hope and healing.

The term we typically hear is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—PTSD—but it can be so many other things. Guilt. Shame. Fear. Anger. Pent-up emotions. The “invisible wounds” come in so many forms.

And while we may not see these wounds, their effects are real: Inner turmoil. Family strife. Mental health challenges. Physical health challenges.

The effects can be deadly. The statistics are staggering.

Over 20 military veterans or active duty service members commit suicide every day. And while these groups comprise just 8.5 percent of the U.S. adult population, they are 18 percent of suicide deaths.

That’s more than 7,500 lives lost each year.

The non-fatal effects of war’s invisible wounds run deep and wide as well.

Marriages feel the strain. Relationships with friends suffer. Withdrawal and isolation looms constantly. Harmful or self-destruction behavior often results.

But just as these wounds can come from unexpected sources, help can be found in unexpected places.

I recently saw a film that not only put this in perspective for those of us who have not experienced what our service members and first responders have, it pointed a way toward hope.

The film—Unbroken: Path to Redemption—tells the amazing true story of Louis “Louie” Zamperini as he returns home from unbelievably harsh experiences in World War II. Many remember the first film—Unbroken—that told of his troubled teen years, experience as an Olympic athlete, surviving the crash of his bomber and spending 47 days in a life raft and, of course, his heroic endurance in the face of brutal treatment as a P.O.W.

But there’s an important “Part II” to Louie’s story that’s told in Unbroken: Path to Redemption. It asks the question we all want to hear answered: How does someone go to war and see the worst of humanity then come home and try to fit into a normal life?

Tormented by nightmares of his brutalization, Louie struggled with alcoholism, engaged in reckless and dangerous behavior and took his marriage to a wife who loved him deeply to the brink of divorce. Then at the famous 1949 Billy Graham tent revival in Los Angeles, Louie found faith.

What he did next was perhaps the most remarkable accomplishment in an already remarkable life.

He returned to Japan and forgave his captors.

After years of suffering, forgiveness formed the balm for his invisible wounds.

Louie’s story is about choosing life and, ultimately, about the role forgiveness plays our own personal story, no matter how challenging it has been.

Even if you’ve no connection to the military, Louie’s story will restore your faith in humanity. Despite the evil and destruction we are capable of, forgiveness and mercy are the antidote that inspires us to see the best of what we have to offer.

UNBROKEN: PATH TO REDEPMPTION is in theaters nationwide now. Find tickets at UnbrokenFilm.com.

FOR INFORMATION CONTACT:                                                        

Michael Conrad, 214-616-0320

Michael@Lovell-Fairchild.com

 

The deepest hurts of marriage are often deeper than the current circumstances. Instead, it is the fear that perhaps we are so different there is no hope. Personality differences that once attracted you to each other now drive a wedge. Even deeper, it is the resentment that now, dangerously, wishes your spouse was different than who they are.

I remember the moment I looked at my now husband and thought “I want to marry that man.” We were in college, and while I had planned out my future with great responsibility and detail, he was still deciding on a major.

He was an artist, a dreamer. He was deeply passionate about life and balanced my Type-A side that wanted to wrestle life into order. While he saw me as a power suit, I was in awe of his carefree, carpe diem outlook on life.

We, like most couples, found something in each other that was missing in ourselves. I was the “yang” to his “yin” — perfect for each other while also two opposite extremes that combust when as asked to work together. Marriage has a great way of revealing that dynamic in a relationship, doesn’t it?

Most marriages I come across have a similar dynamic. Most of the time opposites really do attract. Maybe you are an introvert married to an extrovert, or a highly organized person married to someone who wants no rules.

But these opposite characteristics that once attracted us can over time create huge relationship frustration. And, In many cases, that frustration is the cause of deep hurt.

In my work as a military marriage therapist, I often see couples with one specific personality combination: the service member is highly disciplined and logical, and his spouse is incredibly empathetic.

Military training has taught the service member that pausing a mission to talk about each others’ feelings gets people killed. In military strategy, emotions simply do not hold the value they do on the outside, especially at home. But because service members often marry their deeply empathetic opposite, the military spouse puts high value on those emotions. It is how we as spouses tend to make parenting decisions and communicate in our relationships.

Although every couple is unique in how their personalities conflict, I see again and again supporting spouses who say “he is cold” or doesn’t “value my feelings.” Many spouses tell me that they often agree with his logic, they just want to know that he also hears, relates, and can feel the feelings of those impacted by his decision. But from his perspective, he listened and doesn’t know how to value your feelings any more than he already did.

And now the couple is hurting — and they wish the other was different. And because they have been here so many times before, the discouragement is real. Things never change. They never change.

So, how do most react? We beg. We beg our partner to learn, change and be different, because it is so hard to be married to someone who simply “must be hurting me on purpose.”  

It is a crazy cycle of triggering each other into bad habits and reactions, only to push them into feeling deeply ashamed of who they are. Afterall, how does one magically turn into a different person to make their spouse happy again?

Even while doing it, most people know that begging their spouse to be someone they are not doesn’t get them closer to their goal. So how do you come to terms with your partner and accept who he or she already is while also working on your relationship and happiness?

You stop begging.

Assuming your challenges are the result of personality differences and not destructive behavioral decisions like addiction, there is a simple way to navigate your way out of begging and into helpful relationship building.

Even easier? It is also an acronym — BEG — to help you stop in the moment and ask a few questions.

Balance: Have I lost sight of our balance? Remember your spouse has strengths that you do not, and vice versa. Combustion does not have to be the result of the two of you coming together on any issue. Look for how his strengths add value rather than assuming your way is the best and right way. The power of yin and yang is that opposites actually balance each other in the most healthy, often pure way.

Extreme: Is your ask extreme? I often hear the questions  “Am I asking for too much?” or “Is it just me?” To answer that, ask yourself if your expectations are extreme. Are you asking your spouse to fill a void he or she can’t possibly fill? Hint: if your ask requires them to be mind readers, be perfect or be God, then the answer is “yes.”

If you can say that your expectations are healthy and you simply need them to show more affection than they naturally do, then you can safely assume you aren’t asking too much, and now you have a starting point.

Grace: How can I extend grace? Grace is giving someone mercy even when you feel they don’t deserve it . Having strengths means we also have weaknesses — we simply cannot be a rockstar at everything. Have grace for your spouse in the areas that do not come naturally to him or her. Teach ways to easily meet those needs for you rather than waiting for them to be as awesome as you are. Chances are you will need that person’s grace just as much tomorrow when he or she is asking you to change.

As much as sometimes  I would love to sometimes beg my husband to be more like me, if I’m honest I really don’t want that. I love that he makes me put down my calendar and I (sometimes) love that he pushes me to think outside our budget. I need that in my life, or I would turn into the most selfish version of myself.

So perhaps today, I will try a little harder to do some of the things that are important to him and we just might see the value in this thing called marriage.

There is a moment in parenting where you realize that you no longer have the advantage and you now know absolutely nothing. For me, it was the moment I was schooled by my kids on the new word for “cool”, which is now “savage”.  Savage? Really? What followed was daily lessons of new social rules and slang.

Trying to figure out the new world of pre-teen/teen is like my first few years as a new mom. You second guess everything and it seems like they are going to hit their head on every corner, or in this case be emotionally rejected on a daily basis. How do our military kids do this?    

Generation Z, born from the mid-90s to around 2012, is already swinging the pendulum like every generation before them. According to my interview with Gary Allan Taylor from Axis, this group would “rather lose their sense of smell than their digital device.”*

Now before you freak out (I did), we adults aren’t doing so great in that department either.  Unlike the Millenials before them, Gary Allan said Gen Z kids value the importance of family even more than career. This could be because they have watched their parents live out a heavy work ethic to secure the house, career, and status (maybe even our social media status).  Considering it is their parents “work ethic centric” generation that is running the academic generation, is it any wonder that anxiety and depression is on the rise for these students? High school graduation requirements look more like college and grades/SAT scores are no longer enough. “Family” sounds like a good direction for the pendulum.

Even bullying has changed. Both civilian and military parents have told me their Gen Zs have started to disconnect by putting in their earbuds to avoid interaction with aggressive kids, much like adults do on the subway. I think I would put my earbuds in, too.

When it comes to military kid Gen Zs most adults I’ve spoken with agree that much of their character has been shaped by overcoming difficulty and rejection, resulting in more mature and confident kids. Many are often more comfortable around adults than kids their age.  

But that doesn’t mean they don’t need connection with their peers. All kids gravitate towards peers developmentally, which makes our military teens even more desperate for it. Yet, as I’ve experienced and heard from other military parents, that’s especially challenging in a civilian school where peer groups formed over years of neighborhood cookouts and team sports.  It is difficult to advance in athletic skill with frequent moves or their sport of choice isn’t easily accessible.

Gen Z’s have massive amounts of information at their fingertips.  Gary Alan said in our interview that they rely more on internet research and their peer group than authority for figuring out their way ahead.  However, our military kids are struggling to find that peer group and say they feel either completely ignored or bullied for their attempt to insert themselves.

The concern here is that some military Gen Z kids would almost rather not form peer relationships at all than address rejection, bullying, or the effort to assimilate when they will eventually leave anyways.

If you are like me and need encouragement (in most cases every week), here is what I have heard from reaching out to parents and experts in my current “Raising Gen Z’s” series on the LIfegiver Podcast.

  1. Family:  The fact that Gen Z kids are valuing family more than ever makes it easier to plan intentional family time to talk about being a Gen Z Military kid.  As much as they are connected to their devices, they will likely not complain after you have agreed to set all devices down for a game night.  (Expect full tantrums beforehand, though).
  2. It really will be ok:  The other day, I spoke with a military brat who is entering her senior year of college.  She was brilliant. Brilliant in her social skills and maturity. She told me how prepared she was for the academic load of school, but more so for the rhythm she developed over the years to assimilate while civilian students around her fell apart. Even better, she described detaching from an unhealthy peer group because she realized her maturity made her a better leader than a follower- WOW!
  3. Speaking of leadershipOne civilian parenting expert I interviewed, pointed out that our kids’ intensity while assimilating into the school system has a lot more to do with their leadership potential.  This really encouraged me to redirect my kids’ emotional energy towards leading rather than following as a means of fitting in. This next school year, we hope to have the boys be military kid ambassadors for incoming students.
  4. Wise Connections– Perhaps the answer for our kids isn’t assimilating the way we would “back in the day”.  In a culture where bullying or meanness is ramping up, why not encourage our kids towards smaller circles?  A few close friends is not only realistic, but models what adults do.

I’ve looked forward to this season with my kids for a long time.  I enjoy the dialogue, the jokes around the table, and watching them evolve into awesome bigger people. Parenting the next generation has been a lot harder than I thought, especially with the challenges of the military lifestyle.  I know every parent in the history of the world has said that, but I now see the importance of educating myself. Even if that means my kids will be the ones to school me- memes and all.

* Taken from my interview with Axis.org on Gen Z

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The truth is that many of us have been in receive mode for far too long.

For the past five years I’ve watched the military tradition of mentoring fade or be attacked as unnecessary.

Our most senior spouses have told me over many cups of coffee why they believe that is. And it starts with where the tradition of mentoring came from.

World War II, Korea and Vietnam-era spouses lacked the programming we have today. To figure out how to navigate this lifestyle, they pioneered the coffee groups and clubs we so often think of as “old school.” They created a system out of nothing and a community now known for its tight knit support.

And for many years we gleaned from their mentoring, wisdom and servant hearts.They passed down etiquette, the art of asking for help and even tradition that our culture had otherwise long forgotten. I can look back now and see how fat and happy I got from the endless pouring out they did into my life and the lives of others around me.

But then things changed. The world changed, and war changed us. Social interaction became digital and deployment tempos exhausted everyone.

We relied on funding to keep the programs going. We didn’t need those volunteer dependent coffee and spouse groups anymore. But when the money disappeared, we found ourselves where we are today: multiple generations weary, sitting in our homes like self-licking ice cream cones needing more than we can offer.

But now that change is coming again, and it needs you. Think you’re not qualified? Here’s how to know you actually are.

You have been in this lifestyle for at least one assignment. This could be two years or five, but chances are you know the importance of an ID card, how to get on the installation, or what a commissary is.

You have been through a deployment. There are many spouses who are hearing about deployment orders for the very first time. Do you remember how you felt when that happened?  A kind word, a few strategies, and you have powerful influence.

You have experienced a PCS and lived to tell about it. There are endless blog posts out there about how to navigate getting your household goods across the country, but a few tips over a cup of coffee will settle anyone’s nerves.

You have experienced the warmth of someone opening their home for a meeting. Remember when people actually invited you into their homes? Having social events at restaurants are convenient and have their place, but nothing is more vulnerable and inviting than being in someone’s home, not to mention easier to have conversation in. Make it a potluck or cater to keep it easy, but put down Pinterest and invite people back in.

You remember when readiness groups were a positive thing. Believe it or not, there are still installations and tight knit units that have hugely successful readiness groups. They still see it as crucial to their wellbeing. One of my favorite mentors told me when I came in as a new military spouse, “If you don’t like it, be part of making it better.”

Complain all you want about lack of funding or generations before you or after you, but the truth is that we all need each other. We always did — we just got distracted. Like the generation before us, it is time to build up what we find lacking. Without blame or indignation, we need to raise each other up, each lifting the weary one next to us until that one can reach out as well.

Experiencing the loneliness caused by a lack of camaraderie, direction and purpose will make anyone long for people again. It’s like a deployment. When your spouse has been gone for a long time you can actually experience what is called “skin hunger,” that physical hunger for a safe hug or touch. My biggest hope is that our community has been without it for long enough and we will not see it disintegrate further.

You might be wondering how you can be expected to give back and support others when you’re just so exhausted.

Although you may feel like you have nothing to offer, but mentoring does not have to involve a commitment of hours each week. The most influential moments I have had required little effort or commitment from a mentor. One spouse brought me a specialty cup of coffee during a deployment when it was nap time for my toddler. Another held me accountable to not overcommit during a deployment. Another let me co-host a coffee so I could learn how.

A change is coming and I hope you will join me in making a difference where someone once did for you.

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A few weeks ago, a seasoned military spouse well into retirement asked a question that threw me: “What traditions have you and your husband created for your family?”

It was a simple question to which I gave a simple answer. For Christmas each year, we drive around looking at Christmas lights in our pajamas with hot cocoa.

But in the days that followed, I wrestled with my limited answer.

In reality, the frustration of trying to recreate traditions wherever the Armysends us has caused us to give up on many of the ones my husband and I grew up with.

Frequent moves, deployments and military separations have created a mixed bag of experiences over the years that rarely live up to “tradition.”

During some assignments, for example, being too far away made it impossible to be with family during any holiday — so we were on our own, blending our traditions with those of other military families.

We’re in the middle of a permanent change of station this year, and I have been sad to realize that I have become apathetic. This is our third PCS in a row over the holidays. After a while, mustering the energy to pull off an amazing Christmas experience while exhausted is just more exhausting.

And it’s not just Christmas. Winning “Mom of the Year” is impossible when your child is the new kid at school and you feel the pressure to top last year’s Pinterest-inspired party.

One year over a deployed Easter, my young children fought dressing up, going to church and egg hunting. I had a near breakdown trying to make Easter feel like “Easter.” My attempts to make up for the lack of traditional elements seemed only to make everyone miserable and me a lot less fun to be around. And, of course, that paled in comparison to my husband’s experience of the holiday overseas.

So it’s no wonder I didn’t have a better answer to my friend’s simple question.

I realize now that some of my motivation to have and keep traditions has been more about overcompensating for the guilt that I can’t offer all the traditions my husband and I grew up with.

Rather than asking what activities would bring meaning and togetherness to our little family in the moment, I have been caught up in someone else’s definition.

So what can I do about that? And what can you do about your traditions — or lack thereof?

My “aha” moment was the realization that my husband and I needed to be more intentional at creating the traditions that make sense for our military family — a task that takes communication.

Over the years of trying to fit in traditions, Matt and I have not actually discussed what traditions are most important to each of us. We have not talked about what makes Christmas feel like Christmas, what activities make us feel most together or bring us the most meaning, or what activities we want to be more intentional about doing regularly and which ones are only adding more stress.

Tradition finds its roots in upbringing and culture. Matt and I learned this quickly during our first marital conflict 18 years ago over whether banana pudding should be served cold or hot. His parents, born and raised in the south, served it no other way than warm. Mine, raised in the midwest, served it cold. Of course, we both brought those beliefs into the marriage with us.

As silly as that sounds, all of us bring beliefs and ideas of what defines “family,” as well as the activities that symbolize togetherness and meaning.

Trying to form one definition in marriage when there are deep emotions attached is challenging for any couple. The military lifestyle can make it even more difficult to let go of or make changes to traditions that shake your beliefs and values — like my attempt to force Easter tradition during a very challenging time for our young family.

Freedom for me, and relief for Matt, is learning that tradition motivated by “I have to” is more of a prison than a celebration for all of us. It is an over-ritualization that takes away more than it gives.

Smaller traditions I have not thought of in years are beginning to stand out as more valuable, emotional and sentimental than ever — such as large Sunday meals together (known as “supper” in the south). These are the reminders that not all traditions we grow up with should be forgotten.

Instead, they can be enjoyed even more when we get to be a part of them. And some are quite doable and realistic, which makes them even more endearing when military life can throw you curveballs.

I had also not appreciated some of the powerful traditions we have already created that have brought us memories of connection and laughter.

Every PCS, we celebrate our first night in a new home with Chinese takeout. We’ve replaced birthday parties with a family day where we celebrate that individual for an entire day. And, lately, brave days at a new school are celebrated with frozen yogurt and conversations about courage.

Perhaps part of growing up is the reminder that we must choose to embrace difficulty with creativity rather than resentment.

There are some traditions that I will continue to grieve as they may not be possible for our military family. Yet, in their place is the opportunity to decide for ourselves who we are and what is most important to us. This can be exciting and full of new adventures if I allow it.

And even more rewarding? The knowledge that someday I will pass down to my own children the truth that traditions are more about the people they bring together than anything else.

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I put on my old watch today.  My normal routine is to wake up, drink a cup of coffee, or three, and then when I can’t put it off any longer, take my digital watch off its charger and start the day. That moment says a lot of things. It tracks my steps, my heart rate on the treadmill, and makes sure I never miss anything.  I don’t miss texts from my husband, can access email if necessary.  I can completely stay connected all the time, everywhere.
Except as I decided to put on my old TAG watch this morning, I realized I’ve missed everything.
The time was right, which was a personal achievement that I had at least worn it since the last time change.  But the date was wrong because it is part of an archaic system of winding the hands of the clock to set it correctly. These watches take effort to stay connected. It said it was the 12th of something and definitely not from this month. Here it was the 22nd which meant I had not lost ten days but more like months and ten days.  As I wound the hands of this time piece, I thought of everything that had likely happened during those endless hours.  Winding a clock like that you really get a sense of how much time really does fly by.  My digital watch never makes me do that.
While I had been busy staring at emails and deadlines, somewhere in there were football games for my boys, and deep meaningful conversations with a person across the table from me, a new niece born into this world.  My digital timepiece offered false connection and anxiety and sold it as convenience.  How many conversations had I been distracted by the “tap tap” of my watch, saying something or someone was more important than who I was in front of?
No doubt the engineers of my digital watch worked for years to make a lightweight version that I would hopefully not even notice, except for every second CNN buzzes my wrist to let me know that people are drinking more water than ever considering infused water with mint on the trend.
No,  this watch is heavier.  Made from metal with a mother of pearl face.  Engraved with a love note from my husband on our first Christmas together.  It is weighty.  Like the time I have left with my boys, enjoying an active lifestyle, and moments to get it right in my marriage.
So much more is weighing me down than ever before.  But the right kind of weight.  The heaviness on your heart that feels right, sober, even lucid.  Seeing the world for what it is- a big mess of sin, neediness, and problems that will likely only go away once we step into the glorious light of heaven where it all vanishes in the radiance of a God that never fails.  And that my part in all of it isn’t to save it, but to enjoy the process of discovering God’s goodness right in front of me.  My children discovering courage on the field, my marriage practicing grace again and again, maybe even a walk in the woods without thinking about my heart rate for once.
As I wind my watch to sync it with today, I’m so grateful for the shared history it represents.  I’m so grateful for more “time” to be better, to get it “right” whatever that means.  To embrace my today and be a little bit more present with what matters. I think today I’ll go against what the world says and put on the watch that represents my story.  An intentional decision to be who I know I am instead of who the wold says I “could” be, “should” be.  No, today, I think I’ll take the time to connect differently.

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What happens when you take a woman who serves in the shadows, who is terrified of success and who is flawed like everyone else, and thrust her into the spotlight?

I have tried many times to communicate what I have learned in the almost three years since I was named 2015 Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year, but words cannot contain it.

I have learned about my own strength, the crippling power of my own weakness, and both the ugliness and beauty that exists in community.

That intense character growth in such a short time often felt as if I were in a never-ending free fall, while still trying to accomplish everyday tasks.

I am forever grateful for the award and the doors it opened, but even more for the doors it exposed in my heart that I had not noticed.

Here is some of what I see now that I couldn’t see before.

There is great wisdom in listening and learning from those with different viewpoints.

We are often limited by our own points of view.

For years, I served “boots on the ground” as a volunteer at events and programming. When you are new to the military, you tend to see all the ways the institution could be doing things differently or better. We rally to make things more modern or culturally relevant. We advocate from the ground up, frustrated by leadership who may not share the same passion.

This approach is not necessarily wrong. In fact, the next generation can be crucial to any institution’s success. Good leadership must listen to those it leads, but there is great wisdom from those who have gone before us.

My experience of sitting at the table with wives of generals and mentors who have lived this life for close to 30 years has been eye-opening.

If we would only listen, there are incredible stories of courage and fierce advocacy that led to the benefits we now freely critique.

I have been in awe of the character that has been shaped by years of hard work, sacrifice and maturity of our most senior spouses. Each generation carries unique challenges and victories that are meant to be celebrated together.

We all must listen more.

The military lifestyle can bring out the best or worst in you.

As I have listened to your stories, I have heard of both victories and devastation.

I have seen military spouses do incredible things in their local communities and installations, start their own businesses, advocate on Capitol Hill and run organizations that serve thousands of people in need.

The military spouse community is a fierce force to be reckoned with when they are at their best.

But this lifestyle also has a way of sneaking resentment and pride into our hearts before we can even say “America.” In my own life, I vulnerably share in my book “Sacred Spaces” how it impacted my marriage.

The response from the military spouse community has only confirmed what an epidemic this really is. When you spend most of your life feeling out of control, you will control everything you can get your hands on. This inner tension can eventually breed resentment and bitterness if you don’t keep a close watch on it.

While there are thousands of military spouses doing great things with a healthy internal drive, there are others who are fueled by the need to have control.

The only way to truly succeed at whatever we have a desire to do is to keep a light on those dark corners, maintain our priorities and be open to truth from those around you.

I would have lost everything had I not held onto my faith, listened to my husband and given key friends access to my inner world.

Outside forces will tempt you away from what will bring you joy.

There are few things on this planet that can bring you real joy.

We think it is found in success, our kids’ success, promotion, financial freedom or popularity.

But I can assure you it is not. It is not found in being relevant, the number of likes in social media, paid gigs or even service to others.

I have learned in the last few years that there is an enemy that will distract you if he cannot destroy you — and I promise you his goal is to destroy you.

Most of us think of moral failings or destructive decisions when we think “temptation,” but the stronger, more disabling temptations are in seemingly “good” opportunities.

Our community, as well as the first responder community, is founded on protecting life and promoting peace. We serve our communities and country by sacrificing what is comfortable and convenient.

As military spouses, we often feel we are an extension of our service member by giving similarly in our own way.

It is hard to say “no” to a good thing, whether it is a new nonprofit idea or an unfilled volunteer position.

Across the globe, I have seen many marriages fall apart because of overservice.

Work and accomplishments are good for our spirit. There is nothing wrong with finding purpose outside of the home using our unique talents and gifts.

It is when we find our significance there that it is dangerous. There will never be an end to the need in the world, so we must develop self-control of our calling before our calling controls us.

Otherwise, we will have nothing to offer.

Seasons may change how we serve each other in marriage, but peace is found in the roles God created for us.

I know someone will argue me into the ground on this, but I have lived it and survived to tell you the truth.

And today I have nothing but gratitude and respect for my husband taking on the home for the last two years while I traveled.

In many ways, he did a better job at home than I have ever done folding laundry, cooking dinner and picking up sick kids from school.

I have heard many military spouses utter the resentful words that used to be in my heart, “It’s his turn to revolve around me.”

I now grieve that I ever entertained that level of selfishness.

The last two years of role reversal have been equally rewarding and difficult, to say the least.

Out of love, he wanted me to see my own potential — and I did.

I hear many service members wanting the same for their spouses, but the grass is not always greener on the other side. Once you get there, you will always want to go back home.

I constantly fought off an underlying feeling of unbalance and stress. My heart wanted to be home. My attention felt torn, and he felt the same way. It was difficult to concentrate on his own job that provided for our family.

I kept thinking about Nicole Spaid, the 2015 Marine Corps Spouse of the Year whom the other spouses and I call our “Mother Hen.” She turned down several opportunities during her year with that title so that she could be fully present for her family. Her resolve has more influence in my life than she could ever know.

Now that my husband and I are finding better balance and taking back the roles that we believe God created in us, we are finding peace in what we believe He originally designed.

I recently saw a quote by Mother Teresa that could not be a better summary of my last few years: “If you want to bring happiness to the world, go home and love your family,” she said.

As much as I find purpose in serving others, this season has taught me that there is no greater joy than being at rest with my God and at home with my family.

Entering into this next season, my eyes are open to loving my family with my best first, and then offer the world what I have second.

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It might sound crazy, but conflict in your marriage can be a healthy sign.

Two people who see the world in very different ways are never going to agree on everything.

Too often, couples let marriage fighting spin wildly out of control before they realize it could have been handled differently.

But there’s a difference between disagreements and a full-blown argument. How do you toe the line?

We’re usually not our best selves in the middle of an argument, so it can be difficult to keep that conflict from escalating into a destructive, hurtful conversation.

How do you save yourself from going there? Here are five things to remember the next time you get into it.

1. Think: “My spouse is for me, not against me.”

Shaunti Feldhahn is a social researcher who has dedicated most of her career to understanding marriage. She’s interviewed thousands of couples who said they were happy to determine just what made their marriages so great.

One of her biggest finds is that 99 percent of individuals she studies genuinely love and have their spouse’s best interest at heart.

What does that mean for you? It’s likely that your spouse is not intentionally trying to hurt you at any given time, including during a heated argument.

Remind yourself that your spouse loves you and wants the best for you. It means that they had good intentions and still do.

When my husband and I get into a tiff, we remember Feldhahn’s research, and one of us will say, “I am for you, not against you.” It is a gentle reminder that the problem is the problem, not each other.

2. Think: “I can only control me.”

When on the defensive, there is something primal in us that wants to control the other person to calm them down or stir them up. We say things to invoke a response or withdrawal to drive home the point of our hurt.

The military lifestyle doesn’t help. Both the serving spouse and supporting spouse can feel out of control, which makes military homes ripe for both spouses to want complete control.

The reality is that we have no control over each. Instead, what we have is influence. Our behaviors and decisions cause consequences, and that definitely influences our spouses. But ultimately you control your reactions, and he controls his.

Reminding yourself of that during marriage fighting can help you remember that you can choose not only how angry you get, but how you will respond in this moment.

Hopefully, you can choose to react in a way that brings you closer and influences him to do the same.

3. Ask, “Are we just HALT?”

When things start to get heated, ask yourself if the emotional reaction you’re experiencing matches the situation.

If not, there might be something else going on other than how your spouse said, “Good morning.”HALT stands for hungry, angry, lonely and tired. Good decisions are never made when we are feeling any of those things.

Sleep is always a challenge in the high operations tempo of military life. That’s why my husband and I decided a long time ago that arguments are not worth trying to resolve after 10 p.m.

Loneliness can also be a big factor for military families. When was the last time you had an honest, fulfilling conversation with a friend or got outside the house?

Loneliness can impact service members as well. If you’ve recently moved, your service member might be missing the attachment he or she had with the troops in their last unit.

If you think your spouse might be struggling with more than what’s on the surface, be sure to validate their current feelings while gently asking what else might be going on.

4. Know it might not be PTSD.

The prevalence of combat stress makes it easy for us to let it constantly take the blame for the stress in our relationships.

If your serving spouse has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or combat-related stress, symptoms of irritability and mood swings are part of your relationship.

For those dealing with severe symptoms, it can be very difficult to decipher when irritability is due to a real issue or if the symptoms are exacerbating the situation.

After providing counseling to many couples with a variety of challenges, I have found that there are always two sides to a couple’s story. In other words, most times there are legitimate feelings that are upsetting your spouse, and the PTSD is not to blame.

By labeling every conflict as PTSD or mood irritability, you might be minimizing what your spouse is trying to communicate to you.

Just as women don’t like the “it must be your hormones” comment, we must be careful not to label every irritable response as being connected to a service-related issue.

Tell yourself that this should be treated as a real and genuine concern before you label it “extreme” or a symptom.

5. Ask, “What would the 80-year-old version of me say?”

This is by far my favorite strategy for helping me gain perspective during a misunderstanding.

Lately, I have been picturing my husband and myself at 80 years old, sitting on a bench holding hands. In my mind, we are far past the petty issues, life has been full and we are full of gratitude.

When I find myself in the midst of marriage fighting and I am particularly worked up, I think about what the 80-year-old version of me would say.

Would she tell me that this battle is worth it? She has been through enough military separations to know that the smallest things that we argue about are ultimately time wasters.

I often picture the future us giggling at current us getting so worked up in the first place.

Then, when I picture 80-year-old me offering current me advice, she usually just tells me to stop making such a big fuss and kiss him already.

Eighty-year-old me is salty, wise and always has extra cookies on hand for the neighborhood kids.

Chances are, you have an 80-year-old version of you waiting to be invited into the conversation.

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During a particularly difficult week, I scrolled through Facebook and paused on a post reporting that a local Starbucks gave out customers’ orders for free with no explanation. Baristas answered inquiries with merely “Have a wonderful day.” Even though I wasn’t a customer, I found myself imagining my reaction to the barista.

“Why?”

Maybe I wouldn’t say it out loud, but perhaps the look of surprise on my face would give it away. My imagined reaction didn’t come from a place of paranoia, although for some it could. The question came from a realization that this business was choosing to lose money in their act of kindness. Why would they choose to do that? Gaining a few loyal customers didn’t seem like a worthwhile strategy considering what it would inevitably cost them.

They gave no answer. They simply said “have a wonderful day.”

What struck me about this interchange is that this act of kindness rested on a single value- worthiness. Starbucks determined the people it served as worth more than the cost. Each was worthy of kindness, not because they earned it or deserved it, but simply because they exist.

It is amazing how easy it is for kindness to slip from our minds in daily interactions with each other. The closer the relationship, the more we take for granted that the person will love us unconditionally. We expect them to be understanding when we’ve had a bad day or when we have disappointed them.

And yet, we are the first to point out their unkind tone when the roles are reversed. Perhaps Starbucks has it easy. Being kind to a stranger cost them only a latte and banana nut muffin at wholesale. But being kind in the relationships around us costs far more, so much so that we are shocked when a business schools us on how to treat one another.

Is it just me? Or perhaps you could stand to experience a little more kindness, too?

Kindness can feel like it should be linked to worthiness. It is only costly when we have to sacrifice something within us that wants to make it conditional. Choosing to be kind to my spouse when he or she comes home with a bad attitude is a gift, not an exchange of currency.

But what if your heart has been hurt by others’ lack of kindness? What if you simply feel you have nothing to offer?

That is what I love most about the Starbucks story. They didn’t have an answer except for “have a wonderful day.” They didn’t say whether they “felt” like being kind or what “moved” them towards kindness. They just handed out warm beverages with a smile.

Sometimes we choose a behavior and our feelings follow.

Every marriage or relationship has patterns. If we look closely, we will find how we trigger each other into what some experts call a “crazy cycle,” or the pattern of usual escalating conflict. The only way to interrupt the crazy cycle in your relationship is to do something different by starting a new pattern. Unfortunately, if you wait until you “feel like it” in the middle of an intense argument, it will never happen.

You must behave differently and your feelings will follow. This usually begins with a willingness to be kind.

Also difficult is having the courage to be kind to ourselves. Far too often I see individuals that give others the benefit of the doubt while internally whipping themselves into submission with shame. Being kind to yourself is also a virtue dependent on worthiness. You do not deserve kindness or forgiveness, you are worthy of it because you are alive. In fact, those you love are impacted by whether you are willing to extend kindness to yourself — especially children.

In the words of Brene Brown, “‘You are imperfect, you are wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.”

But the best part about kindness is how contagious it is. Here I was, struck by the impact of this simple act of kindness in a coffee shop three states away. I didn’t even benefit from a free warm beverage, but I don’t really think that was Starbuck’s point. The message I received, from a Facebook post no less, was that one act can change things.

A shift in your own sense of worth impacts your home. Kindness towards your spouse can change your marriage. Kindness towards those around you can spread infinitely beyond what you can imagine.

Still having trouble with this idea? Here are a couple of ways you can bring kindness into your relationship today.

— Tell your spouse you love them without prompting

— Make your spouse their favorite meal

— Choose to end an argument rather than defending your point or being right.

— Forgive your spouse for something you have been holding over them for far too long

— Surprise them with a latte and a banana nut muffin.

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I already knew I had a stellar soldier for a husband- but right then I kinda hated it.  Perhaps you have one too.  The kind of spouse that strives to be his best at everything and sets his sights on maxing out that PT test every time.

Before kids and the military, my husband and I used to go for long runs and chat about our life.  It was quality time that usually ended with ice cream and a favorite show (oh how we miss our twenties). Once the military entered the story, early morning PT became his primary time to workout and I fit in exercise around everyone else’s schedule.

On this particular day we decided to go for a long overdue run together.  As I laced up my shoes, I was about to remark on how nice it was going to be to run together when he put in his earphones and said, “but I won’t be talking, I’m working on increasing my pace”.

“That’s okay,”  I said- more to prepare myself for the pain that was likely to follow, “I’ll do the same.”

We started off together, listening to our independent playlists. When we faced hills, he attacked them with purpose as I managed to keep up.  When I was forced to stop and fix my hair, he jogged in place and focused on his watch.  Finally, as we approached the last mile,  my stellar soldier surged ahead- or maybe I started to lag behind.  My legs begged for me to quit despite what my heart wanted.  I started to accept my fate as officially “smoked”- when I had a thought.

Without realizing it, we were both shaped in two entirely different ways by the military lifestyle.

The military has a way of creating fantastic leaders that translate into fantastic role models at home.  Mine appreciates organization, routine, and logical ways of finding solutions to everyday problems.  He teaches our kids the values he loves about the military including work ethic, respect for authority, loyalty, integrity, and others.

The military had done something entirely different for me.

As difficult as it has been to constantly maneuver around his schedule, I have learned to embrace the role that creativity plays in chaos. I have to fit in my own self care- not because someone tells me to, but because it keeps me from losing my mind.  Relationships in the home are more likely to come before order, and definitely more important than perfection.  Leadership as a military spouse has become more about adaptability and a strong “whatever” mindset.

I watched from a distance as he finished his run and then checked his watch.  Shame washed over me as I thought about how frustrating it is to be married to someone who folds laundry better than me, often thinks to start the crock pot before I do, and was in better physical shape than I was. To sum it up in view of the finish line, the military had made a stellar leader out of him and leisurely pace keeper out of me.

Unless you are in a marriage where you or your spouse quit along time ago, almost no one likes to be left behind.  In fact, if you’ve been married for any length of time, you have likely experienced surging ahead or lagging behind your spouse in one area or another.  What you do when you find yourself there, though, reveals the state of your true character.

“Do I finish strong or just slow down in defeat?”

As much as we try to experience life at the same pace, marriage will often ebb and flow throughout the marathon. The military lifestyle almost guarantees we will have different ways of approaching it.  Each spouse brings strengths, each spouse brings weaknesses to manage.  Both have something to offer when the moment is right.  From a strengths perspective, my stellar husband has expressed the same feelings I was having on days where no amount of logic or order fits into the chaos of life.  Sometimes, being a leisurely pace setter pays off.

One thing was clear, his pace challenged me to dig deep and find something new within myself or I would fall behind. The military, despite our different experiences, has taught us separately that the kind of battle buddy we are for each other is a matter of life or death for marriage.  As a military spouse, I’ve learned that I don’t quit.  I can’t quit a deployment. I can’t quit on a bad day.  I’ve learned to finish strong even if it’s looks or feels different than I originally pictured.  So I did as he waited for me.

It’s not easy to be married to someone who has thrived in the military.  He has been a perfect fit for this job from the beginning.  But it’s only difficult because he expects so much of himself and in turn I must do the same.

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“How do I confront my spouse’s negative behavior?”
“What does it look like to be a godly wife when my husband has stopped caring?”
“Is God is okay with me ending my marriage?”
“How do I continue to love and serve my husband if he is not being a spiritual leader in the home?”

The question is actually about how to deal with sin in marriage.  Every marriage will struggle with sin- individual sin, sin against each other, even sin against God.

How do I love like Jesus when I feel so hurt and hopeless?

Depending on your upbringing and whether or not it involved church, this question makes everyone stumble.  Betrayal, neglect, anger, pornography, and other negative behaviors are difficult to address when you are hurt enough to leave but scripture and the church seem to tell you to forgive and fight for your marriage.  And then there’s that submission thing….

So Matt and I are tackling this question together- because being in a military (and first responder) marriage has extra variables like PTSD, compassion fatigue, and constant changes in roles at home.

In response to my message in Sacred Spaces that we should be pursuing our spouse, I commonly get emails that sound like this…

“How long should I pursue my spouse when they aren’t reciprocating?”
“What if my service member came home different and neglects me and our family?”
“How long must I lead before my husband picks up his role as the spiritual leader of our home?”

These are tough questions and the root issue here is…

“How do we address sin in a Christian marriage?”

Here is some of what you can expect in our 2 Part Series:
  • Matt and I continue our discussion on gender roles in a godly marriage
  • We share some of our own story of how we addressed unmet expectations in our marriage
  • Matt talks to service members who have come home different and need hope

I’ve also attached ALL of my favorite resources as well.  SAVE IT.  You will want to reference it later and pass it to a friend- I promise.  You wouldn’t believe how many struggle with this in silence.

 Also, don’t forget you can watch or listen from the Lifegiver App!  It’s FREE and so much fun.

 

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When I came home from my extended business trip, it was clear: My husband and our boys had together adopted a new world and language.

My trip was longer than most I’ve done recently, and my husband had held down the home front. Before my trip, we had both simply put up with our kids’ new Minecraft obsession, and worked to control our eye rolling when they talked about “battling the Ender Dragon.”

But when I returned, I could see that the three of them had formed a special bond through a Minecraft world during my absence.

I felt stuck on the outside of my family’s relationship over this game — a feeling I assume many troops experience when they return home after deployment. I struggled for the next few weeks, watching them play together and sometimes go over what we had before decided was our max on electronic time.

From my outside view, this whole thing looked like a video game problem that needed balance.

But for my husband, their newly shared hobby was a fun platform that not only gave his mind a break from work, but provided father-son quality time.

In my head, I wanted to sit in my feelings of resentment and jealousy over their time together and force them to see what I considered a problem.

When it comes to marriage, it is far too easy to assume that our spouses are the problem, especially when it involves hobbies that aren’t shared. In my counseling practice, I often see intense conflicts between couples when one is invested in a hobby more than other would like.

There are endless examples of activities that start off as “cute” in the relationship, only to drive a wedge later — hunting, crafts, sports, clubs, video games and more. At some point, the hobby isn’t cute anymore because one spouse is enjoying it “too much” — a level that the frustrated spouse has determined on his or her own.

Military life doesn’t exactly help with that. When so much time is spent apart, both the service member and the spouse have to find their groove separately. We each invest in activities that interest us, fulfill us and maybe even bring us a sense of purpose. When we come back together, our worlds conflict because, frankly, we each needed different things during the separation.

If you’re a service member, you may have found activities that helped you compartmentalize or deal with boredom. If you’re a spouse at home, you may have immersed yourself in activities that involved community or provided a sense of purpose.

It makes sense that the two separate worlds conflict at homecoming. But that collision can create a gap in our relationships that makes us feel even further apart. We begin to see our spouses as wrong and their interests as destructive, often because they are not interests we share. And if it gets really bad, we start making ultimatums.

The number one complaint I hear from military spouses is that they feel their service member chooses video games or friends over them. And the number one complaint I hear from service members is that their spouses choose the children over them.

The conflict is real.

Regardless of which spouse you relate to, there is something in all of us that gets disappointed, even hurt, when our spouses don’t appreciate what interests us. Whether our spouses care about what we do matters, especially if they don’t share the same passion for it we do.

Balance and moderation are necessary, but so is room for different interests and hobbies. My conflict at my homecoming was not about Minecraft or parenting differences, it was about believing the best about one another and truly listening.

By paying attention only to my perspective, I missed that Minecraft was more than a strange digital world of building blocks — it was an opportunity for my husband build something with his sons. Through Minecraft, he was rebuilding relationships that had endured separations and plenty of previous missed opportunities.

My own mini-reintegration gave me an opportunity to think about how many times my husband faced the same dilemma of being the outsider at homecoming. It’s entirely possible that in the past he had experienced the same choice I had in that moment: Stay on the outside of the hobby or choose the harder option to reintegrate through acceptance and growth. I don’t have to love Minecraft, but we all can benefit from me valuing what is important to them.

You can make this choice too. Choose to believe the best about your spouse. Choose to become interested in what he or she finds exciting. Choose to communicate instead of assume.

Celebrating battling the Ender Dragon together was far better than watching it from a distance. And even better is understanding the sweet exchange between father and sons because I have chosen to listen.

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What if we make marriage a lot harder than it needs to be? What if I told you there are a few tips for a happy marriage you can follow to easily bring intimacy and closeness back to your relationship?

The good news is that most couples do not need an overhaul of their relationship, they just need to be reminded that it’s going to be OK. The military lifestyle throws a lot of curveballs, and it can make anyone feel like the relationship is on shaky ground, even if it isn’t.

It is completely normal for intimacy with your spouse to ebb and flow. It can be days before you get an evening together when your service member is training. Some schedules have you feeling like you are ships passing in the night, literally. Even reintegration after a military separation or deploymentcan leave your military marriage feeling disconnected.

For many couples, anxiety runs high wondering if they will ever feel close again. I know this sounds strange coming from a counselor, but sometimes reconnecting doesn’t have to include massive processing or rehashing the relationship.

Even if your relationship is struggling with bigger issues, here are a few tips for a happy marriage that are not only amazingly simple but effective to “get there” quickly.

Tips for a Happy Marriage: Daily Check-ins

When one or both spouses feel insecure, it is easy to go overboard on communication, especially when you haven’t seen each other for a while. A “check-in” is a simple five- to 10-minute conversation that gives your spouse a highlight reel of how you are doing. It’s perfect for early in the morning to communicate how you slept (which impacts your mood and day) or at the end of the work day. You simply take turns briefly answering these questions:

1.How am I feeling (physically and emotionally)?

2.What is on my mind? (i.e. I slept horribly, I have a million things to do, etc.)

3.How can I best serve you today?

Notice that this is not a time to solve problems, talk about bills, or even process emotional wounds. You would be surprised how often your spouse’s mood has nothing to do with you. Speak briefly in one to two sentences per question and catch up. Give each other the permission to not worry about the relationship by checking in.

Tips for a Happy Marriage: Hold hands

When was the last time you held hands? As ridiculous as it sounds, we can too easily fall out of this habit. Have you ever tried to argue when you are holding hands? It’s pretty difficult to be mad at someone when you are holding hands. Physical touch is a strong communicator that says, “I’m cool with you.” Often, it is better than words.

Usually one spouse values physical intimacy more than the other and gets a bad rap as if all they want is sex. Instead, it actually means they experience deep connection, love and express love through touching first.

Holding hands goes a long way. Reach out to your spouse, take them by the hand, and try your check-in. It is pretty powerful.

Tips for a Happy Marriage: Eye contact

Yep, it is really that simple, folks. Couples who come to me for marriage counseling or who are on retreats tend to sit shoulder to shoulder rather than facing each other. They start to squirm when I ask them to sit knee to knee because it is a more intimate posture.

Technology is also robbing us of intimate moments when our eyes are diverted to something else. Lately, our family is attempting a “Life After 5 p.m.” rule in which all devices are put away at 5 p.m. It is a time to acknowledge each other, look each other in the eyes and be fully present.

Eye contact also opens your hearing in a way that will reduce miscommunication and express that your spouse is the most important person in your world. Want to go even deeper? Stare into each other’s eyes for five minutes without talking. At first, you will giggle, but if you can make it past that, tears will naturally follow. Soul connection doesn’t always involve words; we just want to be truly seen.

The next time you feel like it is all falling apart, try one or all of these things. You will be surprised at how much difference they make. Physical expressions of love, undivided attention and briefly communicating your internal world go a long way.

While some marriages have major issues that trigger conflict (or what I call “minefields”), most if not all can reduce those mountains back to anthills by working on these simple solutions.

Stress a little less by being just a little bit more intentional. It may be just that easy.

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When I pretended o be Wonder Woman as a kid, I focused on her superpowers, trying to mimic flying through the air and dodging bullets. But as an adult, I realized I could not truly be a fan without looking into her whole story.

Fans of any superhero become deeply attached as they follow their favorite’s journey through comic book pages or on film, identifying more with their flaws than their superhuman abilities.

Within the journey are answers to our own weaknesses and insecurities.

When it comes to relationships, superheroes often struggle to balance calling with the equal desire to love and be loved. Like all of us, they deeply desire relationships and have vices that keep them from it. Some of them are even tempted to give up part of who they are to get that love, but in the end learn to balance both.

We can learn a lot from the hero’s journey — maybe even how to become a hero for ourselves. Here’s how

Every Superhero Has a Backstory

As much as you would like to forget about the past, your backstory affects your past, present and future. Comic books re-visit a superhero’s backstory over and over because it impacts how they see the moment and how they see themselves. Would Bruce Wayne have become Batman had his parents not been taken from him? Your story, good and bad, makes you who you are.

Just like any superhero, you must bring purpose out of it in order to find healing in your life. In marriage, your backstory will come up in conflict, values, and your experience of love. Bring purpose out of pain if you must — and then use it to serve others.

The Call to Adventure

Just like Moana is called to the water and Princess Diana of Paradise Island is called to Man’s World, there is always a call to adventure. Many heroes deny the calling, or at least try. For others, something tragic happens to sabotage the call to adventure. Fear, insecurity, even others can convince you that the adventure is too dangerous.

There are many calls to adventure in marriage — the wedding day, reconnecting after a fight, having children, even courageously tearing down the emotional walls that separate you. There will always be a temptation not to answer the call and wait. But you will never truly know the power of marriage, or your own ability, if you deny the call.

Answering the Call

Moana crosses the reef; Diana leaves the island to go to Man’s World. Ironically, this is the favorite part of the journey for the audience and possibly the worst for the hero. The hero must battle the enemy, rescue the victim, and is bloodied and bruised. The audience doesn’t want it to end, but it is not because of the external battle. It is the hero’s inner conflict to which the audience relates.

Marriage is difficult because we must face our own insecurities, backstory, temptations and weaknesses if we will ever have the marriage we desire. This is where we will experience the ugliness of our spouse, life and the world. It also where we see what we are made of and then made into who we are capable of becoming.

Blessing

When the battles seem never-ending, it is hard to believe that blessing is on the other side, but it is. Once the hero has resolved the internal conflict, blessing in the form of completion always happens next.

Not be confused with perfection, there will always be another battle to fight or inner conflict to resolve. Instead, blessing often comes in the form of love from whomever they saved, validation of their identity, or renewed confidence. In marriage, we see it in the release of tension when we have worked through a difficult conflict and find each other again.

True Identity

Every hero is transformed through this process, and so are you. It is a cycle we go through again and again as we grow into who we have been created to be.

Deployments change us, as do life’s surprises. Many of us return to our loved ones different than we left.

For Diana, she is no longer just their princess, she is now Wonder Woman. Superheroes realize through this journey that they no longer fit in one place and must accept who they are.

Marriage can become truly home. Your spouse can be your safe place to return where you can rejoice in victories or have your wounds bandaged — either way, you are home and you.

Where are you in the hero’s journey? Do you need to accept the call to adventure, embrace your backstory, or maybe remember blessing is coming? Where is your spouse in his or her journey? Don’t forget that they are your hero too.

While superheroes struggle to balance their calling with their relationships, they recognize that there is no calling without love. Those who love a hero accept that their hero may be called to serve the world, but they get to serve the hero.

You can watch or listen to more about “The Hero’s Journey” on the Lifegiver Podcast.

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How do you know when to separate from your spouse or when to call it quits?

In almost every scenario, I tell a couple to fight for their relationship. Too often, I see couples give up. It’s one of the reasons I passionately remind couples of their vows. Marriage, I believe, gets better only when you work hard and grow closer through difficult times.

But there are a few, albeit relatively rare, situations where you will hear me deliver a different message: one when I say “leave.”

Every relationship has unique dynamics and variables. There is no black-and-white rule book that tells you what to do or when to separate or divorce. Ultimately, it is your decision, and any therapist will tell you that.

But many who need to make a decision like this hesitate because there is “too much at stake,” they say. Fear of your service member losing their career, the loss of military health benefits, violence or the loss of your dream can keep you from seeing your situation clearly.

For this reason, I encourage anyone considering divorce to consult with a third-party professional, pastor or therapist to help you navigate a permanent decision.

That’s why instead of telling you how to know if your relationship is over, which seems scary and permanent, these are instead examples of when to consider separation. Oftentimes, distance can provide safety, clarity, support and the ability to make a decision that feels right for you and your family.

When to Separate: If There Is Abuse

As easy or obvious as this sounds, it is never easy for the person in that situation. If you believe that you are in a sexually or physically abusive relationship, seek a professional to help you establish a plan for safety. If you are unsure what that abuse might look like, here is more information.

Physical abuse is usually entangled with emotional abuse, making it difficult to leave — especially if your life has been threatened. Even if the abuser is regretful, eventually the cycle of abuse will continue.

Whatever reasons are keeping you from getting the space you need to find safety and clarity, they are not as important as you and your spirit. Remember, we are not talking about divorce papers, just gaining enough distance to find clarity and resources. Food, shelter and safety are your main priorities.

Important note: If children are in the home, enabling contact with the abuser can show an inability to protect them from harm. Your main responsibility is to protect them before saving your marriage.

Emotional abuse is more complicated to sort through than physical abuse. There are times when extreme manipulation, cruelty and controlling behavior make it imperative to your health to leave.

Other times, spouses believe there is emotional abuse only to discover through professional help that the relationship is salvageable. Talk with a professional to help you decipher.

When to Separate: If There Is Addiction Without Recovery

The topic of addiction is very complicated. It is hard enough to watch your spouse struggle with a disease, but living with the consequences of that disease is even harder.

Regardless of what the addiction is (sex, pornography, alcohol, etc.), recovery is a roller coaster for everyone. It is true that recovery is easier when the individual has a strong support system, but only when that person has admitted that they have a problem and are seeking help.

But If you are living with the consequences of your spouse’s addiction and they show no signs of wanting help or recovery, it may be a good time to implement the natural consequences of distance. Again, we are not talking divorce papers unless you have received help making that decision.

If you haven’t already, communicate clearly and firmly your desire for your spouse to get help, as well as the destructive consequences of their behavior (financial stress, broken trust, the family feeling unsafe, etc.). Then, if your spouse continues to be unwilling to get help, separating is a physical representation of what has already happened emotionally in the marriage. Sometimes, the addict will realize you are serious about moving toward a more permanent separation if they continue to be resistant.

If you have children in the home, take very seriously the behaviors they have witnessed in making your decision.

When to Separate: If Irreparable Destruction Has Occurred

I hesitate to reference this one because it is easy to label your current pain as “irreparable,” or not able to be repaired, when it may be possible to save your marriage.

Making this decision takes confirmation from professionals around you (sorry, family members are not unbiased professionals). There are some situations that are so destructive, that separation is not only recommended, it is crucial to begin healing.

Spouses living double lives, evil manipulation or violence, extensive un-remorseful infidelity, or cruel mistreatment within the marriage are all very difficult to repair. The overwhelming destruction of these scenarios often includes abuse or addiction, but not always.

If you are asking “when is enough, enough?” the deeper question is usually about whether you will have guilt or regret making this decision.

It is normal to want to know if there is anything else you could have done to save the marriage. Taking a step away can be a less intimidating way to show you are ready to take care of yourself.

You deserve to make this decision carefully with support around you so you are completely assured that it is the right decision.

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We all have hope for a marriage that lasts and is fulfilling. What we often don’t expect is how hard it will be when we disagree with our spouse on important values, military marriage problems or finding ourselves moving at a different pace.

I haven’t met anyone who married thinking, “Gee, I don’t plan on making this last.”

Setbacks can happen when we are least expecting it. An injury while training for a physical goal or a career put on hold for a relocation can be incredibly disappointing and discouraging. You may even be tempted to quit.

Most couples have at least one area of their relationship that they are hoping to improve or fix. Parenting, finances and even sex can lead to heated disagreements and (hopefully) deciding together on ways to get on the same page and work together.

Life’s interruptions or an impulsive decision by one of you can make it feel as if you will never reach that goal. In that moment or setback, quitting feels like a very real option.

Sometimes, there are very minor consequences to military marriageproblems or a setback that only require a deep breath, a good night’s sleep, and starting again tomorrow.

But destructive choices such as too much video gaming or pornography use by one spouse can cause even bigger consequences, including feeling like this is a major rift in your ability to be a couple.

For some, the marriage is already on thin ice if you are working through serious issues such as overcoming infidelity or addiction. Destructive scenarios like these involve a more detailed process of change and support to gain traction. You may feel like the setbacks will never stop, and you will never be able to move forward.

No matter what you are dealing with as a couple, whether it’s small or large, setbacks are more likely than not to happen as you work toward a new pattern of behavior for both of you.

But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. With a few tools in your pocket, you can move through them. Instead of giving up, try these three steps.

1. Hit a pause button.

Learning to develop self-control and hit a pause button when things get complicated is a great practice in general. Self-control gives you the opportunity to think through what is happening, feel any feelings that are naturally there and gain perspective.

Relocations and deployments are a natural interruption in the military lifestyle when everything feels out of order. Basic needs such as food, shelter and safety all take priority, and you might feel distracted from the intense focus you had as a couple.

For example, if you were dependent before your move on a counselor or group for support, it will take some time to find that again.

Try not to rush yourself or your spouse through what you were working through when these bumps come along. Instead, agree on a healthy timeframe to reconnect with support or resume the plan when you are both ready.

Having grace for each other and getting on the same page are more important than aggressively working on the goal. If you find your spouse is not as motivated as you are, invest your energy toward your part by reading an extra book on the subject or taking a deeper look through journaling.

The important thing here is that you process how you are feeling about what happened and avoid doing your spouse’s work.

2. Check your progress.

The actual definition of a “setback” involves a “check in progress.” Most of us see it as a failure, but it is actually an opportunity to think through the progress you are making — or not making. In addiction recovery, we teach that relapse is not necessary for recovery but can be “part of the process” if it happens.

Setbacks can provide an opportunity to take a look at the deeper issues that caused it so you can avoid similar mistakes in the future. If you move too quickly, you will miss huge revelations of yourself, your spouse and your relationship. If you are dealing with a bigger issue such as rebuilding trust, a professional counselor can help you find these answers and build greater empathy for each other.

Keep in mind that stressful times such as deployment, reintegration, relocations or trauma can trigger setbacks or relapses, making them more likely to occur. If this is an intense time for your family, be graceful if the setback happened by learning more about each other and doing a good check on whether the path you were on is working. If you know you are going into an intense season, discuss ways to be proactive to prevent one.

3. Move forward.

If your spouse caused your setback, it can be incredibly discouraging to think about moving forward. How many setbacks are too many before you should give up? If you are struggling with this question, finding a counselor to talk to will help you determine what is right for your family.

If you caused a setback, the shame is equally debilitating. Even when you don’t feel like it, take the next healthy step forward.

In recovery, there is a phrase — “fake it till you make it.” It doesn’t mean you should be inauthentic. It means you decide to take the next step even when you don’t feel like it. Eventually, your motivation will come back. Shame (in you or your spouse) spirals into an unproductive place and is not the same thing as processing the present disappointment.

Sometimes, the next step is a willingness to physically reach out and hold your spouse’s hand again. Embrace that mistakes in our own lives and our spouses are part of being human. One of my favorite phrases is “start simply, but simply start” and is likely to get you going again.

Every couple has military marriage problems and issues to work through, which means setbacks are going to happen. Who will you be when it happens to you?

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It was a silly thing to fight over, especially since it was an argument about fitting as much joy as possible into a Florida Disney family vacation.

I, led by my “mom-guilt,” argued that our boys had wanted to go “their whole lives” (slight exaggeration). And he, fueled by sheer logic, argued that it logistically made our trip more complicated.

Both of us felt right, and both of us had a good case to be right. In an attempt to hold our positions, we dug in and sabotaged three days we could have otherwise spent together by arguing over a theme park made of Legos.

Conflict in marriage can be incredibly discouraging when you desire to be on the same team but feel like you aren’t.

Neither of us woke up that day and said, “Hey, today seems like a great day for an argument.” In fact, most couples find themselves arguing over wanting the same thing. In our case, we both wanted to plan the ultimate family vacation, but we had differing perspectives on what made a vacation “ultimate.”

The ideal, of course, is to quickly see the value in each other’s perspective, but most times couples do the opposite and start digging trenches for battle. And that’s how they end up in No Man’s Land.

During World War I, opposing armies would dig trenches and aim mortars and ammunition at each other. The land between, known as No Man’s Land, lay unoccupied and unowned because of the fear and uncertainty of being ambushed while coming up out of the trenches.

Fighting couples do the same thing. If during conflict you are like me, every shovel of dirt seems to be filled with all the reasons why I am right and why he should surrender. Of course, this is not my most shining moment, but I have a feeling I am not the only one with calluses on my hands.

While I sat in my self-made trench this week, I spent time thinking about the losing battle over No Man’s LegoLand. In a heroic scene from the trailer for the new “Wonder Woman” film, she courageously emerges from a World War I trench. Despite incoming mortars and gunfire, she shields herself from enemy contact and slowly makes her way across No Man’s Land. As a superhero who stands for personal courage, peace and the pursuit of truth, she is the first to emerge from the trenches.

When hurt enters our relationship, we have a choice to remain hidden in the trenches, continuing to load our mortar weapons, or rise up out of them. No Man’s Land will always be scary, especially when the other person is still firing, but someone has to be the first. Someone must be the first to be courageous, first to become vulnerable and first to intentionally pursue the human in the other trench.

It is never fun to go first. Never. The first person to stop fighting and seek peace will usually have to risk the possibility of incoming rounds from the other.

I would love to say that I am Wonder Woman every time, but that simply isn’t true. Surprisingly, I have learned equally as much when I have gone second. When my husband is the first to enter No Man’s Land, I am faced with a choice to follow his example or validate the existence of my own stubbornness. It is then that I witness my true character and decide who I want to be.

On Christmas Day 1914, French, German and British troops called a truce to exchange greetings and souvenirs, and even play football in No Man’s Land. Now known as the Christmas Truce of 1914, opposing forces who spoke different languages came together for a moment of peace. My favorite image of that amazing event is that the troops turned a battlefield littered with death into a football field for play.

During the heat of an argument, it can be hard to see the potential of the land that exists between you and the other person. Your marriage was not created to have a vast space of empty land that separates you. It exists to be a playground. You may rise up and take a few hits, but if you choose your marriage over the trenches you have dug, you just might find a place where you have more in common than you thought.

I was reminded this week that foxholes are homes for foxes, not men, and certainly not Wonder Woman. I am not meant to build a house there.

And who won the battle for LegoLand? No one. What matters most is that we both rose up out of the trenches.

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Let’s talk about sex.

One of the most beautiful ways we love our spouses is through sexuality. It’s also one of the most emotionally complicated.

Popular culture portrays it as simple, spontaneous and very uncomplicated, but I assure you most couples experience it differently.

Sex is actually one of the top three issues for which couples seek counseling. And the military lifestyle of chaotic schedules and long durations of separation doesn’t help.

Despite your best intentions of picking up right where you left off, if you struggle with all of those interruptions to your sex life, you’re in no way alone.

I recently sat down for a candid interview with Dr. Michael Sytsma, a clinician and certified sex therapist, for my Lifegiver Podcast. (Important note: This episode is for mature audiences only.)

The interview originally aired for InDependent’s 2016 Military Spouse Wellness Summit, but I was able to run an extended version of our conversation. Dr. Sytsma is based out of Atlanta and serves post-affair couples as well as those experiencing sexual difficulty at his Institute, Building Intimate Marriages. I asked Dr. Sytsma about specific intimacy challenges that military couples face at home and during deployments.

Dr. Mike, as he’s known, explained that couples sexually “imprint” on each other. If that concept gives you flashbacks to Jacob in the Twilight series, it may not be that far from the truth.

During sex, oxytocin, known as the connective hormone, releases in the body. It is actually the same hormone released during nursing that bonds a mother to her baby. He clarified that when your spouse is gone for long periods of time, you go through what’s called “skin hunger,” when the body is longing for the touch and the oxytocin to which it is accustomed. That concept explains why during deployment your skin can almost feel like it crawling for something as simple as a safe hug.

Other forms of connection, though, have also been found to release oxytocin, including looking into each other’s eyes, holding each other and even hearing the other person’s voice.

Dr. Mike encourages military couples to tap into some of these healthy habits that support connections during separations. Although you may not be able to hold hands, associating the sound of your spouse’s voice with intimacy and safety will release some oxytocin, even though your body is still going through that skin hunger. Doing that also helps during reintegration when you are getting your groove back.

On the other extreme, Dr. Mike mentioned that he and those in his field have found an opposite result with non-connective habits like pornography. Pornography associates the release of oxytocin with false images and story lines rather than your spouse. Ultimately, this imprinting can interfere with sexual performance with your spouse, especially when life isn’t playing out like a fantasy.

The bottom line is this: Be careful and mindful what you choose to imprint on. Aim for good communication, curiosity and intentionality, and you will be on a path to great and meaningful sex.

There is no doubt that healthy sexuality in marriage is a complicated venture. But I like to think that it is supposed to be. Something this vulnerable requires a heart to serve, permission to be selfish, willingness to forgive, a sense of humor and communication. Healthy sexuality is a balancing act that forces you to be vulnerable in order to stay connected.

If you are struggling in this area of your marriage, there is hope and plenty of resources that can help guide, bring healing and direction. Begin by listening to Dr. Mike’s interview. All of the resources he mentions can be found here. The Lifegiver App is also free and has interviews from leading marriage experts, stories of success and marriage curriculum that can help you get started today.

Maybe now is a time to be proactive. Begin healthy conversations in your relationship if you need them. Look for a counselor or sex therapist to help you wade through the complicated waters of intimacy. Seek out the healing or forgiveness you need to be vulnerable again.

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My own awkward and painful memories of middle school flooded my mind. I had watched my son, only 12 years old and now in seventh grade, enter gracefully into a mostly civilian school mid-semester with dreams of performing in the talent show a year later. As a military spouse, I have figured out the rhythm of moving, making friends, and starting over. But as a parent, I must confess, it is painful to watch your kids go through it.

Now my husband and I were about to jump out of our skin as we watched the entire middle school file in to watch tender hearts perform their best, and one of them was ours.

I had already replayed in my head what I would do if even one kid in this gym “booed” my son. Did they even know what he had gone through? How many schools he has been in? The bullying, the friends he had left, the ones who had left him, the tears he shed when we said, “it’s time.”

For the last year and half, we listened at the dinner table as he shared his efforts to look for a seat in the cafeteria, sign up for after school activities and teach himself soccer during recess. Day after day, he got back in the game even if no one passed him the ball, until one day he said he finally scored a goal. He is a self-motivator, no doubt, something I think we find in most of our military kids. But watching from the sidelines as a parent is intense.

On a recent Lifegiver podcast episode I interviewed Pam Brummett, a mentor-friend of mine that revolutionized my view of parenting. When I first met Pam, her kids were far older than mine, her oldest in middle school while I was still freaking out about potty training. This family impressed me. They lived, and still do, a life of service — and their kids are very much part of that mission. One day, after I had sat with a new widow for three hours, she and her children came into my house and cleaned it from top to bottom. No complaints, no push-back. The kids knew exactly what their efforts were for and that changed my view of parenting forever.

Now Pam’s kids are in high school and college. I got to sit down with her to find out how she does it. Here are a few things that made a big difference for her. You can listen to the full interview here.

3 Military Parenting Secrets for Raising Teenagers

The most important thing to teach your kids is respect and love. Pam and her husband learned to choose their battles, but respect was crucial. Saying “ma’am” and “sir” taught the kids to be respectful toward their parents and others. Safe affection has always been in the home. Pam says her children still come in to greet her when they walk in the door with a hug which she playfully says is not negotiable.

Relocations will not ruin them. Pam said her kids look back with great memories of all the places they have been. In fact, the only time they struggled was in a school that was mostly civilian, where they felt few understood them. As her kids now enter college, she said they are over prepared for independence as well as life’s disappointments. Turns out, military life doesn’t ruin your kids.

Be a part of their lives. Pam has always made her kids’ friends feel welcome in their home. When she realized the kids were going to Starbucks for long study sessions, she purchased coffee and snacks and now hosts them in her home. This way she can keep an eye on the teens and get to know who her kids are hanging out with. On her last birthday, some of them even stopped by the house to give “Momma Pam” her birthday hug.

Back in the middle school gym, it was almost time and I was hoping all that Pam had told me was true. We saw a hint of his shoes from under the curtain and my stomach dropped. They announced him stage and the entire gym erupted with giant screams. I even heard some of the other kids chant his name.

The curtain opened and the gym continued to cheer. My heart gripped in my chest as my husband and I looked at each other in astonishment. Every day wouldn’t be like this and the next school would bring a completely different set of challenges. But today, these kids had no idea how they were changing my son’s life. Their cheers rewarded the courage my son has for years had to dig deep to find. Constantly showing up, pushing through the tough stuff, and re-inserting himself all paid off.

And his performance? Well, he nailed it.

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