When I look back on the years of my military marriage, I see it as a bookshelf lined with memories.
The deployment years are a lot like survival stories. Reintegration seems like a classic drama. There are pages with hurt, volumes of joy, collections of happy and sad memories.
I must admit, when I feel sad, angry or entitled, I reach for “books” on our shelf that remind me of other times when I felt that way. I want to feel validated and maybe even fueled to win the next argument. “Remember this?” “Remember that?” “What about the last time you …”
… There’s no need to finish that sentence. We all know it never ends well. Meanwhile, my spouse is scrambling through the proverbial bookshelf trying to find even a short story to provide alternative evidence.
Some of you just take turns pulling down the hurts and reading them again and again. Arguments and tension tend to deceive us into thinking that our situation is horrible, when really we just need a reminder of who we are.
Military life can mean our bookshelves are often filled with separate memories and significant, defining moments. I call those moments “sacred spaces” because they are set apart.
Instead of coming back together, military reintegration often becomes a time to accumulate stories of hurt, stacking that bookshelf with plenty of ammunition we can return to later.
I want shared positive stories to be what defines my relationship, don’t you? More than that, I want stories of how we redeemed our marriage. I call those “shared sacred spaces.”
I’ve learned that if you don’t stock your bookshelf with as many positive shared sacred spaces as possible, you will have a hard time finding hope when you need it most.
During one reintegration, I listened as Matt shared his deployment stories. There were so many separate memories. The bookshelf was filling up with them. Reintegration was filled with sharing our most “sacred” or significant, stories while we had been apart. Although we did our best, we talked more than we listened. In our attempts to get on the same “page,” reintegration became, instead, a time to accumulate stories of hurt.
But how do you do fix that? How do you start plussing-up your marriage bookshelf? I can tell you it doesn’t happen accidentally. It’s not as hard as writing an actual book, but it definitely takes mindfulness.
Pursue. There is mystery and a quest to win someone’s heart in the dating years but, at some point, love matures and the pursuit must become more intentional — purposeful even. If you are at a place where you are holding out until your spouse pursues you, you are only collecting stories of failure. Be the first to pursue your spouse. Truly listen to her needs, the kind of date nights she wants. Even better, hold hands and look him in the eye while listening. Using three of your five senses will solidify your memory and help him feel heard.
Plan. Intentionally prioritize time with your spouse. I hear couples all the time talk about scheduling dates every week, but they never do so. Sure, it takes time. But scheduling something fun that engages as many of the five senses as possible will make for an evening your marriage will never forget. Dance lessons trump a dinner and a movie. I know the inconsistency of military life can make this a huge challenge, but if we aren’t focused on the time we have together, it will slip away.
Protect. Like a family photograph tainted with memories of bad attitudes and screaming toddlers (not that that ever happened to me), so it is with shared sacred spaces. If we aren’t protective, our efforts can easily be sabotaged. Demons of the past, minefields of the present, or simple miscommunication — something out there wants to see you fail. You must be proactive by setting up limits to what you will talk about or thoughts you choose to entertain. Shared sacred space moments are not a time to hash out what should be reserved for the counseling office or a family meeting.
But what if sabotage happens anyways? Try to reclaim it. Even a reclaimed sabotaged moment can make for a powerful memory of hope and resilience. In the midst of the tension, make every effort to intentionally think the best of your spouse.
Sometimes, Matt or I will reach for the other’s hand and just say, “I’m for you, not against you.” It is a gentle reminder that although we may be upset at each other in the moment, we believe the best in the other.
Forgiveness and grace go a long way. Our spouses are not perfect and never will be. The sooner we accept it, the easier it will be to forgive. Remind yourself of the many moments you have needed forgiveness yourself. The sooner we forgive, the sooner we will have grace to offer.
Redemption stories are the most powerful shared sacred spaces of all and will no doubt give you a truly great story to revisit from your shelf of memories.
The gap between my husband and me felt as wide as the Grand Canyon. Desperate to give it clarity, we called each life-changing moment that had over time created it a “sacred space.”
Let’s be real. After my husband’s first deployment, we did not reintegrate well. Even though we communicated as best we could while apart and were proactive in preparing for his return, things were just not syncing between the two of us.
He had experienced major life-changing moments while he was in theater — battle, injuries, death — cementing a sacred bond with his Army brothers that I would never understand.
And no matter how hard he tried to describe those moments that forever changed his perspective on life and service, I just couldn’t embrace it. I wasn’t there. I could never really know.
Similarly, I had been stretched during that deployment beyond what I thought I could survive. No matter how much I tried to detail overcoming loneliness, despair, potty-training a tyrant, or figuring my way after a car wreck, he simply didn’t share the memory with me.
These experiences weren’t something we could just walk away from, ignore or rewind. They were multi-sensory and sacred, meaning that they were set apart from the normal everyday moments in life.
They changed the trajectory of our outlook on life, view of self, and even God. They took up a significant “space” in our story, or in this case, individual stories. Some of them were traumatic and alienating, some of them were beautiful moments of community or spirituality.
You have experienced these kinds of events during those long separations war has brought us. You know what I’m talking about.
After one particularly nasty argument, my husband and I agreed that the root issue was that each of us deeply wanted to feel understood by the other. We wanted to be seen. We could never go back and be a part of those things that shaped us and pushed as apart, so something had to change.
Our new goal was to listen to each other, even when we couldn’t fully understand. By starting off with “this is a sacred space for me,” we accepted that the other didn’t have to fully “get it,” but at least they could respect it, hear it and tread lightly on the monumental thing. It was a revolutionary decision in our military marriage.
I have introduced the “sacred spaces” terminology to many people since writing my book of the same title, and what I have found is that it universally describes moments in the human experience. Regardless of a person’s career path, we all desire to be understood. We all want someone to hear us, see us and know us.
A mother recently told me she finally realized that losing her child was a sacred space. She had been expecting everyone around her to grieve as she grieved. This new perspective allowed her to let go of that anger and find an inner circle of support that can better empathize.
A military spouse discovered that her resentment toward the marriage was not at her husband, but really toward her husband’s traumatic brain injury. It was an additional barrier to their attempts at communicating. She let go of her resentment as she wept tears of a new commitment to create more shared sacred spaces rather than focus on the separate ones.
It’s such a simple concept. It’s an acknowledgment that while we cannot go back in time, we can choose how we treat the past and what it has done to shape us and others. It’s not about tiptoeing around the hard stuff. It’s about seeing it for what it is — a sacred space — and knowing the real question is: Can I trust you to hold that sacred space?
Sacred Spaces and “Not Understanding”
It was the day before the packers were coming. I had spent every day for the last two weeks cleaning out drawers and rooms while the kids and my husband were out of the house. To say I was tired was an understatement. “I think we need to sit and talk”, my husband said. The kids were acting out and that was tempting me to act out. I was frustrated that everyone was not giving me their last bits of energy to complete my pre-move checklist. I was a week away from a trip that would take me across the world to experience deployment from a military spouse perspective. Christmas was three weeks away. Did I mention we were moving? Agreeing to go on this trip would mean that my husband would have to receive our household goods and handle the kids’ first week of transition on his own. I had been wearing myself out in an unconscious attempt at relieving my guilt for leaving.
“This is all part of the process.” Matt said, “I know you feel bad for leaving, but I will be fine.”
I was shocked. I didn’t think I was doing it out of guilt, or at least I wasn’t ready to admit it.
“These last minute tasks that you are stressing about are not worth it. You are leaving in a week, Corie. Think about it. You may know that you are going to be safe, but the only thing the kids know is that you are going to Afghanistan. We need to cut them a break. The priority doesn’t need to be the house at this moment.”
Great. Now there was no denying the guilt I felt for leaving- leaving in general, leaving during a move, leaving before Christmas.
He continued with a loving smirk, “If you are going to experience what it is like for a soldier, then take note. This is all part of the process.”
I paused. He was right. I sometimes hate when he is right. Up until this point, I had been more excited at the opportunity given me and working out the logistics of how to plan for a trip like this on such short notice. I hadn’t thought to pay attention to my own feelings of pre-departure.
So many times I have thought about how dual military couples understand each other. There are few experiences in the job that they don’t understand. They understand the paperwork that has to be filled out for leave and the procedures in the field. Military spouses rarely have a glimpse into the world of a service member. We might see office life while they are home, ruck marches on post, and even listen to gun fire at the firing ranges from our backyard. Yet, somewhere along the way, I had resolved that I would just not understand a lot of my husband’s career, and maybe I was okay with that.
Sure, it had caused problems during reintegration. I had my moments during the deployment that took every bit of courage, grit, and independence to get through and there was no way he could have understood that. He had zipped his friends up in body bags and there was definitely no way I could understand that. After many arguments that were more about wanting to be heard, we had resolved to just respect those places as sacred spaces. There was no way one experience could compete with the other and we resolved to not fully understand those life changing moments our other half went through. So we would live in respect to them.
When I think about whether or not accepting “not understanding” negatively affected our marriage, at first I say no. Sacred spaces provided terminology for significant moments in our lives. Allowing each other to have sacred spaces provided neutral territory to say “I’ve been through something so big that I’m different because of it. I can’t change that. But I need you to tread lightly when I talk about it. You can’t fix it and we definitely can’t ignore it.” I had learned to ask questions when he zoned out. If he opened up, I would try to be protective around the rest of his day.
So in some ways, these “unshared experiences” had matured us and brought us closer. I was more confident because of my sacred spaces, knowing I could do “anything” on my own if I had to. He embraced the fullness of life. I thought we were better people because of this military lifestyle. Better because we chose to implement a phrase my counseling professor once taught me, “everything is
grist for the mill.” Grist was corn that was often taken to a mill to be ground into flour, meaning every part of it was usable for profit. In our life, it meant that no matter what we went through individually or together, we would choose to eventually bring good out of it. But now, I was beginning to wonder, what could be the harm to having so many sacred spaces?
A few months back, Kate the Editor and Chief of Military Spouse Magazine was blowing up my phone while I was in the school carpool line. “Call me right now! You aren’t going to believe this!” she texted. The anticipation was killing me. The almost daily adrenaline spikes of change and opportunities since being awarded the 2015 Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year were less shocking now, but my adrenal gland was definitely waning to keep up. The Secretary of Defense office had called asking for a military spouse to accompany the Secretary overseas for his Holiday Tour to visit troops. Kate told them I was perfect for the job as MSOY and a clinician who fights for military marriages. The DoD recognized that they had never taken a military spouse overseas to see what it is like for troops. I would get to fly in Secretary Ash Carters plane and be a correspondent for the magazine. Kate being a military spouse too, freaked out with me over the brevity of the opportunity. Secretary Carter?!?! This is like… the main guy! The main guy over all the branches of the military… who reports to the President! And the plane… if the President gets in this same plane that they are inviting me on, it is AirForce One. I admit I had a lot of Googling to do.
As my kids got in the car, they over heard my gasps of shock.
“What!? Did something bad happen?” they asked. Coming quickly back to reality, I hung up with Kate and had to tell them the truth, “You can’t tell anyone right now though, okay boys? In order to keep things very safe, no one- not even your friends or teachers can know yet.” I thought about what a heavy burden that must have been to give them.
“That makes me want to cry” my eleven year old, Aidan said.
“Oh honey, they wouldn’t take Mommy anywhere that would be unsafe.”
“No,” he interrupted, “The idea of you visiting those troops around Christmas and telling them “Thank you”. That is such a great opportunity it makes me want to cry.”
In that moment, my eleven year old put perspective on my mission and cast vision for me. All my fear that this lifestyle was ruining my children was for a moment replaced with pride that they were “getting it”.
Two days later, I joined a call with the Secretary’s office and the magazine to cast strategy on the trip. My goal, thanks to my son and my passion for marriages, was to make my experiences overseas meaningful to the 1.1 million military spouses who were not able to go. I know service members do their best describing everything from the gym to the DFAC, but perhaps I could aim to say it in a way that filled in the gaps. I told the Secretary’s office the number of times I had pictured something my husband had described only to realize how off I was when he shared the same story at a dinner party with friends. Extra details would come out, I explained, and I would suddenly discover that the images I created were simply that.
As a reference to how meaningful this experience could be to families, I told about the time our brigade chaplain took the FRG leaders and me to the field for the day during our first duty station. We got to walk into the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) and see the computer monitors, drink bad coffee, stand by heaters, and eat MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) in the makeshift DFAC (Dining Facility). I had never eaten an MRE in the field before and was encouraged to learn how to warm meals were possible. We watched as the soldiers performed their dress rehearsal for deployment by playing what looked like laser tag in the field. When a soldier went down, the medics came over and did their job from beginning to end. That day was huge for me, I told the Secretary’s office. That brigade chaplain provided a picture that would stay with me during the deployment. It reduced my anxiety on so many things that you would think don’t matter. But when my husband said he would be spending the day in the TOC, I knew he was safe, warm, and informed.
A grueling week later, we finally heard the trip was a go, pending some world event that could interrupt it. I spent a majority of my time calming my anxiety by running and taking supplements to communicate to my adrenal gland that I still wished to be friends. My strategy was to make the trip as multi sensory as possible. I noted how misunderstanding increases the fewer of the five senses are being used during communication especially in marriage. If I could write about what I saw, felt, smelled, and touched each day perhaps I could bring comfort to others. Each night, I would record a raw video journal of my reflections of the day and post it to my Youtube Channel and my Lifegiver Military Spouse Podcast. The Secretary’s office loved it.
As I looked into my husband’s eyes, this evening before the chaos of relocating, my emotions flooded me. I had been in survival mode for a long time, even before news of this trip. I had been checking things off my to do list and getting through each day. We had bought me boots, a jacket, and even pants from the Army surplus store that would be suitable for visiting Iraq and Afghanistan. I had stressed through outfits, visas, and passports but I hadn’t thought about what this really meant for the #TeamWeathers (as we called ourselves). Another parent was leaving for the Middle East and while my little ole’ week long trip couldn’t begin to compare to a deployment, you couldn’t tell my children that.
I took my husband’s advice and allowed myself to sit in the pocket of my thoughts and feelings. I felt guilty that I was leaving him to receive our household goods alone. The fact that my Dad had agreed to come physically replace me didn’t take away the feeling that I was abandoning my husband during a stressful time. I knew he would work himself to the bone trying to get rid of all the boxes by the time I would get home and I hated that I couldn’t stop him. I am normally looking out for changes in my kids behavior as they go through transition and I would miss the initial feelings of excitement and sadness as they entered in another new home. I would miss them visiting their first day at school and shyly saying hello to new teachers.
And yet, I felt the excitement of leaving on a new adventure. I was supposed to be on this trip, I had a complete peace about it. I am gifted at taking these kinds of experiences and using learned lessons to make a difference in marriages. I wanted to go. I wanted to stay. I wanted to run from the opportunity and choose family, just to prove it to them. I wanted to get on the plane because I was called to do it and set that example for my children.
I abandoned my checklist for the evening. “Let’s go get Chinese” I said to Matt. “You are right. We all need to hit a reset button.”
Tags: Sacred Spaces