Marriage by itself can be challenging, but toss the military into the equation and the challenges multiply. Separations are frequent — there’s often an empty seat at the dinner table. The division of labor as parents is unbalanced. Packing up and moving is a regular occurrence. The possibility of death is a required — and repeated — conversation.
I guess that’s why, when my 13-year marriage to a service member ended in divorce, I was asked repeatedly, “Would you do it again? Would you marry another man in the military?”
The answer is no. The military was not the cause of my divorce — another question frequently asked — and I will always look back on the experiences my military life allowed me with fondness and appreciation. I walked away from it with a wealth of knowledge, unforgettable experiences, lifelong friendships and a deep respect for service members. But I’ve been there, done that, bought the T-shirt and wore it proudly until it wasn’t mine to wear anymore. I don’t want to do it again.
But trying to date without crossing paths with the military wasn’t easy. After the divorce, I chose to remain with our two children in the same city the military last sent us as a family. That means I live in a city densely populated with service members. As a single mom nearing 40, my dating pool was already small, but my Zip code was limiting my options even more.
The first date I went on after my divorce was with a Navy pilot. His stories about previous deployments brought back all of the loneliness I felt during my ex’s deployments. When it came up in conversation that I used to be a military spouse, I found myself avoiding questions about my ex and his rank and job in the military. I was reminded of how small the military community is, and I realized the chances were high that I could, at some point, end up on a date with someone who knew and/or worked with my ex, a prospect that made dating even more awkward than it already was.
A couple months later I was once again arranging a date with another Navy pilot. He seemed great, but after an unfortunate miscommunication caused us to postpone our first date, we had trouble coordinating our schedules. Then one day he texted to tell me he was leaving for a deployment overseas. In five days. For six months. That was the end of that.
There are some things you never say to a military spouse, such as: “You knew what you were getting yourself into when you married a military man.” But in reality, they don’t have the slightest idea what they’re getting into. Like a new mother taking her baby home from the hospital, new military spouses really have no clue about the struggles they’ll endure in the name of love.
I walked into my marriage clueless about military life. But I’m not clueless now. If I end up in another military relationship, I know exactly what I’m getting myself into. And if those two encounters with Navy pilots did nothing else, they reminded me how hard military life is. My divorce gave me a chance to start over, and for me, starting over meant leaving the military behind.
I also have to think about my children. To a military family, stability is a foreign concept. In the three years since my ex and I split up, for example, he’s been stationed in two different locations. Military brats, the endearing term given to children of service members, are forced to be flexible as they move all over the world, constantly making new friends, changing schools and missing the military parent who isn’t around a whole lot. Ironically, now that I’m divorced, I actually have a chance to provide stability for my children.
The kids and I have lived in the same city for eight years, putting down roots that would be impossible under military circumstances. If I pursued a relationship with a service member, that hard-fought stability would disappear. We might have to move every three years again. How would that affect the kids’ ability to see their father, who is also moving every three years? Hypothetical new man might get deployed and would certainly travel a lot. How would the kids handle having another father figure in their lives disappearing all the time?
Ultimately, these what-if scenarios haven’t played out because the universe led me to a man who happens to not be in the military. Now I dodge a different question: “Are you relieved he’s not in the military?”
How do I answer that? I don’t want to offend my military friends with the emphatic yes that immediately comes to mind, so I shrug off the loaded question with a vague, “We can’t help who we fall in love with, but I sure am happy knowing he’ll fill the fourth seat at the dinner table every night.”