Leaving the military and transitioning back into the civilian world is a very high-stakes time for close relationships.
The military is more than just a unit or an organization — it’s a band of brothers and sisters. It’s a family. The situations you’ve encountered while in the military often create a level of trust unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before.
Even if you came from a tightly knit family, the personal bonds formed in the military are uniquely strong and intense. Your survival may have depended on it. You were each other’s keepers. You celebrated the great moments together and, in many cases, you faced tragedy together. You hold and share secrets you’d never reveal outside of your tribe. Together you have “embraced the suck,” and accomplished things that you would never have thought possible.
But the cost of love is the grief of separation. The loss of daily contact with your military family is a crushing blow, a “punch in the gut.” Almost every part of your life changes. When leaving the military, you may lose a sense of identity, or lose a sense of purpose and relevance. You might feel invisible in a society that does not understand your experience or share your core values. Becoming a civilian again can even bring physical withdrawal, as your body tries to adjust to the loss of a high adrenaline lifestyle.
Whether you’re single, dating, or in a committed relationship at the time, returning to the civilian world packs a real punch.
If you are single
To be blunt, falling in love is a great way to avoid the pain of transition. Falling in love is like smoking crack cocaine. It’s the best high you can get without breaking any laws. In fact, research shows that the brain releases many of the same chemicals when people are falling in love and when they are smoking crack cocaine.
When you’re adjusting to life after the military, there’s a real danger of ending up in “ticking time bomb” relationships because you’ve lost your network (and the flow of dopamine and oxytocin we all get when we are deeply connected with those around us). You’re vulnerable. You may be tempted to try replace your sense of loss by jumping into an exciting new romantic relationship.
It’s easy to interpret supercharged emotions as evidence of finding “true love.” But the truth is that all relationships — even those that become abusive nightmares or those that end in heartbreak — feel amazing at first. This is just the “cocaine rush phase” that kicks off all new romantic relationships.
To make matters worse, you may even feel a gravitational pull to link up with people who need to be “saved” or “fixed.” This often stems from an instinct to protect and serve other people. And it can also be connected to significant survivor guilt — as though your brain and heart are seeking a way to correct things that felt out of control during your time in the military. For example, I’ve worked with veterans who were in explosive ordnance disposal units who have locked on to partners that are the human equivalent of a ticking time bomb. This misguided instinct can lead you to pair with people who will bring endless chaos into your life.
Whether the issue is an abusive, not-quite-ex-partner or out-of-control drinking problem, this chaos diverts and distracts you (for a limited time) from the challenge and pain of focusing on transition. In a way, the chaos of this kind of partner can “organize” your life. A high-drama partner can provide a set of new challenges to overcome, a way to continue protecting at least one person, and it can feel like an act of “selfless service.”
Almost always, relationships like this will end in heartbreak. While suicide is never caused by one single event or person, the loss of a close relationship can be a tipping point that can trigger a suicidal spiral. The relationships we choose to invest in can have very high stakes.
Recently discharged veterans need to be aware of this “pull” toward troubled relationships. Instead of investing in only one relationship, it’s wiser to build out a whole network of new relationships. I call this “social diversification.” Look at it the same as you would if you were to get a large chunk of money — would you invest all of it, immediately, in one single company? Wouldn’t it be smarter instead to invest in a “diversified portfolio” of different companies, so that if one failed, you would still be OK? The same is true for relationships. It’s better to develop an inner circle or “core unit” of three or more people who are really close to you, and a wider group of people you enjoy spending time with. It’s much less risky, even if you choose a healthy romantic partner.
If you’re dating someone when you leave the military
It might be tempting to see separation from the military as a good time to formalize your relationship, either legally, financially or otherwise. But even if you’ve been dating someone for four years, you can still be in the “cocaine rush phase” of the relationship if that relationship has been mostly long distance or interspaced with several long deployments. With the distance and lack of time together, it’s easy to maintain the fantasy that you’ve both found your “soul mate.”
People in love often over-estimate the potential for amazing weekends of R&R to translate into successful life partnerships. Almost anyone can be accommodating, flexible and attentive for a long weekend, but this says very little about who they’ll be when you see them every day, year after year. So, it’s a good idea to slow down and make sure that your relationship can weather a few storms before your formally commit to each other. Make sure you’ve had a number of really good fights before thinking about committing to marriage.
Military professionals know that it is only through conflict that you can learn who you can trust. That trust is only theoretical until the first firefight. It’s only in a firefight that you know who actually has your back and who will stick with you. It works the same in a close relationship. Complete a number of “rehearsal of concept” drills before you commit to a lifetime of missions together. See if you can respect each other, even when you’re really upset with each other. Give yourself the opportunity to see whether you and your partner are an effective team when faced with adversity.
If you’re married or in a committed relationship
Leaving the military can be a high-stakes time for even the most solid, well-established relationships. The transition can create a special vulnerability for what are called “attachment wounds.” An “attachment wound” is described by this feeling: “I really needed you and you weren’t there for me.”
Among the biggest threats to marital satisfaction is the prospect of unemployment. Research shows that unemployment can have a more negative impact on a marriage than many other personal crises, like having a child with a serious, chronic medical issue. And unemployment is a risk for service members who are leaving the military. After separation, you may feel aimless, irrelevant, and emotionally depressed before you discover your next path. And this can shake the foundations of even the strongest relationships.
Even for veterans who successfully find a new job, transition often brings huge changes to a couple’s shared roles and responsibilities. Patterns you established for deployment cycles will probably need to be totally reevaluated. It’s critical that you and your partner both can talk openly and respectfully about your expectations and needs. But that does not come easy for many veterans.
Military training isn’t designed to put you in close touch with your own feelings and needs. Military training is focused on the mission. You learn to set aside your personal feelings and needs. The best trained military units might not even need to communicate with each other beyond occasional hand signals because they you are all using the same playbook.
In a life partnership, however, you have to continually re-write the playbook, especially during the process of military separation. You’ll have to speak up when you need something, instead of assuming that your partner will automatically understand what you need.
Relationships start with two people who share the fantasy that they are perfectly compatible “soul mates.” As our relationships shift from the “cocaine rush phase” into the “testing phase,” we learn how incompatible we are. But, through the evolution of battle-tested partnerships, two people can become soul mates as they risk vulnerability, show love and respect, and communicate what they need in clear ways. When we become soul mates, we become totally irreplaceable to each other.
Times of transition are not just times of vulnerability - they are times of great potential as well. We often focus on how trauma breaks us down. What we can forget is that trauma can also build us up stronger than we ever were before.
We have a word for what can go wrong — “attachment wounds” — but we don’t have a word for what right looks like. Allow me to suggest one: “attachment gifts.” An “attachment gift” is described by this feeling: “I was broken down, and you were there for me. During one of the most difficult times in my life, you have been my rock. Because of what we’ve been through, I know that you have my back. You and I are strong enough to make it through anything after this.”
So, as life unfolds after the military, avoid bad risks, but do take risks that grow you and deepen your relationships. Stay close to your military tribe, build your “core unit” of military and civilian friends, and continue to act on the values that you hold as sacred.
If you do these things, you’ll be able to create and maintain deeply satisfying lifelong relationships through your military transition and beyond.
Shauna Springer, Ph.D., is the senior director of suicide prevention initiatives at Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors., or TAPS. Dr. Springer is a licensed psychologist with an undergraduate degree from Harvard University and a doctorate from the University of Florida. She has provided support for hundreds of veterans and their families as well as advised senior military leaders on policies and programs that promote successful transitions for military veterans. She is the co-author of “Beyond the Military: A Leader’s Handbook to Warrior Reintegration,” which will be available through Lioncrest Publishing in Fall 2019.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.