I get a ton of questions about how to survive deployment. I think our goal should be to thrive during deployment, not just to survive it. So, here are my tips on surviving deployment. I’ll update these tips from time to time:
1. You MUST develop great coping strategies. My greatest coping strategy is that I choose to revel in alone-ness. I create creative spaces for my craft projects. I shower with the bathroom door open. I randomly break-out in solo dance parties or rounds of body circuits. I ignore the messy dining room for months on end. I stay up late or wake up early. I talk to myself out loud. I watch whatever the heck I want on tv. I do exactly what I want to do, whenever I want to do it.
I learned this strategy many years ago when I was in a relationship with another Navy guy. I lived with his teammate and they deployed together, so I felt really alone when they left AND it was my first experience with a deployment. We lived in San Diego and I worked a 9 – 5 job, so my average day went something like this: wake up – go to work – come home – go for a 90 minute walk or run – eat a turkey sandwich and chips in front of the tv – shower – eat jello chocolate chip pudding out of the bowl in the fridge – prep my lunch for the next day – watch more tv – do a few rounds of body circuits – work on my yoga handstand – watch more tv – go to bed. That’s all I did for months on end. As the weeks passed, I got more and more comfortable in my alone-ness. I found a favorite pizza place and I got a pizza from them every Sunday. Sometimes I walked/ran near my office instead of near my house. I became better friends with my boyfriend’s friends’ wives. I took myself out of the city on solo road trips. I felt less alone. By the time the deployment was over, I had figured out what I needed to do during deployments in order to not only survive, but to thrive.
Reveling in alone-ness can’t be your only coping strategy if you want to thrive during deployment, but it can be your central strategy.
2. You must do things for YOU. You (and your kids and pets) are your first and only priorities during your significant other’s deployment. Women have such a difficult time dialing-back and quieting the noise around them, I know. We end-up momma-bear-ing everyone around us, focusing on everyone else’s needs, etc. Deployment is the time when you MUST focus inward and take care of you and your dependents (meaning your kids, if you have them).
To do this, I highly recommend making a list with your significant other of your top priorities. Mine are: my emotional wellbeing, my relationship with my husband, my relationship with my immediate family, my fitness, my school work, and my friendships with my very best friends. Everything else is JUST NOISE.
Yes, it was hard for me to not list ALL friendships or my work in the spouse clubs on that list, but, um, HELLO, everything that does not directly add to my wellbeing is noise … and during deployment it’s much more important that I keep my own life in order than spending all of my emotional energy on a friend who is venting about her husband who is home all the time. Harsh but true. I gotta make time for #1. The caveat, of course, is that I would always go the rescue of any friend who is having an emergency or any friend whose spouse is away/deployed. I babysit my friends’ kids sometimes during deployment. This is a “noise” thing, but I know that my most of my military friends would reciprocate in some way. We have to carry each other through deployments. And that brings me to #3 …
3. Make friends with other military significant others who are going through the same thing. It helps to have friends who understand what you’re going through. I think it’s really, really nice to have lots of friends who are non-military, too, but your non-military friends aren’t always going to understand what you’re going through or know how to support you. To be fair, military friends won’t always understand or share your emotions during deployment … but they at least understand the road you’re traveling.
4. Stay in touch with your deployed loved one. Not everyone in a war zone has access to telephones or email (those are still luxuries for many of our deployed service members), but YOU can still email or write them letters everyday. My sub wife friends email their husbands daily, even though they don’t expect to hear from them more then once a week, at the most. I try to mail my husband a sweet card or pictures of us once per month. He loves receiving them. I know that writing daily emails can get monotonous and you might feel like you run out of things to say, especially if you have a very routine life. I recommend keeping a note in your phone of anything interesting that happens that day. Some of my friends read books with their deployed husbands so that they can talk about the book. We haven’t tried this, but it sounds like an interesting idea. When things get boring with my husband, I send him pictures of whatever I’m doing that day: meals that I prepare myself, traffic that I’m suck in, the store I’m shopping in, or I take a selfie on the elliptical at the gym (discretely, of course lol). Attaching pictures to emails can spark conversation and it gives your significant other a view “normalcy”. Remember, though, to keep the pictures G-rated. Every single email you send your significant other is read by a 3rd party, and he can get into trouble if you send risqué pictures of yourself … or, at the very least, someone else will be viewing them.
5. Make plans for after the deployment is over! Start thinking about vacation ideas or other celebratory things to do together after he returns. Make a list and post it somewhere you will see it often. Consider it a beacon of hope.
6. Try to stay flexible and aware that his return date could change. You have NO control over his return date, so the very best thing is to not hold on too tightly to a specific date. I recommend that you avoid planning homecoming activities for the day/week that he returns until you’re VERY close to his return date. Expect that his return date WILL change, and it WILL be emotional when it changes. Prepare yourself.
7. Find something that you enjoy doing, and do that thing only when he’s deployed or gone for an extended period of time. This piece of brilliant advice was given to me by two very smart friends. One of them only sews when her husband is gone, and the other only scrapbooks when her husband is gone.
8. Set some short and long term goals for yourself during deployment. Most of my friends try to lose weight while their husband is deployed, but there are lots of other fantastic goals: painting or re-doing a room in your house; training for and running a marathon; watching a movie in the theater every Sunday afternoon; trying a new recipe every Monday; writing a book; growing out your hair-cut (don’t laugh – this is one of mine right now!); volunteering; finishing your wedding scrapbook; training your dog; taking on a new project at work; and the list can go on and on. Find something you can get excited about doing/completing and get to it!
9. This is the most difficult thing to do, and if you figure out how to do it, please share your secret with me: try not to worry about this safety. This is another thing that you have no control over, and bad thoughts will drive you crazy. Distractions help. Do your best to not think about the “what if” scenarios.
10. You’re going to have a bad day or a bad moment. Heck, the first month of deployment is sometimes one bad day after another. Be gentle with yourself. You are allowed to be sad — your loved one is in a war zone somewhere. However, pick yourself up, brush off your shoulders, and step into the next day as best you can. Try to start fresh everyday. I constantly remind myself that every moment that we are apart is another moment closer to our reunion. It’s cheesy but it works for me. Do your best to “keep calm and carry on”. Really, the good days pass a lot faster than the bad. Try as best you can to make everyday a good day. You won’t always succeed, but making the effort helps.
11. TAKE CARE OF YOU. Do what’s in YOUR best interest and focus on yourself. Be selfish. Do no harm but take no shit. Take care of yourself and do whatever it takes to maintain your happiness and sanity, while also supporting your deployed loved one. Yes, this is a repeat, but it’s THAT important. BE GOOD TO YOU!
12. Don’t be afraid to ask for support or help. This was a hard lesson for me, but once I figured out that I needed to ask people for support, things got a lot better. Not everyone in your friends or family network will understand what you’re going through, so you may need to tell them that you need them to listen to you vent once in a while, or that you would like them to call you more often. Even other military significant others may not know what you need for support because everyone has different needs. Be honest and forthright with people. People want to help!
13. Stay mindfully positive, meaning that you force positivity into your mind. I do this in the simplest way possible: when negative or sad thoughts creep into my brain, I immediately think of something positive. This isn’t easy, and there are many times when I slip-up and allow myself to get into a negative frame of mind. Last deployment, I mindfully thought about our August camping trip and fancy anniversary plans. This is hard and it’s taken me years of practice. However, it’s a worthy cause to work toward.
14. Work on your relationship while he is home. A strong relationship will get you both through deployment.
15. Before he leaves, set your communication expectations together. What kind of communication does he expect to have access to? Not all deployed service members have daily access to computers and telephones, or their access will change, depending on their mission cadence, job, or where the base is located – prepare yourself for that! How often will he (try to) communicate with you? Will he try to call? Will he tell you before he goes out on a mission? Tell him what you want from him and make sure that you LISTEN when he tells you what he needs from you. If he can’t check his email often, he may ask that you only email him once per day. Maybe he’d prefer to call you every other day. Maybe he primarily wants care packages and to only communicate with you when he’s able to call you. Every relationship is different, and every service member has different needs. Cut him a ton of slack the first few weeks of deployment — he’s getting into a new routine and sometimes it takes a few weeks for the computers and telephones to get set-up. Non-secret computers aren’t a priority for the military 😉
If this is your first deployment together, try to stay open to changing communication needs. He may go into it thinking that he’ll be okay only communicating by phone or by email, and soon figure out that the plan needs to change because of communication issues on his end or because she needs more support. Things could change in the opposite direction, too. Stay open to the possibilities.
16. Don’t compare your communication to other couples. Comparison is the thief of joy and all that. I know a few couples who have *very* strong relationships, but the husband doesn’t communicate with her very much while he’s deployed. This sounds counterintuitive, but, again, do not measure your communication strategy against anyone else’s. The quality of your communication is more important than the quantity. Your relationship is different then any other relationship, so focus on your best communication for your relationship. If you’re satisfied and he’s satisfied, that’s ALL that matters. I promise that your significant other communicates with you as much as he can. Not everyone has equal access to communication.
17. Stay busy! After you’ve given yourself a day or three to be sad, find something to keep your mind occupied. There’s nothing worse than being sad and lonely and having too much time on your hands! I recommend getting a job, volunteering, joining a gym, or doing some other activity that gets you out of the house. My friends who have jobs tend to deal with deployment best because they’re distracted for much of the day. I don’t have a job here, per say, but I am finishing my Masters degree and am ver involved in other activities. Get busy, distract yourself, and deployment will be less difficult.
18. Don’t vent or break OPSEC on social media! It’s very tempting to complain or post information about deployment on social media as a way to get support from others, but resist the urge to do so. We know someone who single-handedly delayed a whole aircraft carrier’s homecoming for a MONTH because she posted her husband’s deployment return date on social media. We know of another person who single-handedly got a port call cancelled because she posted information about it on social media. Don’t be that person. The military takes OPSEC seriously, and you should, too, because the bad guys will use whatever information they can to kill our loved ones.
19. Know that deployments will never get better, but YOU will get better at coping with them. Even my friends who have been with their husbands through +20 years in the military get very sad when their husband leaves. Deployments are part of military life and it’s important to figure out how to handle them if your significant other is going to make a career in the military.