Anyone who has ever been in the military—or been married to a service member—will tell you that marriage and divorce go hand-in-hand in military life. Or, as my friend Kamal, an Air Force major on his second marriage, put it: “There’s no shortage of people to commiserate with about how your marriage didn’t work out.”
My own marriage (to an Air Force Captain) barely survived a year-long deployment to Iraq during our engagement, followed quickly by a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan after our wedding, and numerous other work trips and training sessions that took him away for weeks at a time. The long separations, the stress of the job and the hostile environments, together with a tendency for many military couples to marry young and in haste, can quickly add up to divorce.
Although we’re still together, many of our friends aren’t. Or they’re on their second marriages, like Kamal and his second wife, Jennifer, also once-divorced and formerly in the military. This time around, Kamal and Jennifer are dedicated to doing it right. I’ve always admired their partnership and wondered how having been married once before informs their successful second union—especially in the context of the extra stress of military life.
Here are 4 tips they gave me on getting it right the second time around:
1. Start working on your second marriage before you meet your future spouse.
This might sound weird, but both Kam and Jen said they took time after their divorces to evaluate what went wrong in their first marriages, why it went wrong, and what they’d done to contribute to it.
For Jen, this meant examining the part she’d played in her first marriage’s unraveling, instead of just focusing on all the things she thought her ex did wrong. “I learned to be a little more mature in recognizing that I’m the one who has to be willing to compromise. It’s not always my partner’s fault if something is wrong. Also, in my first marriage I never learned how to communicate.”
For Kam, working on his second marriage before committing to it meant being honest with himself about what he wanted and needed out of a relationship.
After his first marriage fell apart, in part because his ex didn’t want kids and he did, he started asking himself some hard questions, like what he really needed in a partner and what things he was willing to compromise on.
It also meant taking more responsibility for his own happiness and realizing that what he'd been looking for from his first wife wasn't really a fair request from any partner. “With my first wife, I tended to shy away from trying to figure out the root of what was making us happy or miserable. Once I was honest with myself and focused on the idea of finding a partner instead of relying on somebody to make me happy, because I was already making myself happy, then I was able to really make a second marriage work,” Kam said.
2. Get help before you need it.
This self-reflection led them to seek the advice of a relationship therapist before they took the plunge a second time—something they recommend all couples, not just previously married ones, do. “We got to the root of things that we had going on. Jen and I have worked very hard at communicating,” Kam said.
They also got advice about the difference between a fair fight, and one that could cause lasting resentment. “She taught us how to have a productive fight, and we’d actually go home and practice the techniques she taught us,” Jen added.
The idea that couples counseling is most effective before your relationship is under strain is supported by many marriage and family therapists and researchers. Psychology professor Howard Markman is the co-director, along with Dr. Scott Stanley, of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. He and Stanley have created a marriage preparation workshop called PREP (Prevention and Relationship Education Program). He’s currently working on a study about the effectiveness of a version of PREP they developed for the Army. He says that too often, people come to couples counseling too late, after the destructive habits have set in.
“Nowhere do we teach couples how to handle the inevitable conflicts that will arise. Teaching couples these skills and principles while they’re still happy—that will keep them happy—can go a long way to creating happier marriages and happier families over time. Both in and out of the military."
3. Don’t rush the wedding.
Jen and Kam both agree that it’s important to take a more thoughtful, deliberate approach to a second marriage than you might have to your first. “Kam and I both did the same thing with our first marriages: we got married really early to someone under the circumstances that military life brings,” Jen explained.
Kam and his first wife fell in love during a short-term assignment, and didn’t want to be separated. “I was being sent to Japan, she was going to Germany, and in order to stay together we had to get married.” So they did—just six weeks after first setting eyes on each other. Three years later, Kam realized it was a mistake. “I loved her but she just wasn’t right for me,” he explained.
So the second time around, he made a conscious decision to move slower, even though that complicated his life, and Jen’s, for a time. “About a year into our relationship, I was stationed in Amman, Jordan. We were committed to each other and we considered the idea of just getting married so that Jen could come with me, but we were both extremely hesitant to do that because we’d both done it before and it didn’t end well,” Kam said. So, instead of jumping into marriage, they jumped through bureaucratic hoops that enabled Jen to accompany Kam as his girlfriend, not his wife. “It was way more painful to do it like that, but we wanted to be more thoughtful about it this time around,” Kam said.
4. Don’t let friction from your old marriage get in the way of the new.
When Kam and Jen did decide to make it official, they both realized that because Jen had two kids with her ex, he was going to be a significant part of their lives. Jen and her ex needed to work together as partners and co-parents, and this would be easier, they all realized, if they treated each other as friends.
Jen and Kam live in the D.C. area, while her ex lives in California. Maintaining a positive relationship for everyone, at such a distance, makes good communication particularly important. “We’re raising the kids together,” says Jen of her ex.
“We connect at least once a week and it’s usually been a really good connection. He’s sending me pictures of a baseball game with the kids, when I’m not there; I’m sending him pictures of a museum trip that he’s not there for. We’re sharing our lives with the kids with each other.”
Kam says he doesn’t feel threatened by Jen’s ex, or by his involvement in their lives—both because of the solid foundation he and Jen have, and because all interactions with her ex are open and friendly. Kam invited Jen’s first husband to stay at their house for a visit while they were living in Jordan because he thought it would be good for the kids to have their dad visit, and to see all three adults getting along. “The security of our relationship was strong enough that I wasn’t worried. That helps. Having a good foundation with your spouse makes it easier to reach out to your respective exes,” Kam said.
While the rigors of military life put more stress on relationships than most civilians face, these lessons from the “trenches” of military marriage really spoke to me. I hope to apply them, where I can, to keep my own marriage strong. As psychology professor Markman put it, “We can have the best fighting force in the world by training military personnel in the skills of how to fight wars; we can certainly train them in the skills that will help them have a better marriage.”
Alysia Patterson Mueller is a Brooklyn-based writer whose waking (and non-waking) hours are mostly absorbed by looking after her two-year-old daughter, six-month-old son, and 90-pound black Labrador Retriever. She has a Master's Degree in Journalism from the Medill School at Northwestern University and has worked as an Associated Press reporter. She and her husband are both children of divorce, which makes contributing to Splitopia a meaningful assignment for her.