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Word for Word: A military wife writes freely of the battle to sustain a marriage

Rebekah Sanderlin pours her heart out on her blog.

Special to the Times

Rebekah Sanderlin pours her heart out on her blog.

Rebekah Sanderlin writes the "Operation Marriage" blog for the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer, the hometown newspaper of Fort Bragg. • Sanderlin and her soldier husband have two children, a boy and a girl. She recently calculated that her husband has been deployed or away on training for five of the nearly seven years they've been married. (For security reasons, she doesn't reveal his name or location.) He is deployed now, and coping with his absence is a frequent subject of her writing. • Her heartbreakingly honest Oct. 28 blog post has generated dozens of comments. Here it is; you can see Sanderlin's blog at

— Mike Wilson, Managing Editor/Enterprise

• • •

After almost seven years, two kids, a dog and lots of shared property and commingled funds, Operation Marriage — the relationship, not the blog — has never seemed so close to failure. We're talking big "D" failure, of the "and don't mean Dallas," or deployment, variety. I'm sitting here wondering how my husband and I went from the giddiness of our beautiful sunset wedding on the beach, to trying to figure out what the next phase of our lives will hold.

If you know me or regularly read this blog, you know that I love my husband. And if you know my husband, you know that he loves me. But if you're in this homefront battle with me, trying to maintain a relationship and some sanity through relentless deployments, incalculable stress and insane military working hours, you know that love is not enough to make a marriage last — it's not even enough to keep the wolves outside the gate.

There are just two people in every marriage and those are the people who are ultimately responsible for its success or failure. In our wedding ceremony my husband and I also asked that the guests take a vow to support us in our marriage because friends and family are critical to having a good marriage, just as friends and family can play a role in the failure of a marriage. This is true of any marriage, anywhere, between any two people. But a military marriage has a third party standing at the altar that civilian marriages don't have to deal with, and in war time that third party can be a real (rhymes with) witch.

A good friend summed it up so well for me yesterday. She said military families these days are stuck in a vicious cycle of Wait-Honeymoon-Suck. We wait out a deployment, enjoy the amazing honeymoon period that comes with a reunion and then suffer through the agonizing, put-the-pieces-back-together days, only to be immediately pushed back into waiting through another deployment. Lather, Rinse, Repeat. There are no higher highs and no lower lows than what we experience. I know this because I have lived it, my friends have lived it and I hear from so many of you who are living it, too. (Thank you all for that, by the way.)

I once heard someone joke that military medicine survives on Naproxen, the joke being that they just give you Naproxen (aka, Aleve) for everything, in hopes that you'll be out of the military medical system before you have to actually do something to address the problem. In the same way, military marriages survive on Band-Aids, especially these days. Maybe the Band-Aid is a few sessions with a chaplain or going to a marriage retreat, maybe it's a weekend away from the kids or the high that comes with purchasing a big ticket item. Whatever it is, we apply that temporary fix and soldier on, promising ourselves that someday when the OPTEMPO slows or we're out of military-land, we will address the real problems and make everything right again. We cross our fingers and hope that the bleeding will stop long enough to get through a deployment, school, PCS, work problems, family issues, health problems — or any of the other external stressors. We tell ourselves that when the crisis du jour is over, we will really work to fix things. But each crisis is replaced by another and the pace never slows.

Little problems that can be covered up with Band-Aids are often symptoms of much bigger issues. Left untended, those issues only get worse. It's like my Dad's cancer last year: If he'd gone to the doctor a lot sooner he would have lived. But he thought he just had a sore throat so he didn't bother. By the time he sought treatment his cancer was at stage four. Seven months later he was dead.

How do we work through marriage problems when we're thousands of miles apart, one of us only gets to use the phone for a few minutes a day and our only chance to look into the other's eyes comes via a patchy, time-delayed connection on Skype? How can we discuss our problems when we are constantly told to not worry the deployed spouse with things they can't fix? How do we work through our own issues when we have very little access to the one person who is supposed to go through life with us? How do we plan couple time when promised leave gets yanked away, pay gets screwed up and there's no money for baby sitters? How do we work on a marriage when another deployment looms and the active duty spouse can't leave work long enough to even go to marriage counseling appointments?

My husband had daily brushes with death last year. I watched my dad die while trying to juggle the demands of a preschooler and a pregnancy/newborn. My husband saw his friends die and he's got a list of medals that prove that he endured things I don't even want to think about. I endured things he also can't comprehend. Neither of us had any compassion left to give the other and both of us desperately needed compassion. As he wrote in an e-mail to me this week, the stress level we both experienced last year was "for the record books." It turns out that it crushed us. How ironic that it all comes to the surface while he is again deployed.

My husband and I are responsible for all that has gone wrong in our marriage, that is undeniable — but that third party sure made things a whole lot worse.

Word for Word is an occasional feature excerpting passages of interest from books, magazines, Web sites and other sources. The text may be edited for space but the original spelling, grammar and punctuation are unchanged.

Word for Word: A military wife writes freely of the battle to sustain a marriage 11/07/09 [Last modified: Sunday, November 8, 2009 2:41pm]
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