By River Grace Outlaw
It happens…a lot. Domestic violence rates are substantially higher in military couples.
Let me preface this story with my awareness that my story is just one experience out of many, and every story is different.
I was a starstruck bride as we loaded the U-Haul with all my earthly possessions so I could follow him across the country to where he was stationed. I pretended that our fast-moving relationship didn’t make me nervous. I was flattered that he didn’t want to wait to get married, and it seemed sweet when he was possessive. So I left everything and everyone I knew to follow the love of my life into his world because that’s what you do for love. Right?
We were halfway across the country when the veil lifted. A shove against the wall, a push into a door frame, squeezing my hand until I cried out in pain. I had never experienced it before, and my brain had no reference point for how to respond. He said I “triggered” him, but it wasn’t like I screamed at him, called him names, or shoved at him. We would just be in an intense conversation or a simple spat about different perspectives. He blamed his defensiveness and hyperreactivity on his training.
Just because domestic violence (DV) often happens in the military does not make it okay. The United States Defense Department has created The Family Advocacy Program (FAP) to assist struggling families. However, many spouses are unaware of the services they provide.
When my new husband set up a visit with his counselor on base, I was relieved. I thought his counselor would tell him that hurting me was not okay; instead, he seemed indifferent. He told us not to let it get out of hand. What did that even mean?
Just because you marry someone in the military does not mean YOU become military. If you marry a doctor, you don’t automatically become a doctor. Don’t let the rhetoric confuse you. The military uses language that includes you because they need you to support your soldier.
The military works to break down the individuality of their recruits. The goal is that each person will stop seeing themselves as individuals and instead as part of a unit. This explains why recruits receive the same haircut, uniform, and training. They are told when to eat, sleep, and even when they can use the toilet. Everything is done together – even how they walk aligns with the other recruits. All of this is accomplished through immense screaming, threats, and verbal abuse that would never be allowed in a civilian workspace. However, the same tactics used to create a military unit will destroy a marriage.
Your spouse made a career choice, and it is an honorable one. You can and should support them until it becomes unsafe for you and/or your children.
The breaking down of individuality to create a cohesive military unit violates the natural, healthy boundaries needed for a romantic relationship to thrive. Even so, your spouse may be so inundated with the military culture that it feels intuitive to project similar behaviors onto their partner, which is why so many new spouses notice a huge shift in behavior after they are married. But saying, “I do,” is not a military contract.
Healthy relationships depend on each individual maintaining and respecting the other person’s boundaries. The goal is a healthy marriage, not a military unit. Each person in the marriage is still entitled to maintain a separate identity from the person they love, even though they have committed to being monogamous.
During the following nine years of my marriage, I was not allowed to lock the bathroom door to take a shower or lock our bedroom door to change. My spouse complained that it made him feel controlled when I locked a door. This proved hard when we had young children. If I locked the door, he would pick the lock to prove that my effort was pointless. Privacy, he believed, could not be trusted. It led to infidelity and betrayal. So he also expected to have access to my journals, my emails, and my phone. However, since he was in the military, there were things that he could not share with me, so I was not allowed the same access.
Being yourself while still faithfully living does not betray your spouse. If you aren’t a morning person, then continuing not to be a morning person is not a betrayal; it’s just who you are. You did not enlist; you got married. It is different. Your spouse does not and should NOT own you.
My spouse and I were constantly in counseling. Intuitively, I knew that how I was being treated behind closed doors and sometimes in public was not okay.
Counseling is worth a try, but it often doesn’t help; sometimes, it can exacerbate the issue.
Most of the time, my spouse would apologize at some point for hurting me. Then he would reiterate what I needed to do better next time. Ultimately, his message was always that whatever happened was my fault.
Your spouse is an adult. It is not your job to manage your spouse’s triggers. You can be considerate of them, but they need to govern themselves. Your spouse is NOT justified in hurting you because you did something that “triggered” him/her.
I thought that if I didn’t hide the abuse from friends, family, or our church, I wasn’t accepting the abuse. But later, I discovered from those same people that by staying, they just assumed that it must not be that bad. So by continuing in my marriage, I was accepting the abuse, and so they did too.
If you do not love and respect yourself enough to maintain healthy boundaries and withdraw from the situation when they are violated, then the disrespect and violence WILL worsen. That is a statistical fact. If how you are being treated is not what you would want for your son or daughter, then you should not accept it for yourself. You are not a soldier; you are a spouse.
I was relieved when he started leaving marks because he could not claim that I was exaggerating. I thought the marks validated the abuse. Instead, he started reminding me that it would be easy if he really wanted to kill me.
“Saving” your marriage should not come at the cost of losing your voice, identity, or life. God does NOT love your marriage more than he loves you.
I wish I could say that I found the courage alone and left. But the emergency room doctor drew the line and stated that she had to report to the police after he strangled me. It was the police who mandated that I could not return until he was arrested. I will acknowledge that it was my choice not to take him back.
Please don’t wait for anyone else to validate what you are experiencing as abuse. If it makes you feel unsafe, then you have a responsibility to yourself and your children to draw a boundary. Yes, there are supports through the FAP and other organizations that can help. Yes, life will be hard for a while, but that’s true regardless of whether you stay or leave. They are just different kinds of hard. One type of hard takes back your identity, and the other will continue to give it away.
About author: River Grace Outlaw is a writer, speaker, life coach and mom of five who lives in Colorado Springs, CO. For more information go to rivergraceoutlaw.com or catch her videos on RiverTalksGrace.