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So You Are Marrying a Veteran. Here’s What to Know

Tying the knot with someone who’s served can be different from a civilian union

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You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

Saying “I do” can be both exciting and scary — whether it’s your first time or not. If you are marrying a veteran, you might find yourself filled with pride that you are betrothed to someone who has served their country. 

But there are emotional, logistical and financial considerations to take into account. Here’s what to ponder before your big day.

When their first instinct isn’t to come home and share everything

Some veterans aren’t big into telling you about their feelings. Cheryl Fraser, a couple’s psychologist, tells the story of a veteran whose wife asked for a divorce because for decades he’d never said he loved her. 

“He looked absolutely baffled,” Fraser told AARP Veteran Report. “Of course I love you. I’ve loved you for 33 years. If I had stopped loving you, I would have told you.” Communicating on a need-to-know basis had worked in the military, but it did not satisfy his wife’s emotional needs. 

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The couple reconciled, armed with new communication skills. “He began to learn about his partner’s need for more than just knowing he loves me, and that didn’t make him weak or vulnerable or needy,” Fraser said.

They might not want to relive every detail of their time in the military

You might want to know everything about your partner’s past, and for veterans that can sometimes involve digging up some difficult stuff. Fraser said there are ways to approach this without being pushy.

“I’m a huge fan of knowing your partner … being able to share over time, in an appropriate way, the things that had the biggest impact on us,” she said.

She cautions that veterans might not be able to disclose everything, and new spouses should be aware of that too. Fraser adds that veterans can alert their new spouses to potentially tough anniversaries, such as that of the loss of a friend during combat, without sharing every detail. 

Address different communication styles

Fraser tells a story about a veteran-civilian couple who “divorced over the dishwasher.” The 25-year veteran couldn’t see that there might be other “right” ways. Working in a field where the chain of command is the law can lead to inflexible thinking.

“For good reason — that’s what they’ve lived in boot camp. You don’t get to go, ‘Boss, there might be another way.’ In combat, you don’t go, ‘Mmmm, maybe we should do it differently,’ ” she explained. At the same time, a veteran might have high standards of cleanliness, order and punctuality and struggle with a civilian partner who puts less stress on these things.

“We are talking about psychologically conditioned patterns of behavior. … It can be changed, but it takes motivation and repetition.”

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Avoid stereotyping. Opt for awareness instead

The sometimes excessive media focus on issues such as homelessness, suicide, substance abuse and PTSD in connection with veterans, Fraser argues, means there’s often a public misconception that they’re “challenged and struggling people.”

Entering a marriage with an understanding of the truth behind the stereotypes can help you recognize problems if they arise, but it can also increase your sensitivity around the stereotypes your loved one is working against much of the time.

With this, and with other veteran-related topics, Fraser reminds her clients that they are a “couple first, veteran second” in all facets.

Bottom line

Follow your heart, but also use your head. For those remarrying, the Military Officers Association of America offers a useful guide. Self-awareness and choosing laughter over differences can go a long way to help.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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