Ask a Military Spouse: Should I Marry Him?

Wedding rings

I got an email this week from a college student studying neurobiology who is engaged to a Navy guy. After researching possible locations where they might be stationed, the student said she was really struggling. Her question for me was whether she should change her major in order to accommodate their upcoming moves.

I keep thinking that her question ought to have been: Should I marry him at all?

That is a shocker for me to think, much less to say. I am all about the ability of military families to adapt and overcome. Yet I cannot say with conviction that love can permanently overcome the drive for meaningful work. I cannot say that because someone loves you they will leave the military when you want them to and they will be happy about it. I cannot say that because you love someone in uniform that you can make a job as a neurobiologist magically appear in Kuwait, Guam or Pensacola.

I wish I could. But that would not be true. If the first lady’s recent focus on spouse employment has shown anything, it has crystallized the fact that finding work when you move every 2.5 years is not easy. Military spouses, who tend to be better educated than the average U.S. population, have a 26% unemployment rate. Husbands of service members earn about 70% of their matched civilian counterparts. Military wives earn about 50% of what matched civilian wives earn.

Those figures are depressing and discouraging -- especially when you are in love. Both military finances and military members alike need to look at those numbers hard. Love is not a rational decision. Marriage is. So I wish this student and her fiance would consider these ideas:

One person cannot provide another person’s complete happiness. According to neurobiologists, the cocaine-like brain response of true love lasts from three months to four years. So even if we assume that your particular love addiction will keep you going for the full four years, it will eventually stop. It is not right to ask anyone -- including that fabulous young military member -- to be the sole source of your happiness.  

Admit your true level of career commitment. Expect it to change. Servicemembers are notoriously unable to predict/admit whether they will stay in for the full 20. Twenty years is a really, really long time. A lot can happen. Bosses that spit at you. Sexual harassment can wear away at you. You have children. Your particular rate or MOS can become obsolete. If you think there is as much as a 50/50 chance you will make the military your career,  or if you are a spouse who knows that your career demands that you stay in the same location, that MUST be factored into the decision to marry because the military is not a job you can easily quit.

The educational attainment of a spouse is a mixed blessing. The research shows that spouses who have completed their bachelor’s degree are more likely to be employed -- whether that is because they have student loans to pay or that they are more employable is not clear -- but they are more likely to find employment. Yet, the research also shows that the higher the spouse’s level of education, the more likely he or she is to perceive a negative impact from moving.

You will move and your moves will be unpredictable. Unless the entire military is condensed down to a single base, unpredictable moves at every level of a career are the norm.

Military marriage is a choice. When I married my Navy guy, my future career was not anywhere near as important as being with him every possible minute. It is now. Over the years, my husband and I have made a lot of compromises to get meaningful work for us both. We choose the military every day. We choose each other. And that is a powerful place to be.

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