man in military uniform with wife and babyBy Arricca Elin SanSone
Women and men in the military are amazing-and so are their families. You may want to comment on or ask how a service member's spouse juggles everyday chores with parenting solo, infrequent phone calls from her partner in a combat zone and regular moves to new states and countries. Sometimes, though, your well-meaning words may be upsetting. Here's what never to say to a military family and what you can say instead-as well as when to say nothing. Photo by: iStock
My spouse is gone a lot for business, so I know how you feel being a single parent.
You may think you're being empathetic, but it's not a fair comparison. "These experiences aren't similar," says Barbara Van Dahlen, PhD, founder and president of Give an Hour, which helps meet the mental health needs of military and their families. "A military spouse is in significant danger, and they may not have access to a phone, email or video chatting for weeks on end." Instead of drawing parallels between your circumstances and theirs, extend your support with a specific offer to help, such as picking up his or her child from school.
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I could never do what you're doing.
While this may seem like an innocent comment, it's not the best way to show your respect. "Most military spouses don't need a reminder that they're doing something tough," says Michelle L. Kelley, PhD, professor of psychology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. "Military families don't want you to feel sorry for them, as this is a choice. Instead of saying 'poor you,' say something like, 'I appreciate what you're doing for those of us who aren't in the military.'"
How can your spouse choose to miss out on the kids' lives?
It's not easy for any parent to be away from her children, as military families are painfully aware because they endure separation after separation. "I was told I was strong to be able to leave my kids behind," says retired Army warrant officer Mo Ryan, whose husband is still on active duty at Fort Bliss, TX. "But you either feel like you're cheating work because you have children or cheating your children because you work long hours or deploy." Steer clear of comments like these because they're not helpful in any way, says Van Dahlen. And don't bother suggesting ways the deployed spouse can keep in touch with her kids-military families know all about Skype.
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Your spouse will be home before you know it.
"I assure you that this is a false statement," says Anni Grieve, a military spouse in Vilseck, Germany. Though you may be trying to encourage your friend, remember: "We feel every minute of our soldier's absence, and our children feel it as well. In the nine years we've been married, he's been deployed four times," adds Grieve. A better approach: Ask how the family stays connected while apart or if they have any special plans, such as a vacation, once they're reunited, says Kelley.
What will you do to keep busy while your husband's gone?
This is actually one of the more offensive comments. "Even if the spouse has been on her own before, this comment assumes her life isn't changing dramatically while her partner's absent," says Frederic Medway, PhD, a psychologist specializing in military families in Columbia, SC. "In fact, all the roles traditionally played by the spouse who's gone must now be taken over by the remaining spouse." Instead, say something like, "I know your responsibilities have increased tremendously. Can I bring the snack for the kids' soccer team so you don't have to do it? Or would you like me to babysit so you can run errands without the kids in tow?" Offering a specific form of help is a great way to show your support.
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At least he's not in Iraq or Afghanistan!
A deployment anywhere means a spouse isn't home; it doesn't matter where it is. And while the assignment may sound wonderful to you (say, Hawaii or Italy), it's not as cushy as you may think. "There are dangerous and sensitive missions all over the world. Just because my husband's not in the Middle East doesn't mitigate the danger, worry or any other aspect of separation," says military spouse Sunday Turner of Fort Bliss, TX. The experts' consensus: There isn't a good way to address the topic, so leave it alone.
When is he getting out?
This question presumes the service member wants to leave the military, and it makes it sound like you think service is some sort of sentence. "As an Army brat and a military spouse for nearly 20 years, this question is annoying," says Lisa Mason of Fort Eustis, VA. "We've even heard my husband must not think he can make a living doing something else. My response is that serving in the military is an honorable calling." If you're truly interested in learning more about serving, let the spouse be the expert, advises Van Dahlen. Say something like, "I'm not sure how military careers work. Can you explain?"
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Why are you moving? You just got here.
Many military families think frequent moves, especially to destinations overseas, are opportunities to see new places in a way tourists can't. Plus, moving is simply part of being a military family. "People say they don't know how I can move far away from my family, but I'm supporting my husband, who's also my family," says Megan Guinnup, a military spouse in Vilseck, Germany. "While I miss my relatives, our travels give them a chance to visit new places." On the other hand, some military families would prefer to stay put, yet they don't have a choice about when or where they'll move. "This is one of my least favorite questions," says military spouse Karen Hartless of Vicenza, Italy. "It's not as if I've enjoyed moving 12 times in 20 years." Instead of asking why they're relocating, ask about their most interesting duty stations.
Do you think he'll be home for Christmas/your son's graduation/the family reunion?
"It just doesn't work like that," says Kelley. "Even when service members are due to come home, it may not happen on schedule." If you're close to a military family, also avoid saying things such as "he's missing the family reunion again?!" They're all too aware of what their spouses are missing, and it's not your place to make them feel worse about it. "We still get asked if he'll be coming home for events, and he's been active duty for 24 years," says Vicki Inman, a military spouse in Vilseck, Germany. If you're hosting a formal event, like a wedding, invite the whole military family and let them RSVP like all the other guests. If it's an informal event, like a neighborhood block party, say something like, "If your husband can make it, we'd love to have him join us." Then leave it alone, says Kelley.
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Aren't you afraid he'll get hurt or develop post-traumatic stress syndrome?
It may be difficult to believe, but military family members say people often ask these types of questions. "Almost every military spouse has these thoughts from time to time, but you don't need to point out the dangers our loved ones face on a daily basis," says Inman. That's why experts say this area is off-limits. "Follow this rule for any conversation with a military family: If the question or comment would serve as a reminder of the risk to the service member, stay away from it," suggests Medway. If you truly want to help, learn about our military and ways to offer your support at OurMilitary.mil.Original article appeared on WomansDay.com.
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