Advice for spouses transitioning from military life

Jar on wooden table
Jar on wooden table

Advice for spouses transitioning from military life

by Stacy Roman
Stripes Europe

Be it a few years or more than 20, at some point, the military chapter of life comes to a close. The excitement, confusion, anxiety and even impatience get rolled into a tangled ball of nerve-wracking feelings. Life as you’ve known it is about to change drastically. Whether your spouse is retiring, separating or being discharged from active-duty service, there is a lot to consider. After interviewing fellow spouses who have gone through it (or are currently going through it), here are some tips to help make the process less daunting.

Start planning your future and transition early. As Melissa C. mentioned, “The day you join the military, you know you will retire (or separate) at some point.” It’s never too early to start planning your post-military life. Financial preparedness, narrowing down possible new career options and locations in advance can make it easier to plan. Of course, things are bound to change, but it will give you a good jumping-off point when the retirement or separation papers are submitted.

Take advantage of the programs offered. When the service member is getting ready to head into civilian life, there are a plethora of programs offered to help with the transition. Sign up to attend some of these workshops with your spouse. The transition assistance program (TAP) through the various helping agencies is a great place to start. Many spouses who have attended these classes stated it was one of the best resources they found. The Department of Labor also offers the Transition Employment Assistance for Military Spouses (TEAMS). Most workshops are free and open to transitioning military spouses. They are also available online to complete at your convenience.

Manage expectations. It’s easy to have a fairytale vision of how post-military life will be. No deployments, more stability and breathing room. However, once you get into the thick of the transition process and a few months or years go by, reality can be quite different from what you expected. As one spouse said, “Stay flexible with expectations.” Christina T. agreed, “We are mid-process, and I would say my expectations change daily.”

The infamous ZERO paycheck and pay changes. For many active-duty service members, paydays were reliable at the beginning and middle of every month. Once the transition to retirement or separation begins, your financial picture may get cloudier. For those retiring, the first expected pension payment may take longer than expected. Services often audit financial records to ensure everything is current and up-to-date, leading to a $0 paycheck the month after the last date of service. Retirement pay is also paid only once a month, not twice. According to Nickey M., “The adjustment to one paycheck per month takes some time to get used to.”

Health care will change. A good majority of military families utilize the Tricare health care system. Once the transition to post-service life begins, health care choices become different. Your spouse is no longer bound to Tricare. Should you choose to continue with them, there are various plans you can pick. However, many civilian employers also offer medical benefits through other providers. Depending on your geographic location, the VA may have clinics or hospitals nearby.

The itch to relocate. For some, planting your proverbial roots in one spot after the military is straightforward. For others, the itch to move after just two years in one location is very real (and completely normal). For Amey R., her husband felt unrest after living in one place for more than four years. “I think the big thing when my husband retired, granted I was still on active duty, was the feeling you had to move in three or four years.” Janet A. added, “I was so used to moving every two years or so that I felt the need to move furniture, paint, rearrange, etc. In fact, I’m in the middle of doing that again.”

Feelings of longing and belonging. Good or bad, the military community is full of camaraderie and people who have gone through shared experiences. When it’s time to close this chapter, it can be hard to leave it. Stephanie V. says, “We were fortunate enough to end our time while being stationed overseas and got to do so much with our fellow military families. From there, we went to being alone with just our little household. We missed our old life immediately, but it fades. Now we just live our normal adult lives and remember some ‘good old day’ moments.”

Finding a second career. A good majority of transition active-duty members seek employment on the other side, which poses its own set of challenges. “From a spouse perspective, you think ‘Oh, no problem . . . get another job.’ But if the military is all they’ve ever known, it’s not a cut and dry process. Finding a job is new for them, with the intricacies of interviewing, posting their resume, indicating salary requirements and more,” says Kathy D. “It’s a tense time. Just have patience and offer help, but don’t overstep,” adds Sara M.

Your relationship will change. Filled with lengthy deployments, long days at work and extended TDYs probably meant a lot of time away from each other. You’ve likely gotten used to having your own schedule and doing your own thing. It can get a little awkward when your spouse is suddenly all up in your business. As Sara M. told her spouse, “The reason our marriage works so well is that you went and did. Now you’re around 24/7, we’ve got to have something to chat about, so go and do.” If you can, take time off between active duty and the start of post-service life. It can allow you to get to know each other as you are now and strengthen your communication.

Once the active-duty chapter of your life closes, give yourself time, grace and breathing room to wrestle through the challenges of transitioning back into the civilian world.

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