Secrets and Marriage: When They Just Can't Talk About It

(Photo: U.S. Army)
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Part of what makes any marriage work is getting to share the ho hum, day-to-day details of life with your partner. But what if your partner works in a field that demands secrecy? What if there are secrets in your marriage because he or she simply can't tell you what is happening during the day?

While most service members can talk to their spouse openly about deployment, training in the field, or what they did at the office, those who hold special security clearances can't. And the stress that secrecy causes can be overwhelming.

And then there's the uncertainty that comes with that kind of job. Military spouses at home often do not know when their service members will be called away, deployed or where they are deployed to, much less when they are coming back. Special Operations or Special Forces troops may "only" have brief deployments lasting two to three months, but they will easily rack up to ten to fifteen deployments or more throughout their careers.

Those security clearances and job requirements come with the pressure to live completely separate lives -- a work self and a home self. Spouses are rarely able to even visit the office or building their service members works in. Meeting co-workers is difficult when the common "so what do you do?" cannot be answered. Rather than be constantly frustrated, those spouses tell me they resort to not asking about their service members' days at all.

When I hear these stories from spouses in the "special" communities, I am most concerned about the disturbing or traumatic experiences and information these service members witness but have few safe places to process, other than with co-workers who hold similar clearances. That leaves the spouses at home wondering how to help and what to say.

Drinking, infidelity and adrenaline seeking behavior are on the rise and many spouses feel hopeless in their efforts to support their service members. They wonder: if they don't know what happened, how can they even practice empathy?

While the military spouse can easily get counseling using his or her benefits, the stigma is astronomical for the service member who feels they cannot be seen going near a counselor's office. Counseling is limited to chaplains, if there is one assigned to the unit, or another resource that must have the same level of clearance in order to talk openly.

So what do couples in high-level clearance or "special" communities want and need? What can you do if your marriage is a union of three -- you, your spouse and an umbrella of secrecy?

Secrets in Marriage: Find shared moments

In my work, I've found that spouses at home tend to approach the secrecy problem in two extremes. They either connect heavily within the military spouse community for extra support or disconnect from the community altogether.

Both of these reactions are not entirely unhealthy. Finding support with others that understand your lifestyle can give you a place to feel normal when your experience feels different from the average military family. And treating it as "just a job" and blending in with the civilian community can make it easier to ignore that your spouse is off doing dangerous missions or things that can't be discussed. Creating normalcy feels like the answer.

But when it comes to marriage, couples need to find creative ways to connect that do not have anything to do with the job. One spouse told me they started planning date nights that were exciting and memorable. Doing so created opportunities to destress, have fun and provide new memories that can be talked about. Another mentioned that they found an outside charity to get involved with that gave them a sense of purpose together. Either way, shared moments that are more than a movie and dinner can provide excitement, conversation and face-to-face time.

Secrets in Marriage: Find ways to communicate anyway.

Just because you can't talk about the mission or specifics doesn't mean there aren't ways to talk through the tough stuff. Service members can talk about grief, frustration and stress without going into details that violate their clearance. Practice a daily Check-In with your spouse to communicate bigger themes. Even high-level general conversations can allow decompression for both of you even though you aren't going into the details.

Clearance in the job doesn't have to rob the intimacy from your marriage. Be more intentional with your time together and the gaps in your relationship will begin to close.

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