There’s a unique kind of one-upmanship competition between military spouses and loved ones. It’s more prevalent than any friendly ribbing between the military branches, and more vicious than any military insult. I call it the Martyr Olympics, and it goes like this.
One military spouse voices a common complaint. Perhaps their service member has been gone a long time, or is missing an important holiday, or something big has broken around the house and they have to handle it alone. These things happen in every military family, so anyone who has been connected to the military for longer than 10 minutes can probably relate. But instead of offering a sympathetic ear or a helping hand, fellow military spouses are more likely to offer comments like this:
“That’s not so bad, my spouse once deployed for twice that long, and we didn’t even get video calls!”
“Stop crying about it, my soldier has missed all of my birthdays and four of our anniversaries!”
“What’s the big deal? Let me tell you about the time things broke at my house!”
“Well, that’s military life. You better get used to it or you are not going to last long.”
Seriously, why is it that the one community that should be most understanding of military life challenges is usually the same community that is so critical of its own? Why is there so much competition between military spouses and loved ones? Military spouses expect to be misunderstood by civilian neighbors and sometimes by their own families. But when they dare to vent their frustrations to fellow military spouses, it’s because they think it will be a safe and sympathetic place where they can be honest. When they are instead greeted by these aggressive or competitive statements, all they hear is, “You aren’t worthy. Your pain doesn’t matter.”
Competition Between Military Spouses is Natural
I’m sure no one sets out on purpose to make others feel this way. Competition isn’t a problem that is unique to the military community. Pissing contests have existed throughout human history. People used to tell stories of “walking through the snow to school… going uphill both ways.” In the modern age, this type of competitive pain has fueled the competition between stay-at-home moms and working parents. It is the same type of one upmanship pain that is discussed when moms compare birthing stories. No matter how difficult your own birth experience was, there is sure to be someone who will quickly tell you that they delivered without medication, or spent a month in the NICU, or gave birth during deployment in a hurricane. When we encourage competition between military spouses, instead of diffusing pain, all we do is increase competition, suffering, and the overwhelming loneliness in the military community.
Perhaps competition is part of human nature. It’s difficult to bite your tongue when you hear someone complain about going through a problem you consider to be trivial. That doesn’t excuse this competitive aspect of military life, but it does help explain it. When you are carrying a heavy burden of emotional suffering, everyone around you appears to have a lighter load. If you hear someone loudly complain that they can barely handle their own struggles (which appear so much easier than yours) you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I get it. I’ve been there. Although there are many times I have bitten my tongue and tried to be understanding, there are other moments when I’m guilty of an internal eye roll or a snarky comment afterwards. If we’re honest, I’m sure we are all guilty of sometime being less sympathetic than we could be.
What can we do about competition between military spouses?
For years, I have been running a Deployment support group on Facebook called Handle Deployment Like a Boss. There are thousands of members, all either preparing for a military deployment or currently experiencing one. We purposely keep the community a very supportive and safe place to be honest, ask questions, and vent. The members all see it as a breath of fresh air on the internet, where they can share their struggles and discover that they aren’t the only ones feeling that way.
And yet, even in a supportive, encouraging community, we still sometimes struggle with this Deployment Olympics problem. People want to compare and compete and top each other with the ultimate worst story ever. So here’s the facts, something we all need to keep in mind in those moments when it’s hard to bite your tongue.
Suffering is relative. Your pain does not negate someone else’s difficulties. Just because you are going through something difficult doesn’t mean other people can’t also be struggling. Likewise, just because someone else voices their struggles doesn’t mean they are diminishing yours. There is no limit on pain, so acknowledging someone else’s doesn’t take away your piece of the pie. What appears to be a small problem to you may be the biggest struggle someone else has ever faced. So be kind instead of competitive.
No matter how long, Gone is Gone. We all miss our service member when they are away. There is no minimum amount of time before someone is “allowed” to miss their loved one. It doesn’t matter if it’s training or deployment, or which branch they are with. It doesn’t matter how long they are gone or what communication options you have. And it doesn’t matter if you are dating, engaged, married, or have kids. Every time a loved one is gone, it is difficult. So don’t laugh at someone struggling with a weekend apart. Even if you have gone six months on your own, your experience has nothing to do with theirs.
You can’t see someone else’s struggles. We never know the invisible burdens people carry, especially when we only interact with them online or through social media. You can’t see mental health issues like depression or anxiety attacks. You can’t tell when someone has been through a miscarriage, lost a family member, or survived a health scare. You never know what incredible baggage they acquired in their past relationships. So if it seems like someone is over-reacting to something that you have handled before, or if they are crumbling under the slightest inconvenience, give them some grace. You might just be witnessing the straw that is finally breaking their back.
Military loved ones, let’s stop the competition between military spouses and loved ones. Let’s stop comparing our struggles to each other. Let’s stop the one upmanship among military families. Instead, practice patience and understanding. Let’s focus on supporting each other. You can make a difference by being that listening ear and sympathetic shoulder to cry on. There is no winner when we compete for the most painful experience. But we can win when we all lift each other up, showing each other grace and courage.