FORT KNOX, Ky. – Marriage is full of challenges – and when one or both spouses serve in the military, an entire set of additional and unique hardships can occur.
My husband and I are celebrating our 14-year anniversary next week. Today, however, is a different anniversary for him: his 19th as an active duty Soldier.
Through our years as partners, we have moved 10 times and to seven different states. We’ve brought two children into the world and been through three combat deployments that totaled 33 months – not to mention the countless trainings he’s had to spend away from home as well.
Needless to say, we’ve had some stressful times over the course of our marriage.
One thing we’ve found that has helped us achieve a better understanding of not only each another, but also ourselves, has been Strong Bonds retreats. These experiences have provided us a great deal of insight, recognition of both who we are as individuals and a couple, and tools we can use to improve communication.
The Strong Bonds program is designed to strengthen Army Families by providing relationship education and skills training in a retreat or “get away” environment. This past weekend we attended our second retreat, which was at the Marriott at RiverCenter in Cincinnati, Ohio. Our previous one was at Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, Tennessee.
The setting can oftentimes be just as impactful as the retreat itself. Allowing Families to enjoy a weekend in a hotel at no cost to them, away from the normal atmosphere of their everyday life sets them up for success from the beginning.
Upon arrival we were met with the sprawling atrium of the hotel lobby, soaring 14 floors up to the glass ceiling, filling the open area with light. I couldn’t help feeling a sense of calm already. From my previous retreat experience, I know I need to have a clear mind if I’m going to ensure I get the most out of it.
I have to be focused on the love I have for my spouse and the desire to better our relationship.
After we checked in, we signed our two children into the care center room, which offers parents a worry-free option for childcare while they concentrate on the teachings. Knowing our kids were in capable hands just a few steps away granted us the ability to be centered on each other.
Once inside our conference room, we met Army Chaplain (Maj.) Todd Claypool who has been hosting Strong Bonds retreats for many years. Just like the chaplain at our first retreat, Claypool addressed everyone with a friendly and enthusiastic approach.
The room was very diverse. There were both newlyweds and long-term partners, dual Army and one-Soldier Families, those with children and without, and many other differences throughout.
It became clear that every couple – regardless of background – would be able to take something away from this experience that could enhance their relationship.
A key point of discussion was the importance of effective communication and what that looks like. We went over the speaker/listener technique when dealing with a disagreement, which is comprised of one person sharing their thoughts, the other listening and then paraphrasing what they heard, then trading positions so each takes turns in their roles.
One of my greatest takeaways from the weekend, however, was realizing just how much stress my husband and I have been under the last year – and that’s not even taking the pandemic into account. After completing a stress-level assessment and seeing our scores in black and white, we were able to recognize how much grace we need to giving each other and even more so, ourselves.
In addition to our learning time at the retreat, there was also a great deal of free time to enjoy exploring the area. The hotel was located right on the Ohio riverfront with easy access to downtown Cincinnati. With Reds baseball games scheduled the nights we were there, and the field directly across the river from the hotel, we were even able to enjoy a fireworks show right outside our window.
When my husband first told me we had the option of signing up for a Strong Bonds a few weeks ago, I couldn’t get my ‘yes’ out fast enough. Considering how much I’ve come away with, I can only hope this won’t be our last retreat.
This was, however, the last one for Chaplain Claypool who is preparing to retire from the Army. He said knowing how Strong Bonds can truly save marriages, there is one thing he’ll miss most:
“Seeing people’s faces light up when they get that ‘Ah-ha moment’ and realize ‘I can do that,’” said Claypool. “They learn a healthy way to cope and as husband and wife, they can be more fully themselves.”
As Claypool prepares to pass the torch to the next generation of chaplains, he offered a final message of encouragement to all military couples – one I agree is the best advice.
“Go, please. Take advantage. Take it seriously. Put the hard work into it,” said Claypool. “It’s all about what you do with it.”
Editor’s note: More information about Strong Bonds retreats is available HERE.