Life at a U.S. combatant command can be stressful. At U.S. Africa Command, staff members work and live in a foreign country but support missions on another continent. They are frequently engaged in events in Africa, where most have never traveled. They are required to find a balance between an operational tempo that frequently requires long hours and coordination with people from different cultures who speak different languages in support of seemingly never-ending contingency missions, still maintain physical readiness standards and last but hopefully not least, devote time to a home life. For the majority of the AFRICOM staff, home life includes a spouse and children with their own sets of stressors. Good communication skills support a work-home life balance and are important in combating stress.
Creating a foundation of communication is critical to the military marriage. With technology’s ever advancing state of being connected, to work, school or friends, it’s important for couples to unplug and focus on one another.
“When each person works to put their spouse's needs ahead of their own, the relationship becomes one characterized by loving and giving, rather than by selfishness and taking,” said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) James Paulson, AFRICOM Deputy Command Chaplain.
Leaders understand that the U.S. military is strong because a key element supporting our force is the military family. Just as the Services have many programs dedicated to sustain the readiness of military families, U.S. Africa Command also recognized a need to create its own event to help families communicate.
More than 30 AFRICOM families spent three days at the Edelweiss Lodge and Resort in Garmisch, Germany, for the second annual Family Resiliency Program, hosted by the AFRICOM Chaplain’s Office, 24 through 26 January. Chaplain Paulson was the event speaker and shared personal experiences as well as lessons designed to teach techniques about communicating with your spouse and strengthening the bonds of matrimony.
“Each of us tends to think of ourselves as 'right'. Since our spouse's view often differs, we automatically assess their view as 'wrong'. However, listening and understanding typically reveals that it is simply 'different',” said Paulson.
Understanding and valuing the differences between men and women, how we respond to one another, and how those actions are perceived by your spouse can heavily impact the level of tension that can build up between a husband and wife.
During the conference sessions, many of these differences were highlighted during games in which all the husbands moved to one side of the room and all the wives were on the other. Each side had a large easel pad and marker, a statement about men or women was posted on the projector screens and the husbands had to list the pros and the wives listed the cons. After a few laughs, another statement was posted and the assignments were swapped; husbands list the cons and wives list the pros.
"We must understand that feelings are involuntary; they come to us unbidden. This means you must not say, 'Well, that's not what I said so you shouldn't feel that way!' When we understand and value our differences, it can turn the irritation into appreciation," said Paulson.
Many couples enjoyed the opportunity to have discussions which they probably wouldn't have had without a lesson. Several were reminded of the values, strengths, and weaknesses of their connection by the use of “knee-to-knee and eye-to-eye” time in which couples faced one another and use the skills learned to discuss their differences.
“The three hour sessions were not too long and the format was right on point where it kept us engaged; example would be instead of Chaplain Paulson talking the entire session he would transition to a video, usually a comedian who would emphasize the difference between men and women,” said Petty Officer First Class Armando Sanchez, AFRICOM Reserve Personnel Affairs. “The games also allowed us to engage with the rest of the group vs. just our spouses, again breaking up the routine.”
Supporting one another through understanding and compassion, couples can build a foundation of trust; meeting one another’s emotional needs and cooperating to accomplish the basic tasks of life to keep a family together are fundamental to a happy marriage. These stress reducing habits help strengthen our military and are essential to military readiness.
“I really enjoyed the retreat and received some helpful tools. If we have the opportunity to do it again, we will,” said Sanchez.
This was the second annual event funded by AFRICOM and this year was open to its married military officer and enlisted staff members. Childcare was also provided so couples with children could devote their attention solely upon one another during the daytime conference sessions as well as Saturday evening to allow couples the opportunity for a date night.
After the sessions, families were encouraged to take part in the various extracurricular activities available through the resort and local area, such as skiing, sledding, hiking and evening carriage rides. With snowfall every morning of the event, some simply relaxed and enjoyed the scenic views of the snow-covered Zugspitze mountain range from the resort’s outdoor hot tub.