Ah, Valentine’s Day. What does February 14th mean to you this year? A day of romance and passion with a person you love? A day of ignoring the fact that you don’t have a date? A day of pining away over someone who apparently doesn’t love you back? A day of spending time with someone new and special? A day of being annoyed at the commercialization of love? A day of hoping to meet another’s expectations? A day ended with a content sigh of relief as you rest your head beside your soul mate? Or is it just a day that falls between Sunday and Tuesday?
For members of the military, February 14th may meet any of the above criteria, but there are also some unique challenges to this day of expected romance as well. For someone who is married and deployed, the options are limited as to making the holiday special for the spouse who is back home. The easiest thing to do is to go online ahead of time and order flowers to be delivered on Valentine’s Day. Sometimes I suggest this to Troops because, let’s face it, it’s not as though ordering roses or lilies is the first thing on someone’s mind who is living in a combat zone. When you’re deployed overseas and everyday is Wednesday, as we said in Afghanistan, it truly is difficult to remember what day of the week it is, much less to remember what holiday is coming up next week. And I’m sure it’s happening to someone in Iraq or Afghanistan right this very second (um, and also in Savannah, Georgia or Arlington, Virginia, let’s be honest): There’s a guy eating in a chow hall or sitting in an armored vehicle or something and suddenly it hits him. A feeling of dread or sheer terror washes over him and he stops dead in his tracks and says, “$#@! I forgot Valentine’s Day!” And just as sure as that, there will be a spouse or girlfriend back in the comforts of her home in the States who will be griping at him on his next 30-minute phone call with the annoying voice delay.
So just ordering the flowers to be delivered way in advance is a great idea and is inexpensive and stress-free. There are also things that can be done ahead of time such as wrapping a gift and hiding it before leaving for the deployment and then calling or sending a letter with hints as to where it is and that it’s to be opened on Valentine’s Day. I’ve also suggested to clients to have a friend or family member shop on their behalf. For families, it may also be fun to have the kids “in on” the surprise for mom or dad and have them help to purchase the gift, wrap it, or present it.
For Troops who are preparing for a deployment, Valentine’s Day may be stressful or confusing. There may be a tendency to either desperately cling to a new relationship for fear it may not last until the end of the deployment, or to end a relationship prematurely due to the same fear. Emotions are often high just before and after a deployment due to various stressors, so this isn’t the best time to make any relationship decisions—much less to get engaged or married or to end a relationship. But over the years I’ve definitely seen it happen—a Service Member is about to deploy so a drastic change suddenly takes place in the relationship. Last year, in regard to dating, I took the stance of, “I can’t get too close to anyone since I’ll be deploying soon.” But that didn’t keep me from receiving a beautiful bouquet of flowers and an invitation to an amazing restaurant for a five-course dinner when Valentine’s weekend rolled around. So I wasn’t sitting at home stuffing my face with a box of chocolates and watching Steel Magnolias or anything. But I definitely had a deliberate roadblock up that prevented me from having a meaningful relationship. So Valentine’s was just another day of the week, only the dates put forth a bit more effort to no avail.
For Troops just returning from a deployment, Valentine’s Day can be just as stressful as romantic. There may be a feeling of pressure to meet high expectations whether it be in gift-giving or intimacy. Many Troops have shared with me over the years that sometimes things in a relationship just feel “off” for a while which can be misinterpreted by lack of love or a change in personality or behavior. The key to this is just to relax and not place one’s own desires upon the other person. Talking openly about the “off” feelings can help if done appropriately and respectfully. Not placing the pressure on the returning person to immediately resume what life was like pre-deployment is extremely helpful. Returning from a deployment can also be exciting or refreshing in a relationship too though, and if this is the case Valentine’s Day is a great opportunity for a couple to have a romantic weekend together or a quiet weekend at home reuniting. I’ve known people who enjoy the honeymoon-like reunion phase every other year or so and they say it keeps their relationship feeling new and exciting.
For single Troops returning from a deployment, things can be stressful as well because people they may have shown interest in prior to the deployment disappeared from their lives while they were gone (by not communicating, etc.) and suddenly reappear once they know the Service Member is back from the deployment. This can be confusing or even frustrating or hurtful for the person returning because they may feel the person ignored or abandoned them while they were away, but now are in communication again since it’s more convenient. This may even cause the person to question another’s motives. Often when on a deployment, Troops’ feelings toward people in their lives change because they’ve seen whether or not the people were dependable, reliable, communicative, supportive, attentive, or “too busy” to email or send encouragement.
This year I’m a returning single Soldier who is spending Valentine’s Day going to Army in-processing appointments (such as the finance office, going to the dentist, getting my badge for work). But afterward, once I’m home, I’ll change out of my Army green uniform and into something more feminine for my date. I’ll be spending time with someone who was constantly supportive of me while I was deployed overseas, who never let me feel forgotten, and who has been very positive and uplifting to me during my transition back to the “real world.” It feels great to be home again among friends and family who’ve made it crystal clear they love me; energizing to be starting a new position in exciting Washington, D.C.; and wonderful to be able to relax on this February 14th and share the evening with someone I know will make it fun and meaningful. So Valentine’s Day to me this year means something new: Enjoying the day and not taking the gifts it brings for granted.
Natosha Monroe is a counselor and PhD candidate passionate about increasing Troop access to counseling services. Her blog contents are not representative of the Army or Department of Defense in any way.