Army 101 / Autobiography / Histrionics

Secrets, secrets are no fun

…unless you share with everyone. Or, more accurately, unless you share with half a dozen people, and then within two weeks strangers are congratulating you on your secret marriage.

Confession: When Jonathan and I had our wedding in September, it was just that–a wedding. But it was not a real marriage. Technically, by the time we had our wedding, we had been legally married for over a year.

Court house wedding kiss

SURPRISE. Sort of.

So…long story short…I lied. If this is the first time somebody has lied to you on the internet, you clearly didn’t have AOL chat rooms when you were 12.

For those of you with military backgrounds, you’re probably not surprised. Jonathan and I got engaged six months or so before he deployed and, as I quickly learned, pre-deployment shotgun marriages are pretty run of the mill in the military. For many reasons, which I will try to explain later but probably not well, because I’m nervous about admitting most of the things in this post.

Because, if you’ll remember, I do not have a military background. And when I realized that being legally married before the deployment was for practical reasons the best decision, for emotional reasons I went completely haywire.

Let’s back up a little.

When I met Jonathan, my expectations about him were nonexistent. We came from and lived in very separate worlds, and soon those worlds would be hundreds–then thousands–of miles away. I was fresh out of college and he was fresh out of basic training, and we were both still finding ourselves; I was doing so with a semi-corporate city life, and he was doing so with his first deployment to Afghanistan. We were not in an easy or traditional place to start a relationship, and the potential problems with doing so were endless.

So we didn’t. At least not on purpose.

He deployed in January, and by the summer I found myself in an exclusive relationship with somebody who was halfway across the world, being actively bombed by terrorists, and who I had spent maybe six in-person hours with in my entire life. The whole thing was terrifying. And embarrassing. Like dreaming that you showed up to school in nothing but your underwear, and then waking up with a relieved start, only to realize that you’d fallen asleep at the train station and you actually ARE in nothing but your underwear, and you have no idea how you got there, where you’re going, or why you didn’t feel the need to put on clothes first. It’s not a situation you ever expected to be in, but now that you’re in it (and mostly naked), you have to figure out why you’re there and if you still want to go wherever you were going (mostly naked), or if you want to go home and put on some pants.

During the next three years, there were maybe a hundred times I wanted to go home and put on my pants. But I never did. I stayed on that journey, metaphorically nude and realistically terrified, until I ended up here. And of course, now that I have my clothes back on, it’s easy to say that all the fear and embarrassment were worth it. But in that cloud of fear and embarrassment, nothing was perfectly clear.

When Jonathan came home from his first deployment, I thought we were going to break up. Not because we weren’t falling in love, but because it felt foolish to fall in love with someone I only knew through phone static and blurry internet pixels. What if, when we finally spent real-life time together, we didn’t like each other? What if, after the year-long deployment’s stagnation, neither of us were able to handle a relationship that had to move forward?

I drove the 12 hours from Maryland to Fort Campbell that first time, for his welcome home ceremony, in a tangible panic. Twelve hours in a car, alone, to realize over and over again that I was going somewhere I didn’t know, to do something completely foreign, for a man I’d only seen twice.

It sounded like an episode of “Dateline.”

The good news after Jonathan’s first welcome home ceremony was that he did not chop me up into little pieces and throw my dismembered body into a lake. And also that, despite the fears and embarrassments, I was just as in love with him in real life as I was in the airwaves. The bad news was that I had to go back to my life in DC, and he had to go back to his stateside life in Fort Campbell. And we had to go back to static and pixels, with no end to the distance in sight.

It doesn’t take long in a long-distance relationship to realize that the distance, eventually, has to lessen. But, as the time slowly passed, it didn’t feel more like the right thing to do. Jonathan could not leave Fort Campbell (that’s called going AWOL, and it’s really frowned upon/illegal). And I could not justify leaving my life and my job for someone who I still had not spent much time with, who was in a place with few to no professional opportunities for me. It may not have sounded like “Dateline” anymore, but at best it was a bad movie based on a book by Nicholas Sparks. I didn’t want to be some silly, naive girl, blindly following her heart and shredding her life to shambles in the process.

So we just…waited. And we hopped on planes to see each other when we could afford it. We drove to see each other when we couldn’t. And then we waited some more. Two years passed extremely slowly. And then I found out, for sure, that Jonathan would be deploying again.

When you’re in a long-distance relationship with someone who is in the military, marriage is going to come up. Because, unlike in a civilian one, in a military long-distance relationship a lot of your logistical relationship problems can be easily solved with marriage. Can’t find a job near your boyfriend’s army post? No problem! If you go ahead and marry that boyfriend, the army will give him extra money each month to support you while you job search. Can’t find a place to live because you moved to the middle of nowhere without a job, and your boyfriend’s tiny soldier salary can’t support rent costs? No problem! If you get married, the army will automatically give him Basic Allowance for Housing, regardless of his rank or time served. Afraid your boyfriend is about to deploy? No problem! Marry him, and you’ll get a bunch of dollar signs to help you deal with it, known as “separation pay.”

And here’s the big one: Your boyfriend is about to deploy again, and you have no way to know where his unit is, if he is alive, or when you can be there to welcome him home? NO PROBLEM. If you get married, the army will give you access to his unit’s Family Readiness Group–a coalition of officials and spouses specifically designed to help the flow of important information regarding your soldier reach you.

When I found out that FRGs existed, I suddenly realized why Jonathan’s first deployment had been so difficult: because we weren’t married. As his girlfriend, I had access to nothing–no information about when he might come home; no information about how to reach him or how to help him; no information about whether he was alive, and not even a phone call if he were dead. This was extremely frustrating. But it became even more frustrating when I realized that access to this information actually existed, and I couldn’t have it without getting married.

I understand the OPSEC behind this. I do. Marriage comes with a lot of legal rights regarding the person you marry and, in the military, this is heightened. As I learned more about the rights and responsibilities that come with being an army wife, I began to understand more why there’s such a big fuss about being an army wife. And why the army gives you so many incentives to get married.

Do I think these incentives pressure soldiers into marrying young, or irresponsibly, or before they’re ready? Yes. And I sincerely wish it’s something all branches of the military would address, to prevent the amount of heartache and trouble it causes. I was well aware of these pitfalls, and extremely cautious of stumbling into them.

Luckily, Jonathan and I were not straight-out-of-high-school 18-year-olds when we met. We had a few years’ benefit of real life and bad examples to give us caution. And, thanks to my inhuman ability to analyze something until it is completely dead, by the time Jonathan proposed, I was sure I wanted to marry him. This was huge for me, because marrying him didn’t just mean spending the rest of my life with one specific person without killing him; it meant completely altering the path my life was on, and figuring out how to be happy and successful on this new path, which was lined with unknowns and rapid-cycling bipolar changes. I am someone who likes to be completely grounded at all times, so to take a leap of faith like this, I had to be completely sure it was the right one.

Of course, I wasn’t completely sure. Because that would have involved traveling to the future, and physics was never my thing. But I was sure I wanted to marry Jonathan, and that decision decided the rest.

For many months, I thought he was going to propose after he came back from his second deployment. So when it became apparent that he was planning to propose before he left, my stability faltered. It would not be enough time to plan a wedding before he shipped out. It would not be enough time to stay comfortably in the limbo of being engaged. We would not have the chance to live together first, or to figure out all the important things about each other that living together first forces you to figure out. We, realistically, had only been together for two and a half years, and one of those years we spent in different countries. It just didn’t feel like enough…time.

And that’s the thing about the military: There is never enough time. Change happens constantly and rapidly, whether you’re ready for it or not.

So we decided to get married elopement style before he left, but wait for the big wedding until after he came back. Just because the military forces you to move quickly doesn’t mean that the wedding industry gives a shit about you or your stressed timeline. Because it really, really doesn’t. (The number of vendor forms I signed reminding me that if Jonathan died in Afghanistan, they still got to keep my deposit, was staggering.)

Court house wedding

I am short.

By getting married before Jonathan’s deployment, we had access not only to the financial incentives that come with a military marriage (which are exaggerated during a deployment), but also to the practical incentives that come with all legal marriages. I would be able to move to Fort Campbell and find a place for us to live without Jonathan needing to be there. It would be easier for me to do things like renew his vehicle registration and pay his bills when he didn’t have access to a computer. I would be notified immediately if he was blown up. I’d be able to be there, on time, without his help, for his welcome home ceremony. After which I could take him to an actual home for the first time in years.

Intellectually, this made sense. But emotionally, it felt like a catastrophe. I’d only just learned that getting married before you get married is common in the military (and especially so in this situation). So I wasn’t prepared for its impact on my how-things-should-go timeline, or on my wedding day–the day I’d stereotypically dreamed about since childhood. That wedding day, I felt, would now be a lie, or a facade. It wouldn’t count. The day that would count would, instead, be the one when we drove 1.5 miles to the court house in Arlington and paid too much for parking because it was 97 degrees outside, and then walked to a civil servant’s office across the street where we signed our marriage certificate in the sub-basement of a building that may have been built in the 1960s, and definitely smelled like it was.

I wasn’t ready to let the dream of my wedding day go. And I was, again, embarrassed to be marrying somebody who I still had not spent enough time with. So, by refusing to tell anybody except our immediate family and closest friends about the court house marriage, I tried to trick myself into believing I could still have that perfect, normal wedding dream, a year later and unchanged.

But after that it got sort of tricky. Because, you know what’s a difficult secret to keep? THAT YOU GOT MARRIED. Even if it wasn’t a perfect Bride Magazine day, it’s a big life thing. A big life thing that you’re excited about. That you want to celebrate. With everyone. Even strangers. So eventually you tell a few more people. Then they tell a few more people. Then your name change goes through and you have to update your financial forms at work, and at the bank, and your driver’s license and all your mail, and it gets even trickier.

By our wedding day, I think 99% of the people at our wedding knew we were already married. But they very politely did not bring it up.

In hindsight, it feels ridiculous that I tried to keep this a secret. It made the situation into a big, boisterous deal, which was the opposite of what I wanted. In hindsight, I wish all our friends and family could have heard about it outright, from Jonathan and me, rather than from a vague Facebook post written by an acquaintance who somehow found out and didn’t realize it was a secret, because marriages really shouldn’t be secret unless they’re illegal. Because technically that’s tax fraud, and you don’t really want to go around announcing that.

Court house wedding

Side note: Did you know that the civil servant marrying you can still ask you to say vows? I thought we were just going to sign a piece of paper, write a check, and leave. I was not prepared for the “better or worse” part yet, so I did what I always do when I get really nervous or upset: I laughed the entire way through the vows. Jonathan was not pleased.

Did already being married make my wedding day less special? Honestly…no. What it did, instead, was take some of the pressure off. I do not understand how most women are able to deal with the planning side of the wedding while also dealing with the nervous side of getting married. If I’d had to deal with my wedding-day crises on top of the general giddy nausea I felt the day I actually got married, I would have been a total wreck. In hindsight (because that’s the theme of all this, really), it was nice to have a wedding day that was small, private, and just for us, in addition to a big party day for all our friends and family. I ended up getting the best of both worlds. And two white dresses, one of which I’ve already worn again.

What are your thoughts on having a “secret” marriage? Do you know anybody who has done it? Were you really mean to them in blog comments? Because you shouldn’t be. They’ve been through a lot.

P.S. I really do want to apologize if you’re a friend or family member reading this, and you did not know about the secret-not-secret marriage. The good news for you is that you are only required to remember the one anniversary. On which you can go get some ice cream. On us. Check’s in the mail.

36 thoughts on “Secrets, secrets are no fun

  1. I dated a soldier for three years (including a deployment), and we were talking about getting married soon until… lo and behold! Turns out he was already IN a secret marriage. I’m so glad to hear that yours worked out much better. I’m uber practical as well and see absolutely nothing wrong with the way you went about it, and have plenty of friends who got married pre-deployment and had a wedding afterward. Real marriages = awesome. (BAH marriages = good riddance, dude.)

    • Oh my God…for real? That really could be an episode of “Dateline.” I’m glad you got through (and out of) that relationship, and if there’s any local billboard space available I will donate for one of that guy’s face with the caption “this is why we can’t have nice things.”

  2. My first impression is that you were pretty brave to put this out there, considering the lingering fear of backlash or hurt feelings. For us, we were SO over the long distance thing. But the long distance thing wasn’t over us. When we sent out the invitations, a whole half of our world (Canada) had a hard time making it to the wedding. We really wanted to involve them in the celebrations, though, so we did what we thought was right–we invited them to a reception in Canada 3 weeks after the wedding. Well… oops! It was a back yard shindig and I tried to push the casual-ness of the 2nd reception by using a different font and clip art, but some of our Canadian relatives showed up in formalwear expecting a wedding instead of a party =/ Add to that the fact that a lot of cards got lost in the international mail and it was generally a mess. Some of our thank-you’s didn’t go through, so they thought we were ungrateful. One of our new relatives realized we didn’t cash her check and thought we refused it….. then it arrived in the mail, we thanked her for it, but she said it was expired, so we didn’t cash but we sent a thank you card anyway. She was confused by the thank you and thought we wanted the money and so she sent a replacement check. @_@; We got married in May and it got here yesterday.

    Gotta love love, though, right? It makes all that jazz totally worth it.

    • Holy cow. Talk about good intentions paving the road to hell. So sorry you had to deal with that big mess! I feel like it’s impossible to get married without offending at least a few people; it was something I struggled with during our big wedding as well as our secret one. I’ve always felt like weddings are a) personal and b) expensive. With those things in mind, I don’t expect to be invited to weddings of friends or relatives who I do not actively keep in touch with. I wish we could all just go forward with this courtesy, and realize that brides and grooms are doing their best (usually) to be polite, but to enjoy their marriage and the happiness that comes with it.

      • Right! It was super duper expensive, and then it rained so we couldn’t even get married outside. Now that we’re 8-9 months in, though, we’re just happy to be married 😀 It opens up so many more nick name possibilities… just yesterday, I got away with calling him “hubby-bear” instead of honey-bear 😉

  3. I had a feeling this happened, and a friend of mine recently got married, and they are having a ceremony in the fall. So I’m not surprised that this is the route you took. I’m glad your family/friends didn’t give you crap about having the full wedding. Wedding details are so private yet so public, its best to just do what is right for you as a couple. (at least this is what I think, I’m not married so I don’t have my own experience yet).

    • Thank you so much, Katie! I got a little sloppy sometimes with the secret keeping. Including on this blog, when somebody pointed out that I had posted pictures of Jonathan with his wedding ring clearly visible. Whoops.

      Our culture is definitely wedding obsessed, and I won’t pretend I wasn’t part of that problem as a bride. In hindsight (ugh with the hindsight) it all feels a bit melodramatic. But the important part is that Jonathan and I got to celebrate together, and we were also able to celebrate our two families coming together. That’s what we wanted, it just got a little crazy on the way there.

  4. Well *I* didn’t tell anyone.

    Except Sean.

    And maybe Jenny.

    And probably Ben. & Taylor.

    But that’s it, I SWEAR!

    Loved this post, loved getting to hear the full story behind it, and, of course, loved hearing your reactions because, let’s face it, they’re the exact same ones I would have had if I was even half as brave and wonderful as you.

    • Dood. Not telling people is so. hard. I was at the point where I was literally telling the trainers at my gym that I got married, because UGH SOMEBODY NEEDS TO KNOW.

      P.S. Don’t even about being brave. You have purple hair. I maybe need to cool down about being obsessed with your head.

  5. I definitely know several people military people who have done the legal marriage before the big wedding. My sister did before her husband deployed, and I know of many people who got legally married faster than they could have a big wedding, because logistically it just makes sense to with the military. It’s near impossible to follow them around as a fiance/girlfriend, and you don’t get any of the benefits. I only know one couple who is actively trying to keep it a secret though! People are already starting to blab though, which is how we found out haha!

    • So it is as common as they say! Most of Jonathan’s family and friends already expected us to bite the court house bullet before we announced it, which did help ease my mind a little. I’ll never be able to wrap my brain around all the military life idiosyncrasies. Up is down, down is sideways, marriages happen twice.

  6. Leroy and I didn’t have a secret marriage, but we did have a private one. We were super short on funds but still wanted to have a honeymoon of sorts, so we decided to get married on our honeymoon and have a big reception later. We went to Chincoteague for a long weekend, got married by the sea (we had a boat booked but the water was too choppy… sigh) and then had our reception a month later. Our plans didn’t get the best reactions either. Our friends were pretty cool about it (except for Kristine & Hester, who wanted to be bridesmaids haha) but my family was really upset and ended up not coming to the reception. I still wouldn’t have done it any other way, because it was the way that worked for us! People just need to realize that WEDDINGS BELONG TO THE BRIDE & GROOM, NOT THEM.

    • Can’t tell you how many times I wanted to scream that myself. Although Jonathan and I did want our wedding to celebrate our two very different families coming together, I will always believe that weddings (and especially marriages) are very personal. If you want it to be private, it absolutely should be. A marriage is about two people, and those two people are the ones who should be calling the shots. There were many days when I questioned why we were going through with the big wedding at all. I’m glad we did it, but I really wish weddings didn’t have to be a big game of “who are you going to offend.”

  7. I think it’s more common than anyone realizes (until you date a person in the military). We weren’t going to tell anyone, but soon realized it would be hard to explain why I suddenly had insurance and could afford to eat more than Ramen during nursing school. In the end I’m glad we had that private moment. It kept me more sane during the planning of the big ceremony.

    • Honestly, I was really worried that some of my family would react disapprovingly when I told them about the court house marriage, but when I explained the financial incentives (not to mention the ones that you brought up, like insurance) that the military offers for marriage, everybody completely understood.

      P.S. It’s very military-wife of you to have been going through nursing school when you got married. I’m sure you were crazy busy and stressed, but that you came out like a champ.

  8. I didn’t tell anyone, but at the same time, there’s no one I would tell that you know. Kind of a perk of being friends with someone through blogging, writing, and cheese fondue from a different country.

    I have a friend who married someone in the military and she did the same thing. It was a very practical decision for her and allowed her and her military husband to do all the things that needed to get done for their lives to go as smoothly as possible. Her wedding day a year later was still great and even though many of us knew of their already-married status, it still felt like a real wedding day to everyone, so it was! And that’s the day we send celebratory messages.

  9. My husband and I also “married” twice ( first with an officiant to be legal and get my id card and then an actual wedding). We always celebrate both anniversaries because both days are important for different reasons. We didn’t tell anyone except his boss and our close friends who went with us to the officiant. The secret never got out and our families never knew. As others have said, it is quite common in the military world–which is a world of it’s own.

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  11. Thank you for your amazing honesty in this (and all!) posts. As a military girlfriend its SO refreshing to hear your stories and know I’m not alone in having many similar thoughts about my future in Army life! 🙂

    • Thank you for sharing your story as well. I’ve just read your posts, and your journey reminds me a lot of mine, but with more courage and MUCH more snow. It sucks so much to work hard to achieve something, and then once you achieve it (or something sort of like it, in my case), it falls flat. I think it’s a common 20-something-college-grad battle. It takes a lot to admit that you’re lost, but it takes even more to do something about it. I hope that you will find (like I have so far) that traveling to far-off lands with your army man was a great decision, and a great escape. Can’t wait to read more about your journey!

  12. Congrats on keeping your secret and your marriage (the real one and the ceremony for friends and family)….being that I was the one in the Army with orders to Germany, my husband and I married at the courthouse on the first of the month on a Friday on a day I could take leave. I honestly did not know if the relationship would last. It was quick and I only told my immediate family the night before and my friend and fellow soldier came as my maid of honor. It was a quick 4 month relationship and after all the normal martial hurdles (possibly some not so normal ones), several normal couples fights, we’ve become each other’s best friends and it’s been 22+ years.

    • Such a beautiful story, Miriam. Thank you for sharing, and for your honesty about doubts. We were both nervous at the courthouse that day–when Jonathan went to the car to get his camera and I waited with the civil servant, I was partially convinced he was not coming back. He did, of course, and the optimism the civil servant had for us (despite knowing that so many of his marriages end in divorce) was comforting. Here’s to your 22 years!

  13. Thanks for linking up, Aileen! I had a similar experience to yours. John and I talked very seriously about getting married before he left and then having the ceremony and reception after he got back. I stayed in the freak-out stage and just couldn’t pull the trigger before the deployment happened. Everything was just happening so fast– it felt like I couldn’t take a minute and actually think. Throughout John’s entire deployment, I felt so guilty for not marrying him beforehand– I would stay up at night with my stomach twisting in knots over it.

    • That decision is SO understandable. I kind of glossed over the financial incentives for us, which were aggressively strong–we paid for our wedding mostly on our own (but with decent help from my parents), and without separation pay, BAH, and both our salaries during Jonathan’s deployment, we wouldn’t have been able to afford the reception. But I was obviously very nervous and partially insane about the decision; I could just as easily see myself ending up in your position. I hate that it weighed on you during the deployment, but I’m sure you loved and supported him just the same!

  14. My husband is in the Navy and we did the exact same thing; had a courthouse ceremony in January (once we knew where he would be stationed) and had our big wedding in August, after which I moved to his duty station. We didn’t necessarily keep it a secret (our friends and family knew we were legally married), but I didn’t change my name or do any of that fun stuff until right before the wedding. When I got to base and met some wives, I think about 95% of them told me that they did the exact same thing too. I had benefits through my job, so that wasn’t as important to us, but the biggest thing was what you mentioned: knowing where he is/if he is injured/being able to communicate with him. It makes a HUGE difference in getting through deployments.

    Also (I might be mistaken here) wasn’t Jonathan wearing a wedding ring when he got back from deployment? So I’m assuming people would have known y’all got married unless he passed it off as a mangagement ring, which doesn’t sound like his style.

    PS- I feel like I need to introduce myself after I just read your whole blog. Hi, I’m Colleen. My husband is stationed on a nuclear fast attack submarine out of Pearl Harbor, so I am going through that lovely “I have a college degree but I can’t find a job similar to the one I left on the mainland” phase. Free time is plentiful so sometimes I find blogs I love (like this one) and read them while the husband is off saving the world.

    PPS- Sorry for this novel of a comment. Dear God. So long.

    • Thanks so much for commenting, Colleen! Yeah, we were NOT good about hiding that ring. I had to remind him to take it off for our engagement photos. We called it a “deployment ring,” which was technically true because it was so inexpensive that when the initial one didn’t fit, it was cheaper to buy a new one than to resize it. Dolla dolla bills. He didn’t get his real ring until the wedding.

      And thank you even more for introducing yourself. I’m obsessed with your story and the bad-assery of your life. I would love to hear more about your adventures/struggles/successes/how you survive without insanity. Leave me novels anytime you want.

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  17. Such a cute story 🙂
    My wedding was also predeployment shot gun style.
    Something I learned after the fact. As a girlfriend you CAN he FRG information. Your boyfriend just has to tell the FRG to do it.

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