…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.
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.)
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.
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.