JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas —
It’s February at Joint Base San Antonio, and as everyone knows, February is the month of love. Last week, I sat down with Dr. Kendra Lowe, a military spouse and former active-duty service member, to discuss marriage in the military and finding ways to spread the love. Dr. Lowe is a practicing clinical psychologist who has published some of her findings in Military Spouse Magazine as well as the Journal of Family Studies. Here are the highlights of our conversation:
Q: How did you get interested in the psychological health of military spouses?
Dr. Lowe: For me, it was the transition. I was active duty and then got out. My husband’s still active duty. I was surprised by the sheer amount of stress I felt as a military spouse and so I really wanted to learn about it.
Q: What was your journey like as a military spouse?
Dr. Lowe: It’s different when you’re active duty. I think you don’t realize how different it is. When you move, you have an automatic job, automatic social connection with this squadron, you already have purpose because you have a job to wake up and go to. You get plugged in quickly. You have sponsors. And for the spouse, it’s different. Every time we moved, I struggled for the first six months. I couldn’t find a job right away. I didn’t have those friends yet. I was isolating [myself] because I didn’t know how to put myself out there.
Q: How did your research begin?
Dr. Lowe: I just wanted to know, “Why is this so stressful? And what could be some of the potential sources of stress?” I had the opportunity with my first masters to go out and start looking at the stress levels of spouses, and I was able to broaden it later for a larger study, confirming that we have significant stress levels -- 27 percent [of spouses] being at those elevated stress levels and 20 percent [of spouses] at clinically significant [levels], those that would warrant professional intervention. So that’s a high percentage of our spouses and it’s concerning.
Q: Were you able to find out why they have elevated stress levels?
Dr. Lowe: When a lot of the initial results came back, I was hoping that it was going to have a link to something. I didn’t find a link to anything. At first, I was disappointed, but sitting down with the research a little more, I found that not finding a link tells a different story. And what story that tells is that stress doesn’t discriminate. That seasoned spouse who has been in the military for 26 years versus that spouse that has only been a part of the military for a couple years--we kind of have these biases that the seasoned spouse won’t have as much stress. But stress is a constant among military spouses.
Q: What does stress look like for military spouses?
Dr. Lowe: Stress looks different on all of us. What is stressful to me might not be stressful to you, and what is stressful to you might not be stressful to me. A big part of the research is trying to eliminate a lot of the biases associated with which spouses should or should not be under stress and what that stress should look like. Stress can be anything. Stress can be overeating, it could be not eating. It could be overexercising, it could be not exercising. It could be isolating, it could be the extreme of socializing all the time. It can look very different on every single one of us.
Q: Were there any differences between male spouses and female spouses?
Dr. Lowe: There were no differences between males and females and there is no difference between branches.
Q: What are some ways that active duty service members can show love to their spouses this February (and in the future)?
Dr. Lowe: Be understanding. Validate that it is stressful. I think often we hear those rougher comments of, you know, “We can do it! Buck up!” I think it’s important to say to spouses that yes we can do it. We are incredibly capable, smart, strong individuals. But I think the other part of it that is so important is to say, “Yes, you are an incredibly strong, capable, intelligent person, but you’re also vulnerable and everybody has a breaking point.” So I think it’s important for that active duty service member to validate it, to use their words to say, “I understand this is hard. And I appreciate that you’re giving for our country as well.” And it goes back to knowing your spouse. Does your spouse need words? Is it more touch? A small gift? Anything that you can do as that Valentine to say, “I appreciate you and I validate that this is not easy and you’re doing a great job.”
Q: How can a spouse show love and care for herself or himself this Valentine’s Day?
Dr. Lowe: That’s going to look and feel different for each individual. I would ask yourself, “What fills me up?” Go and do that for yourself. Specifically plan whatever that is that fills you up. Is that a massage that fills you up? Is it one-on-one time with your spouse? Is it one-on-one time with your children? Is it alone time? Whatever fills you up, plan it, put it on a calendar, and make a conscious choice to do that thing. And the other thing is the mental health and well-being. It’s not just that activity, it’s sitting reflecting, being by yourself and building up tools to help yourself to better emotional health. I think that’s the best gift you can give yourself and somebody else -- better social and emotional health.
Q: How do you personally show love and care for yourself as a military spouse?
Dr. Lowe: For me, exercise is big. We know exercise produces endorphins and better mental well-being and physical well-being. What I do is I get up really early, 4:30 a.m., and work out every single day. That puts me in the right frame of mind for that day. I feel accomplished. It’s hard to do, but that is taking care of myself. And that’s an important piece for me that helps me.