In The Navy And Out Of Reach: Being In A Relationship With A Service Member

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Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

Today the Sugars hear from a woman in a relationship with a member of the military, who wonders if she can manage being away from her significant other for long periods of time. Then the Sugars consider the question most people face as they age: to dye or not to dye your gray hair?


Dear Sugars,

I'm a 23-year-old medical student and I absolutely love what I do. There is nothing that would keep me from pursuing this dream.

I've been dating a wonderful man for about a year. During that time, we've been incredibly happy as a couple. He is respectful, brilliant, ambitious, kind and hilarious. The problem is, he's now in the Navy and I am the world's worst Navy girlfriend. I have a really hard time with his job involving death and killing when mine is about preserving life. On top of that, because of the way the military works, our communication has become limited, at best. We hardly get to see each other, and when we do, it's entirely controlled by various rules that I don't understand and I'm not used to.

My heart aches constantly because I miss him so much. And it's not like there's a light at the end of the tunnel. This is how his career will largely be, and my own busy schedule with 12-18 hour days makes it even harder. It will be years before I ever get to live with him again or see him every day. I don't want to end things — he's my best friend and the best man I've ever met — but I spend so much time missing him and worrying about his safety. I don't want to spend my life missing a man who is seldom around. My heart hurts. What do I do?

Signed,

Worst Navy Girlfriend

Steve Almond: I'm so glad we received this letter and have the chance to answer it, for the simple reason that the civilian culture in the United States and elsewhere really lives in a world where we do not recognize the burdens that are off-loaded onto military families. Not just the risk of injury or psychological trauma; it's absence and the bureaucratic rules when you're trying to move toward marriage and a stable life together that's never talked about.

The one thing I would step back from is the idea that your boyfriend's job involves death and killing. The military ultimately defends the homeland, and there's killing and injury and devastation involved with that, but it's a very small portion of the military.

More largely, you need to have a conversation with your boyfriend about whether his career is going to make it so that, for years, you are not going to be able to see him every day. There are people who know they're going to be "career military," and you can say yes or no to that. But you have to get a clear account, because if you're as important to him as he is to you, there should be some room for negotiation.

Cheryl Strayed: I think there are two questions at the heart of your letter. The first is, "Do I love my boyfriend? Am I crazy about him?" It's clear to me the answer is yes. But sadly, when we make decisions to really partner with another person, "Do I love him/her?" is not the only question.

The other question you're asking is, "Am I willing and emotionally able to sign up for this kind of life?" That is the journey you need to go on — both deep in your own soul and in conversation with your boyfriend. Are we both going to have careers? Is one person going to be the supporter? Is one person going to take a job in the military that demands this kind of life where he's often gone for years on end? Worst Navy Girlfriend, I think the deepest question you're asking us is, "Is it OK if I decide to break up with this person I love because his life is incompatible with mine?" And I'm going to say yes.


Dear Sugars,

I'm nearing my mid-40s and hitting my milestones pretty much on mark: bifocals, slower physical recovery, nocturnal bathroom visits and now, gray hair. I'm accepting most of this, well, because I have no choice.

One of these items is a choice, though: what to do about the gray hair. I'm not a particularly vain person and the slippery slope of coloring doesn't appeal to me because of the cost, hassle and upkeep. I don't like the telltale gray at the scalp and I think it's weird when people stop coloring suddenly and go completely gray. The gradual, natural transition to gray seems much more appealing.

That said, I don't want to accelerate from "young for my age" to getting asked for the senior discount.

My question is: Could you help me sort through the personal and societal aspects of gray hair and give some advice on how to be at peace with whatever route I go?

I know this isn't the heart-rending conundrum you usually address, but it's my personal conundrum. If I were gray in my 20s, the choice to color would be easy (I'd do it!). But at what point do you accept the gray as something you've earned rather than something to hide?

Sincerely,

Counting Down from Brown

P.S. For what it's worth, my husband says he's neutral on the subject, though maybe he's just saying that to walk the even line.

Cheryl: Counting Down from Brown, you should do what you want to do. That's the beautiful thing about tossing off these ideas about what it means to be in your 40s. I think the highest peak we can reach as women and as feminists is to say, "I get to choose the way I look," and define that at every age. I think your gray hair is making you feel uncomfortable right now and maybe that means you should talk to a hair stylist and say, "What can we do to make me feel good about the way my hair looks right now?"

You say this is a little question, but I think it's a pretty big one. So many people, men and women alike, struggle with this as we age. I think the sexiest, most beautiful thing emanates from within, and it's that sense of feeling secure in who you are — whether that be gray-haired or completely dyed whatever color of your choosing. I fully support you making whatever choice you want to make.

Steve: Counting Down from Brown, I felt all of this. I am in my late 40s, and what's really corrosive is when people allow society and societal norms to really get internalized and to make you feel like the only two options on the menu are "young and hot" and "old bag." I think you should do what you want to do, but I also would counsel you to think really carefully about what Cheryl said. If you are beautiful, it's because you love yourself, you love how you look and you have made peace with it. There's no product that's going to undo a problem if you don't feel that way. You're just going to be chasing it forever.

You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the whole episode to also hear from one woman wondering whether to reach out to her ex-husband's family.

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