By Matthew Shanks
Military Spouses make friends quickly, and forget them even faster.
“Hey, can I list you as my kid’s emergency contact?
We just moved in and don’t know anyone yet!”
Asking something typically asked of a long-time friend, of someone you met just two minutes ago. That’s how it goes when you move every few years. You don’t know anyone, but you know that you have an amazing community to rely on when in need. They understand, and they will be there for you if you ask.
The empathy is amazing, and gives an instantaneous level of comfort.
Everyone understands the stresses of this life in a way you don’t get from your family and civilian friends back home. Everyone is new. Those cliques dating earlier than high school don’t exist, making it easy to just float into a social group. Nowhere is it easier to walk into a crowd of strangers and essentially fit in as well as anyone else within just a few minutes. You can experience this at a neighborhood BBQ, hanging at the playground, a Team RWB event, a SpouseLink event, and all sorts of other social situations amongst the military community.
It’s hard to get close to people, though. While being social in groups comes pretty easily, it’s hard to create a strong individual connection. And for many people that’s where friendships are the most fulfilling. Perhaps people hesitate to form individual bonds because they know their time there is limited.
With that lack of individual connection, I see a problem.
You may be in some flourishing social groups with your neighbors or in an organization. Everyone is friendly, supportive, and enjoyable to talk to. You know, people who you’d like to keep as a friend, and who you’d expect to notice if you didn’t show up.
But everyone is so used to people coming and going, that no one notices if you disappear.
And that, my friends, is not a good feeling. How can you feel connected to anyone, if it’s not noticed when you’re no longer there? We’ve learned to be welcoming to all the newcomers, but we’re so accustomed to people leaving that we don’t give them a second thought after they’re gone. Especially when they were only a person within a group, the rest of the group carries on unphased by the loss.
For that person though, when they move their social support is ripped away. Hopefully they make friends at their new location soon, but it’s still a loss of the old friendships if they are abandoned.
It’s not always a PCS that removes a person. A difficult time can make a person isolate themselves for weeks or months on end. Perhaps they simply feel down and are struggling with their mental health. Perhaps a situation overwhelmed them, and they don’t feel up to attending the group functions for a while.
These are the times people need friends to reach out to them. Instead, they are more alone than ever.
What is there to do?
Well, we can check in on each other. This idea comes along all the time, like an item on a “be a good person” checklist, which I guess is good… but can’t it be more genuine? I think it can, and I think it starts with focusing more on and caring about individuals. Noticing each other. Getting to know each other.
I encourage you to focus on the individual connections between people within a group.
Don’t just chat as a group, but talk to individuals. Learn about their interests and hobbies, projects they’re working on, their struggles and ambitions. Many people will open up much more when they’re in a 1:1 conversation. Especially for the more reserved people who do not want a large stage, even in a group of only three to four people, the pressure is enough to make you not feel comfortable opening up. Or perhaps it’s not a comfort issue, but rather it simply requires too much effort to get a few words in over the louder people. So give people a second to respond. Ask questions, wait, and listen.
And finally, you can keep up with people after they move away, and you can reach out to people when they’re struggling. But please don’t tell people to call you anytime they need you, because they will not. Instead, try something like the Kovii app I created, where a phone call or video chat can happen as casually and unplanned as bumping into a friend when you’re out for a walk and end up having a great chat about this, that, and whatever. Instead of scrolling Facebook to see what old friends have been up to (on a very public, superficial level), hopping on an app like Kovii to see which of those friends might happen to be free right then means you can catch up with them on that personal, individual level where the best of friendship exists.
About Matthew Shanks
Matthew is an Army husband and dad currently stationed at West Point. He has a varied background including Aerospace Engineering, coaching and racing as a professional triathlete, and now is the founder of a tech startup with the Kovii app. He’s a passionate military spouse community leader engaged with other MilSpouse entrepreneurs, military community organizations, and a new program for military spouses to meet new friends. His work focuses on finding new and effective ways to bring people together at the level of personal, individual connections.