Military Retirement and Finally Getting to Call Your Own Shots

May 18, 2021

Military retirement is a big transition for older Americans even if they're in their mid-to-late 40s. So many GenXers are seeing that part of their career come to an end. It's a big adjustment. 


When we were in the last year of my husband’s military career, there was a lot of excitement. Possibilities. I’d say “possibilities” and “options” were always my favorite words. While we had a lot of options (well, opportunities) that we wouldn’t have had without the military, like getting to move every few years, there were a lot of options taken away from us, like feeling part of a community or a career. Hey, you get it. It’s a blessing and a curse. 


You’ve learned to keep up with the military tide’s ebb and flow. With retirement you get to have control of your own ebb and flow. But, how?

Friends, They’ll “Be There for You”

Retirement means you finally get to call a place home. You may finally get to own a home, maybe for the first time. You finally get to make friends and not have to leave them just when you were hitting a groove and feeling really close and comfortable. 


What about your spouse, the retiring military member? 


You’re used to the struggles of making friends outside of work because it’s very likely work was intermittent at best. You may have met other parents while out with the kids doing their “things.” If you didn’t have kids, you likely made friends while volunteering, through neighbors, or running your own business (between moves and deployments). 


It’s very possible your mate has never had to work to make friends because s/he got to socialize at work with other military members and often knew their coworkers from previous duty stations. For any friends they made outside of work, the pressure and desire wasn’t high. SO, it happened naturally or not at all. Therefore, how much work did they ever have to do to make friends? Probably none. 


This is why my first piece of advice is to start making friends, couple friends. It’s tempting to exact your revenge and let them struggle as you had, but that’s not going to go well for you either. Also, it’s time to have a healthier marriage that’s about you as a couple and not as you coming second or third. It’s important to have diversity in friendships. By this, I mean that while having other military/former military friends in the area is important, it is equally important to have friends who have never lived that life. 


  1. Military friends get it. So, we can go to them for understanding, compassion, and even a B-fest. The downside means that you can quickly and easily get into a rut and only commiserate when together. Your spouse’s “battle buddies” will tend towards commiserating, too, so it can become sad for all of them. 
  2. Non-military friends mean finding other commonalities, like hobbies and interests. This means your spouse won’t continually war stories, which means s/he can free their brain of that trauma for a bit. These friends will remind you both of the lighter side of life. Learn how to laugh and joke again without any references to work and the military. (Military jokes are plentiful, but there’s a lot of funny in everyday life, too.)

The Dreams the Military Forgot

Your spouse may have had more career or or personal goals that got left behind every time they recommitted to the military. Retirement means there’s finally time and opportunity to get more education to change careers or specialize. It may also be time for you, the long-supportive spouse whose career and desires took a backseat for so long, to finally realize and prioritize your own career dreams. This is the time to discuss it. 


You as the non-service member worked equally hard to cope with all that military life as the less significant force and simply don’t need or want to bother with a career -- again. You’ve had to continually adjust your resume or work as chauffeur, cook, housekeeper, and caregiver, and you’re just ready to rest. 


Or, your own education, degree, and career that’s still sporting those colored stickers and never was “unpacked” is ready to be dusted off. 


It’s time to you both to be open about what you want for this new phase of life. It’s also important to have a Plan B and what events trigger the plan. Writing it down, like an algorithm, might help keep you focused, but remember that you’re humans and able to change directions and desires. Just make sure you have mutual agreement. Again, it’s not a time to argue but to finally enjoy your marriage -- together. You both spent too many anniversaries and birthdays separated or “reprioritized” thanks to our favorite uncle. 

Fun and Hobbies After Military Retirement

Remember that no one dies wishing they had worked more. Use this time regardless of careers and education to explore hobbies. You’ll want some shared hobbies. You have your own hobbies for yourself; you’ve gotten used to occupying yourself. Your retired spouse may not have any hobbies or interests outside of TV sports. Go together to explore hobbies. You may find something you can do together or you’ve helped your spouse find “that thing” that gets them excited. 


Many military members are very active, so finding something outdoors or physically challenging could be ideal. It’s also ideal because they no longer have to be accountable for height-weight. Having active hobbies can keep them healthy and mobile well into their later years.


Besides hobbies, you need shared interests and events to look forward to together. Subscribe and follow on social media a few key publications or groups. (I say a few because we often get overwhelmed if we subscribe and follow a lot early on. We end up firehosing ourselves with options and not doing anything in the end.) These events will help you connect to the community. You’re used to creating your own community with every military move and often live near several military members. Those not in the military typically take longer to bond because they don’t know that urgency we’ve felt to establish a sense of community after a move. Events in your new hometown will help you bond with others.

A Planned Pause after Military Retirement

One piece of advice that you have overlooked is to take a prolonged pause from working after military retirement -- not just a few weeks. It’s not easy to not work or not have a plan, especially for your retiring spouse. Plan for it. It’s easier said than done -- for everyone. However, many retirees advise to take a break because they need that time to decompress. It’s hard to see the forest of stress because of the trees of duty in the military. 


They’re so used to go-go-go. They’re so used to all those “extra duties” that aren’t job related but are required, like those death-by-Power-Point “trainings” among others. They’re used to rank and giving orders that people follow. That doesn’t happen in the “civilian world,” at least not to their expectations. This pause will give them time to release those perfectionist, commanding, and must-do tendencies that if not released will cause them more grief and long for their former career in the military. 


It’s the individualism and freedoms that you both missed while in the military, so you both need to remember what that means post-military; people will do what they will do how they will do it. 

Sense of Purpose after Military Retirement 

Another commonality among military members and their families is a sense of purpose and service. Volunteering for communities or causes dear to you can help you maintain or discover that. Find something where you’ll be making much-needed human connections rather than an activity or project that’s so behind the scenes they never have to see you. No, it’s not about vanity. It’s about remembering the importance and value of face-to-face interaction and human touch that will keep you and your retiree engaged and not isolated. This doesn’t mean you have to volunteer at a hospital and sit in a room with a patient (although, that’s invaluable). 


There are other ways to have the face-to-face and human touch.

  1. Habitat for Humanity would allow you to find a skillset you didn’t know you had and have some hands-on practical value for an entire family--directly. 
  2. The Arc, Wounded Warriors, Gold Star Families, Big Brothers Big Sisters and so many more all have events and fundraisers and need help with setup/tear-down, photography, sponsorships, etc. 
  3. If you and/or your spouse are great with or have an interest in painting, woodworking, sculpting, etc. using the arts for therapy is a growing industry and need. 

Don’t forget to date!

You got married years ago; don’t forget to date. Life and the military often got in the way. Take this time to prioritize your relationship above all else. You wanted to grow old together when you got married. Use this time to make sure you get there together--old and married. If not, all those years powering through are in vain. 


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