There are more than 1,300 married couples serving together in the British Army. Does having the same job make it easier to deal with the demands of Service life? Or is it hard to switch off when the boots come off? Army&You talks to dual-serving families…

MANY of us struggle to achieve a healthy work-life balance but for couples who work together, it’s even harder, writes Kate Viggers. Sharing an office and a bedroom can be complicated!

“Maintaining external interests and good communication is really important for any couple in the same job,” explains Relate counsellor Christine Northam.

“They need to be disciplined about boundaries, to ensure work doesn’t take over home-life and emotions don’t spill into the workplace.”

For married soldiers, juggling the professional and the personal brings unique challenges including anti-social working patterns, limited joint leave and the consuming nature of military service.

“Sometimes it’s hard to switch off,” says Bulford-based Unit Welfare Officer Rachel Willis, whose husband is currently serving unaccompanied in Plymouth.

“At home we try to concentrate on [domestic] life and our son.”

Home & away

For dual serving families, the challenges of working in the same job are combined with managing their relationship long-distance. Both are likely to be absent from home for extended periods, which can make it difficult to secure adequate childcare.

One couple A&Y spoke to had no option but to send their daughter to live with relatives when they were both posted abroad. And one husband recalls arriving home from a lengthy tour only for his wife to leave immediately on her own deployment; inevitably, waving goodbye to first mum, then dad – or vice versa – has an emotional impact on children.   

“As my son gets older it’s starting to affect him more,” Rachel says. “Deployments are on the one hand easier to cope with because I understand it more – but on the other not, as I know what’s going on out there!”

Some spouses find, however, that their own experiences as serving soldiers make it easier to cope when their partner deploys because they do not dwell on the danger. It is “just part of the job”.

“I can appreciate the frustration of delayed R&R flights, the buzz of deployment and the sense of achievement that accompanies any tour,” says Clare Sapwell, who met husband Jeremy in Bosnia in 2000. More recently, the couple served together – albeit in different departments – at Army HQ in Andover.   

Commuting & career fouls

Logistics can make it difficult for dual serving families to find suitable accommodation or to follow individual professional goals. Rachel’s husband commutes at weekends and she is struggling to manage work and parenting commitments alone. They are seeking an early return posting and, having bought their own house, will aim for local postings in future.

The Sapwells have also endured lengthy daily commutes and unaccompanied postings in order to maintain a family home centrally located between  their jobs.

In addition, Clare – who retired in November last year – has had to take a “professional back seat” during her service.

“Since having children, I had to select jobs based on location rather than career-enhancement,” she says.

The Army says it is “almost inevitable” that dual serving couples will experience separated service and that realistic expectations need to be set by advising officers.

A spokesperson for the Army Personnel Centre explains: “The management of serving couples’ careers is on a case-by-case basis.

“Every attempt will be made to assign them together into the most career-enhancing appointments – or at least within a reasonable commuting distance where possible, particularly if they have children.”

Soldiers with a posting conflict must declare in writing to Career Management Branch which of them is to have priority. Workable solutions are found where possible, with the general rule being for the higher rank to take precedence unless the soldiers specify otherwise.

Rachel believes an understanding chain of command makes a difference, although she feels a policy for dual serving families would “support them and back them up”, going some way to alleviating obstacles she and others have encountered.

What time do you call this?!

There is no doubt that combining duty with domesticity can be complex.

But dual serving couples can also reap the benefits of a shared career path, such as greater empathy and having plenty to talk about.

One husband told A&Y that the best thing about being married to a soldier is that his wife understands the job, so he won’t get a hard time if he comes home late!

Clare agrees: “Understanding the nature of the Army and what it requires of you has made us more accepting of Service life as a family.”

“It can put you through the wringer,” adds Rachel. “But if you can survive that, you can survive anything!”

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