Written by Katye Riselli for Volume VIII of Legacy Magazine
Art by Morgan Snyder
We were walking around our new neighborhood a few days after he’d finally arrived—weeks behind the girls and me. Though I’d always advocated staying together, we opted for a short separation for this move so our girls could start school on time. Finally in the same time zone, we had plenty to discuss.
As I imagine many military-connected families do, we rehashed the last assignment and began to dream about this next chapter. What did we want to do here in this new space? But as I proposed new adventures in our new community, I heard us slipping into familiar refrains to manage our expectations. Too many years of a never-ending surge optempo had deeply ingrained a reluctance to get our hopes up or make plans more than thirty-to-sixty days in advance.
This time though, as we began to plan for how we’d handle something not turning out as we wanted, I saw how habits helpful for a previous assignment could cripple us in a new place. “Stop!” I almost shouted. “Your job isn’t preparing for the worst-case scenario anymore. We don’t have to live in a constant state of contingency planning.”
“What did you say?” he asked.
“Your job isn’t preparing for the end of the world. Your job is to help us write a happy ending.”
With growing clarity, I had words to explain what felt suffocating. “I married the end of the world. I knew that when I said ‘yes’ and ‘I do,’ so I’m not mad about it. But it’s too much to bring that mindset into our home all the time. I don’t think it’s healthy—for you, me, our marriage, or our girls.”
As the significance of what I’d just said settled over us, dozens of seemingly disparate puzzle pieces slid into place in my mind. Here’s the context—my husband spent most of our marriage attached to Air Force units tasked with nuclear responsibilities, mostly in command positions.
The mission often means preparing for the world’s worst-case scenario—nuclear war—and at the same time making sure it doesn’t happen. It’s a zero-sum game. Failure is not an option. The only acceptable standard is perfection. To ensure perfection, they plan, prepare, and practice a lot.
As a spouse, acknowledging the nuclear mission doesn’t happen often because we’ve heard talking about it is frowned upon. On occasion, I heard my husband provide a better framework for understanding this special mission set. He’d ask, “When was the last time our nation used nuclear weapons?”
When most people pointed to Japan in 1945 at the end of World War II, he’d smile and say, “Actually, it’s today. Our nation uses nuclear weapons every day for deterrence—it’s a critical component of our defense strategy, ensuring our national security.”
Though this answer often elicited surprise, depending on the context and audience, he’d go on to explain the importance of the work our military does each day for this purpose. From maintaining and inspecting to planning and exercising, our airmen involved in all aspects of the nuclear mission ensure peace.
He’s right, and I’ve proudly supported him and cared for families in our units tasked with this responsibility for more than a decade. But as we walked last fall, and as we’ve continued this conversation, we’ve come to realize how the same mindsets essential for mission success can become unhealthy for our marriage and family. The lines between work and home blur easily—especially when living in military family housing and the optempo routinely surges to twelve-plus hour days, six to seven days per week.
Although I knew our home needed to be a refuge and had endeavored to draw boundaries to protect our family spaces, I didn’t realize until recently how the zero-sum mission mindset had quietly intruded anyway. Just as constant requirements to “do more with less” contribute to physical and mental exhaustion, so did the unspoken weight of preparing for, or exercising “end of the world” operations. Mission requirements often demanded an emotional toll I still can’t entirely comprehend, but acknowledging the gravity has helped us find connection.
Most details remain unspoken, but what we can talk about has helped us recognize how beneficial coping strategies for “then” don’t serve us well today. We’re giving ourselves permission to unlearn those habits and replace them with new ones.
As an example, in the zero-sum seasons of life, I often evaluated whether a topic merited conversation with my husband in real time. Did we need to discuss my difficult discussion with extended family members on a Tuesday night or could it wait until the weekend? As a result, I frequently postponed raising anything I felt might add unnecessary stress. By the time the weekend rolled around, I rarely wanted to sacrifice the few precious non-work hours on tough topics. Too often, I filed something as “not as important” without giving him the opportunity to simply listen and share my burden.
Over time, these seemingly small choices add up, creating unintended consequences. At best, lack of meaningful conversation creates distance in a marriage—something we certainly can see in hindsight, but also remember feeling during peak stress. In some cases, we saw how poor communication habits severely damaged, or destroyed, our friends’ marriages.
Truth is, I’m not sure I’d change many of my decisions to compartmentalize hard topics during our time in the nuclear mission. My husband would probably be the first to admit he didn’t have the mental or emotional bandwidth then either. There are seasons when choosing what a service member needs to know, and when, is wise. What I wish someone had told me then is to routinely examine whether the habits we use in a specific season are necessary indefinitely.
Among the pep talks we give each other, let’s normalize permission to evaluate our coping strategies. What worked during a particularly difficult assignment doesn’t have to become permanent. These days, I’m learning not to assume my husband doesn’t have the bandwidth for the issues I want to talk about. If I know it’s a longer conversation, I give him a heads up. He’s learning to recognize when I simply need him to listen, not charge in and fix it. Together, we’re applying what we’ve discovered about communicating early and often to unraveling other behaviors from “the before times” that don’t serve us well now, in “the afterlife.”
Key on this journey has been acknowledging the value of the skills and training my husband cultivated in his career. Although some elements of the nuclear mission were extremely difficult, I’m proud of him. He needs to hear that often before I ask him to do something differently now. Most importantly, we’re keeping a sense of humor and recognizing change takes time. So, this summer, when my husband started contingency planning during a swim meet, I knew what to do.
I quietly listened as he assessed the field of pop-up tents outside the aquatic center, estimated the crowd size, and began to ask the location of the nearest tornado shelter. Rather than rolling my eyes or embracing the same plan-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop mindset, I resisted the urge to throw my hands up in the air.
With a grin, I thanked him for being prepared and said, “Old habits die hard, huh?”
Then I pointed to the crystal-clear blue sky, and gently reminded him, “Your job today is not the worst-case scenario. Today, we’re writing a happy ending to our first summer swim season.”
I married the end of the world after all, so I know practice makes perfect.
Continue Reading Volume VIII of Legacy Magazine
To continue reading Volume VIII of Legacy Magazine, order your copy here. Volume VIII will give you the clarity, courage, and inspiration needed to move into a purposeful, value-aligned life. Experience a newfound confidence to take control of your life. Uncover a hope that living and serving in this lifestyle does not need to hinder your personal growth, dreams, or ambitions. Believe in the power of your own voice, your own story. Agency is within your grasp.
Editorial Designed by Eileen Diaz