Momma Knows Best: Words of Wisdom When Building Your Tribe

Expectation management. It’s something that doesn’t get mentioned a lot about when you hear about the military wife sisterhood, “blooming where you are planted,” or any of other military spouse cliches you’ve seen on a hand-painted wooden sign. You know what I’m talking about: the truisms that military spouses have each other’s backs, they’re always there for each other, they’re your second family.

Those relationships are real, but they’re not everybody’s experience and they’re certainly not instantaneous. It is possible to be at a new duty station a few months and still not really feel like you belong.

Let me share a few lessons (admittedly, mostly from my mom) that helped me manage expectations through multiple PCS moves, first as a military brat, then as a military spouse.

5 Words of Wisdom to Remember When Looking for Friends as a Military Spouse
Maggie as a military brat with her middle school friends in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1998.

When You’re the New Military Spouse on Post, Momma says …

“You have friends. They’re just not here.”

This was a common refrain I heard growing up. There was always a period of time before I made friends at a new post. When I inevitably complained to my parents about not having any friends, my mom would once again remind me that I had friends, they just weren’t at our new place (yet). Now more than ever, you can reach out to your tribe of friends –civilian and military– around the world. While you are waiting for your overtures of friendship to take at your new installation, you can always pick up the phone and FaceTime or Skype with a friend at the previous one. Even once you’ve found your new friends, it’s helpful to pick up the phone and call a non-military friend. It can be a safe way to blow off steam about the less positive aspects of an installation to a disinterested third party.

“You only need 1 really good friend.”

Another gem from my mom. Sometimes, a group of friends is only two people. Let’s be honest: not every place can be the best duty station. One really good friend can help keep any duty station from being the worst, though. Personally, I would rather have 1 friend who totally gets me than a battalion of friends I don’t really know.

“Give it 6 months.”

“I just really feel like I’ve found my niche!” I told my mom during a phone call in January. “I have my friends and activities all figured out. I never thought I’d get here.” My mom, the senior spouse, chuckled and said that made sense, since I had arrived at Fort Campbell with my family the previous August. “I usually give myself 6 months in a new place,” she explained. Six months to find friends and get involved in a community. It can seem like slow going at first, but one day, before you know it, you’ve found your group of friends, your tribe. I made a resolution when we arrived at Fort Campbell to focus on those events and activities in which I truly wanted to invest my time. Because I did, the friendships grew organically.

Related: How to NOT Make Friends When You Move Somewhere New

“Don’t become friends with the first person who approaches you, just because they’re the first person who approaches you.”

We’re now moving out of motherly wisdom and into lessons I learned at the Department of Defense Dependent School of Hard Knocks. Navigating this one requires finely tuned friend-dar. Is the person approaching you genuinely friendly or have you been targeted because you’re new and unfamiliar with their history?

Before you start getting paranoid, let me teach you my quick “New Friend” test. Ask yourself 3 questions:

  1. Is this person talking more about themselves than asking about you, the new person?
  2. Are they saying unkind or negative things about other people you’ve only just met?
  3. What does your gut tell you?

Your first impression is usually the correct one. If you generally have a good feeling about someone, chances are, you’re right.

Words of Wisdom on Building a Tribe of Friends
Maggie as a military spouse with her tribe in Fort Hood, Texas, in 2011.

“It’s a small world after all.”

Sometimes, building your tribe is actually easy. You just never know when you will be stationed with friends again. Or friends of friends. In times past, people used to travel with letters of recommendation. A letter from a mutual friend or acquaintance would virtually ensure the carrier would receive a warm welcome in a new place. These days, a call or a text from a friend telling you “the so-and-sos are moving out your way, they’re great!” does the trick. Don’t be afraid to take the recommendation of a friend.

Personally, I would rather have 1 friend who totally gets me than a battalion of friends I don’t really know.

I had to re-learn as a military spouse what I learned as a military brat: I do much better in the friend department when I don’t come in to a new duty station guns blazing, expecting those intense lifelong friendships you may remember from the late, lamented “Army Wives.” I remind myself to start small, and that even as I’m starting from scratch somewhere new, I have friends all over the world.

What lessons on building a tribe of friends did you learn as a military brat? How does that advice apply to life as a milspouse? 

maggiephillipsE. Margaret Phillips actually goes by “Maggie.” She worked for the Army in different capacities for over 3 years, for both U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and for U.S. Army Public Health Command. She has been published in the United States Foreign Service Association’s Foreign Service Journal, and in the U.S. Army professional publication, Military Review. She is a mother of 1 year and counting, an Army spouse of 5 years and counting, and an Army brat of 27 years and counting.

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