writer and proofreader


The Laura-Ashley Story: Using Empathy to Establish Friendships as a Military Spouse

Monday, January 26, 2015

Recently, I went to my hair salon for my monthly root touch-up just like I had done for the last 2 years while living in El Paso, TX. At first, everything was pretty typical about this visit, except this time I had news to share with my stylist, Brenda.

Brenda is a native to Mexico. She resides in El Paso while attending college at the University of Texas at El Paso to become a secondary education teacher. She colors hair on nights and weekends as means of paying for costs not covered by her generous scholarship. Her boyfriend, mother, father, sister, brother, uncles, aunts, cousins, and nieces all live in Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico. She has a few close friends in America whom she also refers to as family. Brenda makes the 30 minute commute over the border on her time-off from school and work to visit her biological family "back home." She was the very first cosmetologist I saw when arriving to El Paso, and we built such a fast, gratifying relationship that I remained with her ever since.

Last week I sat down in her chair and delivered the news: I'm moving to the Washington D.C. area in 2 months due to my husband's PCS move. She was as shocked and excited as I was when I first realized that this move was actually happening. Brenda and I then shared stories about how different our lives were growing up "back home" and how more confident and adaptable to change we have become by moving away; experiencing different cultures and communities. Then a story was shared that ultimately rocked my world. It lit a fire so strong beneath me that I felt the emotional effects long after leaving the salon that day.

Brenda told me about a client that came in to the salon a few weeks prior to get a perm from another cosmetologist at the salon. This co-worker cosmetologist, Laura, is a military spouse. The client asking for the perm, Ashley, is also a military spouse.

Laura asked Ashley to have a seat to discuss the perming process since this was her first time at the salon. Right away, Ashley had a chip on her shoulder because she had to wait in the lounge a little longer than expected. Laura advised that she'd take Ashley to the sink to perform a special rinse which preps the hair for the chemicals needed to perm. This was a regular procedure at this salon for this hair treatment. Ashley told Laura that she already performed the pre-rinse at home and that it wouldn't be necessary, and to move onto the next step. Laura told Ashley that she'll need to do the rinse herself since this is her first time working with the client, that this was just a typical step in the process, and that nothing bad will happen by rinsing again. Ashley then responded, "You obviously don't know what you're doing, and no matter what, you're going to mess up my hair. You're incompetent." She went on to declare that no one could ever do her hair like the stylist back home. "It was my husband's fault for bringing me all the way out here," she sobbed.

In response, Laura also got defensive and shot back everything else she advised earlier. With both women at odds, Laura ran to the back room crying uncontrollably to her manager and store owner, Carlos.

Carlos then marched out to confront Ashley.

He said to her, "Why did you make my stylist cry like that? We will not be performing the perm on your hair today because no matter what we do, it's not going to be good enough for you. I will do a cut and color myself, but you'll need to reschedule the perm for another day. You need to grow up and deal with moving away from home for the first time. As a military spouse you need to be strong. This is what you signed up for..."

Completely stunned at how Ashley was treated by the owner, I asked Brenda, Then what happened?

"She just sat there crying in the chair for awhile, then she left without getting a treatment."

Well, did she come back another day to get the perm? I ventured.


What happened to Laura?

"She was totally pissed that Ashley treated her like that - for calling her incompetent."

What are your thoughts about what happened?

"We were all shocked that this woman acted like that. Like, just get over it. The pre-rinse is what we normally do before a perm. I dunno... I guess we just don't understand what it's like to be a military spouse..."

Well, Laura is a military spouse. She understands what it's like to move away from her family and close friends back home for the very first time, and to find a new job, a new house, a new gym, new friends, and a new salon for the first time. Why do you think she didn't try to comfort or empathize with Ashley? The whole situation could have ended very differently...


I left the salon that evening with fabulous new roots, but I also left feeling really upset for Ashley. I know exactly how she felt that day when she tried to get her perm - and no one, not even a fellow military spouse, looked her in the eye and said that it's going to be ok. Or perhaps didn't say anything; just wrapped their arms around her and given her a warm, comforting hug. Instead, she left the salon feeling even more isolated than when she arrived.

Let me make this clear: I do believe that Ashley must take responsibility for her words and actions. Even if a person brings anger and resentment to a neutral situation, I don't think it's right to take anger out on someone else, let alone to a complete stranger. However, I still feel like Ashley could have left the salon with a new perm and perspective on change.

In the fall of 2007, I was giddy with excitement over moving away from home for the first time to be with my then-fiance, and to finally start our lives together. I was born and raised in Phoenix, AZ and ended up attending an in-state university. The most traveling I did before then was to California to go to Disneyland, or up to Washington state to see my grandparents. So when Brandon said that he was being stationed in Colorado Springs, CO, I was super stoked. MySpace was more popular than Facebook at the time, and I remember changing my MySpace background to a photo of the snow-covered, woodsy Rocky Mountains. I would sit staring at the photo and could almost feel the crisp Colorado air hitting my lungs. I was so happy. I could not wait to move.

Within weeks after my big move from Arizona to Colorado, the enormity of moving away from home for the first time finally began settling in. I was not mentally prepared for all the change that was happening to me. I knew before hand that I was going to have to find new friends and learn how to drive through a blizzard, but actually doing those things was very difficult at first.

I began feeling really depressed. I cried a lot. I felt isolated from the family back home but also from the people I encountered in Colorado Springs. I got my hair done at a hip salon called Toni & Guy, and I was never able to build a relationship with a single stylist at that salon. In fact, each stylist I was scheduled with seemed so impersonal that when they asked if I was "from here" (meaning native to Colorado Springs... there are a lot of Colorado Springs natives...) and I answered no - that I was a military spouse originally from Arizona, they all dismissed me. None of them seemed remotely interested in getting to know me and my story, let alone empathize with what I was going through at the time.

When I see my El Paso stylist, Brenda, I truly feel like I'm going to see an old friend even though we've never hung out together outside of the salon. Being vulnerable by opening myself up to others, and also listening to what someone has to say goes a long, long way.

This is what bothered me so much with the Laura - Ashley story. It's two-fold:

Laura knows what it's like to move away from home for the first time. And yet, she didn't extend a hand to a sister military spouse. On the other side of the same coin, though, Ashley wasn't vulnerable, allowing herself to open up and describe - in a healthy manner - what she was going through. I believe that Ashley could have let her walls come down to become more vulnerable with Laura if she didn't feel so threatened. I mean, the store owner marched out to basically tell her shape up or ship out. And she did. She never returned to the salon.

I began wondering why there's this invisible barrier up between spouses, hindering our ability to support one another and build friendships. I believe it's due in part by the better-than you / less-than-you approach to military relationships. In my experience, I notice that there are spouses who take a pompous approach to their military spouse title. Likewise, I have seen spouses shy away from getting to know a seasoned spouse because she feels inferior for no other reason than because of her husband's job. I have attended seminars that emphasize the fact that spouses do not retain their husband's job or rank. Experts, who are often seasoned military spouses, advise to "get over yourself - this is your husband's job, not yours." They suggest to find your own niche and reach your own accomplishments that you can be proud of and toot your horn with. Perhaps if we begin to look past the in-house hierarchy of what our husbands do for a living and view other spouses with a competently neutral slate - after all, isn't that how you meet people on the street or at your place of work anyway? - that maybe we can begin to build closer relationships and establish mutual support with fellow spouses.

I also want to note that we should be sensitive to the fact that many people who have never been in nor raised in the military truly don't know what we're going through. And they're likely to unintentionally say things that are hurtful such as, "You have to be strong. This is what you signed up for..." What an incredibly high expectation to put on someone who knows not what she's getting herself into nor how to "be strong." But that's the very reason why we need to open up and share our stories. Likewise, for my civilian readers, listening to our stories will help you to, in the words of Brenda, "understand what it's like to be a military spouse." Assuming that we are strong enough to handle anything does the exact opposite. Not being able to confide in someone because they placed us in the solid-as-a-rock category makes us feel weak and isolated. These are the very walls that must be lowered in order for us to build lasting relationships.

The hurdles we must jump with regard to in-house support might never fully come down in my lifetime. But if I accomplish only one thing with being a military spouse activist in my community, it's to shout from the rooftops of sistering-on. Support one another. Listen to one another. Be vulnerable and open up to those who know what you're going through. After all, we're sisters in this thing together.


For about a week I struggled with some unanswered questions about this story. I knew who I needed to speak with, but I was reluctant because being vulnerable is oftentimes hard. I eventually contacted Laura because I was writing about vulnerability - about military spouses opening up and sharing stories in order to connect. I knew that I had to take the step forward to talk with Laura about why she didn't give Ashley the big warm hug or even try to calm her down by using empathy. She helped fill in some blanks and validated the story I'd heard from Brenda. She also confessed that she was dealing with her own walls of isolation from the local community as well as from other military spouse clients of hers.

She states, "Most of the customers I had (at the salon) were quick to judge me." She goes on to admit that her clients native to El Paso and Mexico were wary of her ability due to racial favoritism. Moreover, she writes that she didn't get many military wives in her chair, but the few she did get came with what I described above as the better-than-you / less-that-you attitude (oftentimes expressed through fear.)

Laura further states, "I do feel for (Ashley) because I understand what it feels to be uprooted from everyone and everything that makes you, you. I've lived in Rhode Island, Georgia, and now here in Texas. I miss home every day, and although my husband is my home away from home, he is often busy, leaving me to try and put myself together in a strange place. I barely know my nephews. My grandmother is loosing her memory. And my parents look 10 years older every time I see them. I have one friend and I've been here a year. This has been the hardest location so far."

Oh, to dream what the outcome of the Laura-Ashley story would have been if Laura would have said this exact thing to her in the moment. They could have really bonded and become friends on common ground.

When have you felt supported or unsupported by a sister military spouse? 
How has that experience changed the way you interact with other spouses?

EB Butterfly Free Signature 2
Erin Bettis

(*Some of the names in this post have been changed to protect identities.)

You Might Also Like:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...