A few days after this episode is released is Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day. We wanted to acknowledge our servicemen and women who serve our country and that of our neighbor, the USA, and to thank you for helping make it possible for us to live lives of freedom and meaning. If you’re not a veteran I would encourage you to take in today’s episode regardless to better understand some of the sacrifices and challenges our military members face on the home front.
It’s hard to imagine a marriage with more strain on it than that of a serviceman or woman and their spouse. I have to confess I thought looking into these marriages was mostly going to be negative — that we’d see a lot of challenges and not a lot of upside. And yet, of course, we’ll see that human resiliency is a beautiful thing and that there are a lot of positive, hopeful things happening in military marriages as well.
Marriage and Military Deployment
Of course there are a lot of challenges faced by both the serving soldier and the spouse who remains at home. These can include mental health issues, for example,
Military service undeniably puts strain on a marriage, through the emotional roller-coaster of separation and reuniting, and the fears of losing your loved one each time they are deployed. This unfortunately leads to some of these marriages becoming unstable, resulting in divorce rates of 53% among military couples, which is higher than for non-military couples[iii]. So these are serious challenges, but it’s not all bad news.
Despite the challenges of military service some couples report that it strengthens the marriage. A study from 2013[iv] interviewed 118 military couples and found that 44% of them reported “better relationship dynamics” upon reuniting, while 35% reported more destructive communication and 21% reported no change. Almost half of the couples in this situation were able to draw some positive from it, whether that’s from the strong bond they feel for each other, the sense of pride and purpose their service brings, or the support they receive from those around them.
93% of couples were able to identify at least one positive change as a result of the deployment, for example increased confidence and autonomy for the wife, or a new sense of purpose for the husband or a greater appreciation for family life upon return. So even in the midst of extremely tough circumstances couples can still find things to be grateful for. And that’s pretty awesome.
If you are a couple in this situation, or you know someone who is about to face their first deployment, it can be useful to know what to expect. So let’s look at the emotional cycle of deployment and how couples typically react to each stage of the journey.
Emotional Cycle of Deployment
Couples typically go through five stages when one spouse is deployed to active service for a long period of time[v].
This is the time from receiving orders to deploy to then actually leaving. It can be weeks or months.
What to expect:
- The wife staying home may experience denial or high levels of fear, or even anticipate losing their spouse for good. They may also feel anger at their soldier husband for leaving, leading to conflict in the marriage. This is going to be a very stressful time so all kinds of emotions are to be expected.
- The soldier may become emotionally and physically distant as he starts training and bonding with his squad mates. The soldier is, in some sense, mentally already deployed, and already looking ahead to the challenges facing him[vi].
- Both spouses may come into conflict and stress over trying to get their affairs in order, for example the husband doing all the important DIY tasks before leaving, or both spouses sorting out finances, wills, childcare etc.
- Couples often have a strong desire to make the most of the time before the soldier leaves, for example by having the “perfect” Christmas or birthday. And this ends up putting even more pressure on them in an already stressful time.
- They may also experience fears and doubts about whether the marriage will survive, and possibly about infidelity while the wife is at home.
I would add from non-military marriages that there is a fairly normal thing that happens when couples know they are going to be separating due to travel or work: they tend to pull back and may even almost seek conflict. It just helps create the distance while the other spouse is still around, perhaps in the hopes of reducing the pain of loss when the spouse leaves.
Couples can cope with this by ensuring conflicts are properly resolved before the soldier leaves and ensuring they separate on good terms. Having conflict hanging over them can interfere with the wife’s routine and can make the soldier unfocused, which could be dangerous for him when on duty. Talking about their expectations of what the separation will be like is also important[vii].
Once again we’ve created a bonus guide and while we normally offer these exclusively to our supporters, we are going to make this one freely available on our Patreon page.
The Five Stages of Military Deployment
This guide is something that I sent to one of our listeners who is a military wife. In addition to useful learning from research of military marriages, it has some real, on-the ground advice for those of you who not only fight for our country but fight for your marriage as well. You can get access to this and find out about our other fantastic bonus content on by clicking the button below.
Stage two is the first month of separation.
What to expect:
- Spouses can expect a huge range of emotions following the departure of their military spouse, from numbness and grief to relief at no longer having to appear strong and supportive in front of your deployed spouse.
- Worries about security in relation to finances, childcare and other concerns are common.
During this time, staying in contact by phone or Skype is helpful for both spouses, although not always possible. Conflict can make the stress at this stage much worse so this first month sounds like it must be really hard.
This is the period of continued separation from the first month onwards.
What to expect:
- During this time the spouse learns to find support from other sources, such as support groups, family or church. S/he learns that s/he is able to cope with difficulties as they arise and make important decisions by alone[viii].
- Continued communication with the soldier is important to help them stay connected but can also cause conflict. Phone communication is always more prone to misinterpretation and distortion since you’re relying on voice without any clue to your spouse’s facial expressions or the context they’re calling from. If you cannot use video during your calls you don’t have body language and all those non-verbal cue to rely on as when you communicate in person.
Hopefully by this point you’re both settling into something of a routine and learning to cope with the challenges you’re facing. Continued communication is so important here. In a previous episode on long distance relationships (and military couples definitely fall into this category) we saw that staying in face to face contact where possible was good for keeping your bond strong, and talking about all the little details of life together was also important.
This is the last month before the soldier returns home.
What to expect:
- Both spouses will obviously feel intense anticipation about reuniting. Expectations will definitely be high.
- At the same time, the at-home spouse may feel apprehension about giving up independence or about whether the deployed spouse will have changed and whether you’ll get along upon reuniting. S/he has basically been running the house entirely alone for several long months and changes to the house or to the family routine may cause worry that the military spouse may not approve upon his or her return.
- At this point it may be harder to make decisions as you become acutely aware that the soldier will be returning soon. Do I make the decision? Do I wait for him or her to get home?
As with the months before leaving, looking forward to your happy reunion is definitely a good thing and you should take comfort in the fact that your separation is nearly over. But managing your expectations is also important. You’ve been apart in very difficult circumstances for a long time: things aren’t going to go back to normal right away.
Reuniting can be a very joyful and happy experience, creating a “honeymoon period” where all seems to be going great. But reuniting also has its own challenges.
The soldier spouse may have changed significantly during the time away. This can include positive and negative elements[ix]. Here’s some examples from the research:
- They may be disillusioned with their own beliefs and values due to the horrors they have experienced, leading to apathy and an erosion of the soldier’s sense of self.
- On the other hand they could come back with their faith in their country and their purpose stronger than ever.
- Soldiers will definitely have gained new skills, as well as physical and mental strength.
- Learning to suppress emotions: soldiers are trained in suppressing their fears and emotions in order to survive in combat. Now when they are home, showing this vulnerability, which is required in a marriage, is just the opposite of what helped them to survive when deployed.
- Reactiveness: soldiers need to learn to react quickly and with extreme violence to any perceived threat. Again this is an essential skill for wartime but not at all helpful upon return. Soldiers are drilled to see all situations in terms of potential threats, victims and bystanders, and this is a mindset that will take time to break out of.
Reintegration can be hard as the soldier readjusts to the role of husband and parent, while coming to terms with the trauma of warfare. Family dynamics may have changed as the at home spouse has had to take all the responsibility for the house, children and finances. The at home spouse may also resent the loss of freedom and control they had over family life while the soldier was away.
I think it is wise for couples to not set their expectations too high for this reunion phase and just understand that it will take time to reconnect[x], slowly re-negotiating roles and creating a new dynamic.
So that’s the five stages of deployment. Hopefully you can see some of the challenges each stage presents and get a better idea of what to expect. If you are a military couple then you may want to talk through these different stages, with the help of our free bonus guide, and think about how you’ll cope with each difficulty.
Let’s finish by considering a few other factors that come into play during separation.
Relational turbulence: reuniting after military service creates a state of relational turbulence (a concept we’ve looked at when we talked about empty nest syndrome) in which there is an increased reactivity to both positive and negative actions from your spouse[xi]. Stressful times generally bring out both the best and worst in a couple. This is driven by:
- Relational uncertainty: the state of change and the long time apart can alter each spouse’s perceptions of how stable the relationship is. Partners may feel that if their soldier spouse is willing to travel away and risk his life for his job then he may be more committed to the army than to the marriage[xii].
- Perceived interference: when couples are doing normal life together, most day to day tasks are done without much conscious thought. You usually never sit down and decide who does the dishes or the school run, you just get into a routine. When couples are reunited after a long absence they have to become more consciously aware of who does what task (eg in housework, financial matters) and this can lead to the perception than your spouse is interfering with or undermining you. If you’re consciously thinking about these little things for the first time, it can be a fertile ground for conflict if you aren’t careful.
Depressive symptoms, relational uncertainty and perceived partner interference all predicted difficulty reintegrating. So couples should take steps to reaffirm their commitment to each other and work out ways to re-negotiate roles in the house so as to not create perceived interference. This will make reintegration much easier.
While diagnosed rates of PTSD are lower than you might expect in post-deployment military couples, PTSD symptoms can still negatively impact marriages. A study in 2010[xiii] surveyed 434 recently reunited military couples and found that PTSD symptoms were linked to decreases in marital satisfaction, confidence in the relationship, bonding behaviors between spouses (doing fun things, physical intimacy), parenting alliance (agreeing with each other on how to raise and discipline the children) and dedication to the relationship. These decreases were found for both the husband and wife.
However, the decreases in marital satisfaction were entirely mediated by the changes in parenting, negative communication and bonding behaviors. So if these things are addressed then war and PTSD symptoms do not impact marriages.
Overall I think the message here is that couples who are in this kind of relationship need to know what to expect and be prepared for some difficulties, both before and during deployment, and afterwards when reunited. But like all challenges the stresses of being a military couple can be faced together, and your marriage may come through stronger than ever.
[i] Gadermann et al., “Prevalence of DSM-IV Major Depression among U.S. Military Personnel.”
[ii] Mansfield et al., “Deployment and the Use of Mental Health Services among U.S. Army Wives.”
[iii] Cox and Albright, The Road to Recovery: Addressing the Challenges and Resilience of Military Couples in the Scope of Veteran’s Mental Health.
[iv] Knobloch et al., “Generalized Anxiety and Relational Uncertainty as Predictors of Topic Avoidance During Reintegration Following Military Deployment.”
[v] Pincus et al., The Emotional Cycle of Deployment: A Military Family Perspective.
[vi] Pincus et al.
[vii] Pincus et al.
[viii] Pincus et al.
[ix] Basham, “Homecoming as Safe Haven or the New Front.”
[x] Pincus et al., The Emotional Cycle of Deployment: A Military Family Perspective.
[xi] Knobloch et al., “Generalized Anxiety and Relational Uncertainty as Predictors of Topic Avoidance During Reintegration Following Military Deployment.”
[xii] Cox and Albright, The Road to Recovery: Addressing the Challenges and Resilience of Military Couples in the Scope of Veteran’s Mental Health.
[xiii] Allen et al., “Hitting Home: Relationships between Recent Deployment, Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms, and Marital Functioning for Army Couples.”