When someone commits to themilitary, not only are they committing to serving their country, they arecommitting to possible deployments, unpredictable schedules, being away fromhome for months at a time, missing birthdays and holidays, and going days withouttalking to their loved ones. Though we know that this life is anything but easy, I feel that the lives and strugglesof those whom soldiers leave behind often get dismissed.
With over half of theU.S. military members having families at home, thousands of partners andspouses experience significant challenges while learning to cope with uniquestressors not typically faced by civilians (Allen, Rhoades, Stanley, &Markman, 2010; Cafferky & Shi, 2015; Cigrang et al., 2014) Commitments toour military have resulted in high demands for countless families, with devastationaffecting many (Allen et al., 2010). Military couples must learn to navigateand negotiate the complexities and patterns of their relationship within themilitary culture, while preparing for, coping with, or recovering fromprolonged separations and threats to their survival (Cigrang et al.
, 2014).Today’s deployments are straining our soldiers’ relationships more than ever,with communication between them and their loved ones having the potential toeither improve or impair the strains of the deployment cycle (Cigrang et al.,2014). Within my family, my grandfather, anuncle, and cousin had served in the Air Force while another served in the Navy.Though I have been exposed to military life in some regards, it was learningmore about my uncle’s deployments that sparked my interest in maritalrelationships and effects of deployment. I was in third-grade when my unclereturned from Iraq for the last time. Since then, my aunt and I haveoccasionally discussed what life was like as a military wife, who at the time was also expecting their firstchild. Likemy aunt and uncle, Cafferky and Shi (2015) label deployments as periods full ofdistress for military families.
The physical separation that accompaniesdeployment often interferes with couples’ intimacy, social activities andcommunication (Allen et al., 2010). While there has been growth andadvancements in the military’s communication technology over the last decade,which have created more capabilities for deployed soldiers to communicate withtheir partners, many still report struggling to connect. The amount as well asduration of communication between the couple is often dependent upon theenvironment or area in which the soldier is stationed (Cigrang et al., 2014).The link between this related demand of insufficient communication and maritaloutcomes are addressed by Karney and Crown (2007), who proposed an integrativemodel in which military experiences, like deployment, can directly affect thecouple’s “adaptive processes” which include all the ways spouses interact,communicate, resolve problems, provide support, and understand each other (ascited in Allen et al., 2010). Allen et al.
(2010) goes further to explain howthe strengths and weaknesses of these processes can influence maritalsatisfaction and the couple’s level of connection, subsequently clarifying howdeployments can have both direct impacts on the adaptive processes amd indirecteffects via emergent traits like posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. When studying deployment amongmarriages, past literature found that common outcomes, including divorce,infidelity, and domestic abuse, are linked or impacted by other relationshipvariables like the level of confidence that the marriage can survive over thelong-term, the level of dedication partners have to their marriage and eachother, and their positive bonding behaviors (Allen et al., 2010). Cafferky andShi (2015) note that various relationship variables, like those previouslymentioned, may come as a result of the home-bound partner feeling isolated fromtheir primary source of emotional support, which challenges the emotionalconnection of the couple. An evaluation was conducted toassess the degree to which the adaptive processes (e.g., communication, positivebonding and connection) had been influenced by the relationship betweendeployment and marital satisfaction (Allen et al., 2010).
Throughout the nextseveral pages, I will briefly address the importance of communication andconnection for marital satisfaction then discuss attachment styles and copingstrategies that have been reported by wives of deployed soldiers. In addition to service members andtheir families, who consider communication to be an essential factor inmaintaining positive morale and well-being, military leaders also believe thatcommunication with loved ones is beneficial for both those deployed and thoseat home (Cigrang et al., 2014). As we know, adaptive processes, likecommunication and positive bonding (e.g.
, fun, friendship, and physicalintimacy), are recognized to be important and fairly predictive of maritalsuccess (Allen et al., 2010). Specifically, Cigrang et al. (2014) discusses twomain functions of intimate partner communication, in regard to the contributionamong marriages; “to promote and maintain emotional connection or attachmentthrough shared visioning, vulnerable self-disclosure, and responsive listening;and effective problem-solving or decision-making” (p. 333). Thoughaccomplishing these through communication may seem easy, my researchers couldassure you that it is much more difficult for those in the military, giventheir limited time and resources.
Similar to challenges faced by long-distancecouples in the civilian community, the separation because from deployment canundermine opportunities for positive connections and challenge both functionsof partner communication, requiring significant adaptations in couples’communication processes and patterns (Allen et al., 2010; Cigrang et al.,2014).
When couples’ relationships are challenged by fewer opportunities tointeract, restricted nonverbal cues, greater burdens for one partner, or realisticfears about the safety and well-being of their military member, the ability tocommunicate amongst them is tested (Cigrang et al., 2014). While some couples during deploymentmay choose to focus their opportunities for communication on “maintainingemotional connection” which is empowering both partners to manage situationalchallenges at their respective sites on their own or with other supportresources to spare their limited communication opportunities from intrusions,others choose to arrange a routine or schedule for communication, with hopethat it would help maintain a sense of closeness, partnership and mutualsupport (Cigrang et al., 2014, p. 340).
Actually, evidence has suggested thatpartners who are explicit in communicating their preferences and expectations,and able to develop and implement the shared strategy, to be better equipped toweather the inherent strains that deployment brings (Cigrang et al., 2014).Another study, by Ponder and Aquirre (2012), examines the relationship betweenmarital satisfaction and frequency of a variety communication types duringdeployment. The study found that, among the 119 married veterans who served inIraq or Afghanistan, there was a significant, positive correlation between thefrequency of communication with an intimate partner during deployment andmarital satisfaction, with frequency of letter writing showing the strongestcorrelation among all communication types accounted for (as cited in Cigrang etal.
, 2014). Yet, Yerkes and Holloway (1996) found importance in mentioningthat, couples who show better relations pre-deployment may also communicatemore during deployment, in comparison to couples with unresolved conflicts whomay tend to avoid (as cited in Cigrang et al., 2014). When communication with their spousewasn’t possible, some military wives reported being on an “emotionalrollercoaster,” with fear and powerlessness becoming overwhelming during theirhusbands’ deployments. The combination of having limited availability andlimited logistical access to their husbands tends to compromise military wives’senses of emotional connection with their spouses (Cafferky & Shi, 2015).
Merolla (2010), Davis, Ward and Storm (2011) found that gaining logisticalaccess can be a difficult task since interruptions by “unknown” servicemembers, explosions, or faulty equipment are common given the territory; all ofwhich increases the distress levels of military wives’ (as cited in Cafferky& Shi, 2015). In fact, Cigrang et al. (2014) mentions research findingsthat indicate that higher levels of communication between partners may be acontributing factor to improving the quality of a relationship between partnersduring deployment. Already aware of its influential properties, communicationbetween partners is also acknowledged to have an impact on wives’ or partners’ability to “cope positively” during a loved ones deployment.
Recent studiesreflect the way in which military wives have chosen to respond to theirdistress; by adopting one of three coping strategies as an avenue to relief:sacrificing oneself, preserving oneself by pushing partner away, or drawingstrength from the existent relationship (Cafferky & Shi, 2015). John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth introducedthe theory of attachment, which describes the reciprocal, emotional connectionexperienced between two individuals. Rooted in a biological force, anattachment is a basic behavioral system that characterizes individual’semotional bonds toward another, playing a significant role in their everydaylife; with access to and maintenance of this supportive and secure emotionalbond being mutually beneficial for both in the relationship (Cafferky &Shi, 2015). Cafferky and Shi (2015) found that the homebound partner’s abilityto maintain their emotional connection with their partner while the other isdeployed is directly linked to their ability to cope with the emotional stressof the separation and reunion. Military research and attachment theory suggestthat the way in which a woman chooses to cope with her partner’s deployment isinseparable to the emotional connection she feels towards her soldier; thesecan have significant repercussions. Military wives have reportedbenefitting from thinking positive thoughts, focusing on themselves, tappinginto social support networks during deployment, as well as staying busy,becoming self-determined, exploring their self-discovery, or improving theirself-confidence.
It seems as though expanding one’s personal development andputting energy into other activities has been associated with positive bondingbehaviors, while denial of their partner’s status has been linked tomaladaptive coping methods (Cafferky & Shi, 2015). Representing the resultof one’s inner emotional organization to their attachment figure (or lovedone), emotionally charged interactions help to navigate the reason anindividual’s chooses to withdraw, become angry, or actively try to stayemotionally connected. If an individual is able to stayconnected by assessing their internal representation of the relationship, byusing the confidence in their relationship, an individual will likely use thatattachment figure as a safe haven or secure base when exploring coping options (Cafferky& Shi, 2015). Researchers found that if wives can maintain a secureemotional connection during deployment, then their options for coping will drawstrength from and reinforce the emotional bond they feel is between them and theirhusbands. Lacking this confidence or security could cause a woman to over-compensatetheir fear with an exaggerated search for independence, becoming easilyoverwhelmed and sending distress signals with hopes of “being rescued” (Cafferky& Shi, 2015). Maintaining emotional connections is a crucial aspect ofsustaining marital satisfaction and overall well-being.
If women fail to do so,their coping mechanisms may reflect this, ultimately adversely affecting thecouple’s emotional bond that, for wives, can influence their perceptions,reactions and pursuits. Unfortunately, limited opportunities for directinteraction often challenges qualities needed for a secure emotionalconnection, like senses of security, comfort and safety (Cafferky & Shi,2015). Vormbrock (1993) also noted that the longer military wives experienceemotional separation, the more pronounced their distressed attachment responsesmay be (as cited in Cafferky & Shi, 2015). Cafferky and Shi (2015) continue bylisting and explaining three types of coping strategies that wives or partnersoften adopt when feeling distressed about their partner’s deployment: “1) copingthat pursues unrealistic closeness to their husbands (sacrificing their ownemotional well-being), 2) coping that emotionally distances themselves fromtheir deployed husbands (preserveing their own emotional well-being), and 3)coping that draws on the strength of the couple’s emotional connection (whichstrengthens their emotional well-being) (p. 286). The first coping strategy or emergenttheme reflects those who tend to ignore the reality of their partner’sdeployment, which is recognized to negatively affect the couple’s emotionalwell-being.
Often the women who adopt this mechanism chase any news of theirhusbands or their units. Cafferky and Shi (2015) also suggest that these womentend to distance themselves from others while also reporting, depression,devastation, feeling alone with no support. Those who “sacrifice” their ownemotional well-being sometimes become angry and resentful towards a variety ofthings, like the whole situations, the need for the deployment, at God, at themilitary, at the world and even at civilians, accompanied by personal reportsindicating their insufficient understanding of what they “signed up for” whenthey married a “military man” (Cafferky & Shi, 2015). This next strategy reflects women’sattempts to distance themselves from their deployed partners after becoming toooverwhelmed by the emotional distress that accompanies separation. As a way toprotect their own emotional well-being instead of staying emotionally connectedto their partner, who they perceive to already be emotionally unavailable.
Manyof these women either turn to improving their own independence, living indenial or guarding their emotions (Cafferky & Shi, 2015). Finally the third emergent themereflects how military wives cope by drawing on the strength of the couple’sexistent emotional bond. These women reported reliance on theirperceived-to-be, emotionally available husbands; finding different ways toconnect during the time of separation.
These methods include: “romancingyourself” or walking down memory lane via pictures, rereading letters, videos,smelling their belongings or going through their clothes, journaling whichconsists of keeping a journal, because often times women didn’t feel that theirfamily and friends were capable of understanding their deployment experience,and being with others or the instance where women draw strength from spendingtime with others who might inquire about their emotional well-being or needs,in addition to providing them with space to vent (e.g. some went to formalsupport programs, individual therapy, talked with military chaplains), which hasbeen recognized as a healthy way to remain emotionally connected to husbands(Cafferky & Shi, 2015).
Cafferky and Shi (2015) concludedthat these “three emergent themes or coping strategies coincide with differentattachment styles: preoccupied, avoidant and secure” (p. 291). The attachment theoryframes women’s feelings of disappointment are reactions of the preoccupiedstyle which can result in attachment injuries that can be change theiremotional connection with their partners in the long-run. When women tend to shifttowards becoming more independent as a result of their separation and it’scorrelating distress, their style of coping may eventually change as well,commonly from preoccupied to avoidant. They may become avoidant because oftheir efforts to develop more self-determination, self-confidence orself-sufficiency. Due to their lack of trust in their husbands and theirreliability and availability for support when handling the rigors and strugglesof life, military wives or partners may eventually embrace independence toensure an improvement in their own well-being and functioning. We have seen that the communicationand connection between partners is often what can influence individual’sattachment styles and abilities to cope with relational distresses. Amongmilitary couples that experience less connection during deployments, intimatecommunication with one’s partner seems to be an essential factor for thesuccess and satisfaction of a relationship.
Cigrang et al. (2014) agreed bystating that, “distressed couples who continue to communicate infrequentlyduring deployment have limited opportunities to reestablish a more positiverelationship” (p. 339).
If couples expect to survive periods of separation inwhich communication will most likely decrease, shaping their positive bondingbehaviors and emotional connection, like what most military couples experienceduring deployments, then while they are still together they need to bedeliberate when discussing their expectations for their relationship when theyare thousands of miles away from each other. ReferencesAllen, E. S., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S.
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