When interferes with couples’ intimacy, social activities and communication

            When someone commits to the
military, not only are they committing to serving their country, they are
committing to possible deployments, unpredictable schedules, being away from
home for months at a time, missing birthdays and holidays, and going days without
talking to their loved ones. Though we know that this life is anything but easy, I feel that the lives and struggles
of those whom soldiers leave behind often get dismissed. With over half of the
U.S. military members having families at home, thousands of partners and
spouses experience significant challenges while learning to cope with unique
stressors not typically faced by civilians (Allen, Rhoades, Stanley, &
Markman, 2010; Cafferky & Shi, 2015; Cigrang et al., 2014) Commitments to
our military have resulted in high demands for countless families, with devastation
affecting many (Allen et al., 2010). Military couples must learn to navigate
and negotiate the complexities and patterns of their relationship within the
military culture, while preparing for, coping with, or recovering from
prolonged 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 to
either improve or impair the strains of the deployment cycle (Cigrang et al.,
2014).

            Within my family, my grandfather, an
uncle, 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 learning
more about my uncle’s deployments that sparked my interest in marital
relationships and effects of deployment. I was in third-grade when my uncle
returned from Iraq for the last time. Since then, my aunt and I have
occasionally discussed what life was like as a military wife, who at the time was also expecting their first
child.

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            Like
my aunt and uncle, Cafferky and Shi (2015) label deployments as periods full of
distress for military families. The physical separation that accompanies
deployment often interferes with couples’ intimacy, social activities and
communication (Allen et al., 2010). While there has been growth and
advancements in the military’s communication technology over the last decade,
which have created more capabilities for deployed soldiers to communicate with
their partners, many still report struggling to connect. The amount as well as
duration of communication between the couple is often dependent upon the
environment or area in which the soldier is stationed (Cigrang et al., 2014).
The link between this related demand of insufficient communication and marital
outcomes are addressed by Karney and Crown (2007), who proposed an integrative
model in which military experiences, like deployment, can directly affect the
couple’s “adaptive processes” which include all the ways spouses interact,
communicate, resolve problems, provide support, and understand each other (as
cited in Allen et al., 2010). Allen et al. (2010) goes further to explain how
the strengths and weaknesses of these processes can influence marital
satisfaction and the couple’s level of connection, subsequently clarifying how
deployments can have both direct impacts on the adaptive processes amd indirect
effects via emergent traits like posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.

            When studying deployment among
marriages, past literature found that common outcomes, including divorce,
infidelity, and domestic abuse, are linked or impacted by other relationship
variables like the level of confidence that the marriage can survive over the
long-term, the level of dedication partners have to their marriage and each
other, and their positive bonding behaviors (Allen et al., 2010). Cafferky and
Shi (2015) note that various relationship variables, like those previously
mentioned, may come as a result of the home-bound partner feeling isolated from
their primary source of emotional support, which challenges the emotional
connection of the couple.

            An evaluation was conducted to
assess the degree to which the adaptive processes (e.g., communication, positive
bonding and connection) had been influenced by the relationship between
deployment and marital satisfaction (Allen et al., 2010). Throughout the next
several pages, I will briefly address the importance of communication and
connection for marital satisfaction then discuss attachment styles and coping
strategies that have been reported by wives of deployed soldiers.

            In addition to service members and
their families, who consider communication to be an essential factor in
maintaining positive morale and well-being, military leaders also believe that
communication with loved ones is beneficial for both those deployed and those
at home (Cigrang et al., 2014). As we know, adaptive processes, like
communication and positive bonding (e.g., fun, friendship, and physical
intimacy), are recognized to be important and fairly predictive of marital
success (Allen et al., 2010). Specifically, Cigrang et al. (2014) discusses two
main functions of intimate partner communication, in regard to the contribution
among marriages; “to promote and maintain emotional connection or attachment
through shared visioning, vulnerable self-disclosure, and responsive listening;
and effective problem-solving or decision-making” (p. 333). Though
accomplishing these through communication may seem easy, my researchers could
assure you that it is much more difficult for those in the military, given
their limited time and resources. Similar to challenges faced by long-distance
couples in the civilian community, the separation because from deployment can
undermine opportunities for positive connections and challenge both functions
of 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 to
interact, restricted nonverbal cues, greater burdens for one partner, or realistic
fears about the safety and well-being of their military member, the ability to
communicate amongst them is tested (Cigrang et al., 2014).

            While some couples during deployment
may choose to focus their opportunities for communication on “maintaining
emotional connection” which is empowering both partners to manage situational
challenges at their respective sites on their own or with other support
resources to spare their limited communication opportunities from intrusions,
others choose to arrange a routine or schedule for communication, with hope
that it would help maintain a sense of closeness, partnership and mutual
support (Cigrang et al., 2014, p. 340). Actually, evidence has suggested that
partners who are explicit in communicating their preferences and expectations,
and able to develop and implement the shared strategy, to be better equipped to
weather the inherent strains that deployment brings (Cigrang et al., 2014).
Another study, by Ponder and Aquirre (2012), examines the relationship between
marital satisfaction and frequency of a variety communication types during
deployment. The study found that, among the 119 married veterans who served in
Iraq or Afghanistan, there was a significant, positive correlation between the
frequency of communication with an intimate partner during deployment and
marital satisfaction, with frequency of letter writing showing the strongest
correlation among all communication types accounted for (as cited in Cigrang et
al., 2014). Yet, Yerkes and Holloway (1996) found importance in mentioning
that, couples who show better relations pre-deployment may also communicate
more during deployment, in comparison to couples with unresolved conflicts who
may tend to avoid (as cited in Cigrang et al., 2014).

            When communication with their spouse
wasn’t possible, some military wives reported being on an “emotional
rollercoaster,” with fear and powerlessness becoming overwhelming during their
husbands’ deployments. The combination of having limited availability and
limited 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 logistical
access can be a difficult task since interruptions by “unknown” service
members, explosions, or faulty equipment are common given the territory; all of
which increases the distress levels of military wives’ (as cited in Cafferky
& Shi, 2015). In fact, Cigrang et al. (2014) mentions research findings
that indicate that higher levels of communication between partners may be a
contributing factor to improving the quality of a relationship between partners
during deployment. Already aware of its influential properties, communication
between partners is also acknowledged to have an impact on wives’ or partners’
ability to “cope positively” during a loved ones deployment. Recent studies
reflect the way in which military wives have chosen to respond to their
distress; by adopting one of three coping strategies as an avenue to relief:
sacrificing oneself, preserving oneself by pushing partner away, or drawing
strength from the existent relationship (Cafferky & Shi, 2015).

            John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth introduced
the theory of attachment, which describes the reciprocal, emotional connection
experienced between two individuals. Rooted in a biological force, an
attachment is a basic behavioral system that characterizes individual’s
emotional bonds toward another, playing a significant role in their everyday
life; with access to and maintenance of this supportive and secure emotional
bond being mutually beneficial for both in the relationship (Cafferky &
Shi, 2015). Cafferky and Shi (2015) found that the homebound partner’s ability
to maintain their emotional connection with their partner while the other is
deployed is directly linked to their ability to cope with the emotional stress
of the separation and reunion. Military research and attachment theory suggest
that the way in which a woman chooses to cope with her partner’s deployment is
inseparable to the emotional connection she feels towards her soldier; these
can have significant repercussions.

            Military wives have reported
benefitting from thinking positive thoughts, focusing on themselves, tapping
into social support networks during deployment, as well as staying busy,
becoming self-determined, exploring their self-discovery, or improving their
self-confidence. It seems as though expanding one’s personal development and
putting energy into other activities has been associated with positive bonding
behaviors, while denial of their partner’s status has been linked to
maladaptive coping methods (Cafferky & Shi, 2015). Representing the result
of one’s inner emotional organization to their attachment figure (or loved
one), emotionally charged interactions help to navigate the reason an
individual’s chooses to withdraw, become angry, or actively try to stay
emotionally connected.

            If an individual is able to stay
connected by assessing their internal representation of the relationship, by
using the confidence in their relationship, an individual will likely use that
attachment figure as a safe haven or secure base when exploring coping options (Cafferky
& Shi, 2015). Researchers found that if wives can maintain a secure
emotional connection during deployment, then their options for coping will draw
strength from and reinforce the emotional bond they feel is between them and their
husbands. Lacking this confidence or security could cause a woman to over-compensate
their fear with an exaggerated search for independence, becoming easily
overwhelmed and sending distress signals with hopes of “being rescued” (Cafferky
& Shi, 2015). Maintaining emotional connections is a crucial aspect of
sustaining marital satisfaction and overall well-being. If women fail to do so,
their coping mechanisms may reflect this, ultimately adversely affecting the
couple’s emotional bond that, for wives, can influence their perceptions,
reactions and pursuits. Unfortunately, limited opportunities for direct
interaction often challenges qualities needed for a secure emotional
connection, like senses of security, comfort and safety (Cafferky & Shi,
2015). Vormbrock (1993) also noted that the longer military wives experience
emotional separation, the more pronounced their distressed attachment responses
may be (as cited in Cafferky & Shi, 2015).

            Cafferky and Shi (2015) continue by
listing and explaining three types of coping strategies that wives or partners
often adopt when feeling distressed about their partner’s deployment: “1) coping
that pursues unrealistic closeness to their husbands (sacrificing their own
emotional well-being), 2) coping that emotionally distances themselves from
their deployed husbands (preserveing their own emotional well-being), and 3)
coping that draws on the strength of the couple’s emotional connection (which
strengthens their emotional well-being) (p. 286).

            The first coping strategy or emergent
theme reflects those who tend to ignore the reality of their partner’s
deployment, which is recognized to negatively affect the couple’s emotional
well-being. Often the women who adopt this mechanism chase any news of their
husbands or their units. Cafferky and Shi (2015) also suggest that these women
tend to distance themselves from others while also reporting, depression,
devastation, feeling alone with no support. Those who “sacrifice” their own
emotional well-being sometimes become angry and resentful towards a variety of
things, like the whole situations, the need for the deployment, at God, at the
military, at the world and even at civilians, accompanied by personal reports
indicating their insufficient understanding of what they “signed up for” when
they married a “military man” (Cafferky & Shi, 2015).

            This next strategy reflects women’s
attempts to distance themselves from their deployed partners after becoming too
overwhelmed by the emotional distress that accompanies separation. As a way to
protect their own emotional well-being instead of staying emotionally connected
to their partner, who they perceive to already be emotionally unavailable. Many
of these women either turn to improving their own independence, living in
denial or guarding their emotions (Cafferky & Shi, 2015).

            Finally the third emergent theme
reflects how military wives cope by drawing on the strength of the couple’s
existent emotional bond. These women reported reliance on their
perceived-to-be, emotionally available husbands; finding different ways to
connect during the time of separation. These methods include: “romancing
yourself” or walking down memory lane via pictures, rereading letters, videos,
smelling their belongings or going through their clothes, journaling which
consists of keeping a journal, because often times women didn’t feel that their
family and friends were capable of understanding their deployment experience,
and being with others or the instance where women draw strength from spending
time 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 formal
support programs, individual therapy, talked with military chaplains), which has
been recognized as a healthy way to remain emotionally connected to husbands
(Cafferky & Shi, 2015).

            Cafferky and Shi (2015) concluded
that these “three emergent themes or coping strategies coincide with different
attachment styles: preoccupied, avoidant and secure” (p. 291). The attachment theory
frames women’s feelings of disappointment are reactions of the preoccupied
style which can result in attachment injuries that can be change their
emotional connection with their partners in the long-run. When women tend to shift
towards becoming more independent as a result of their separation and it’s
correlating distress, their style of coping may eventually change as well,
commonly from preoccupied to avoidant. They may become avoidant because of
their efforts to develop more self-determination, self-confidence or
self-sufficiency. Due to their lack of trust in their husbands and their
reliability and availability for support when handling the rigors and struggles
of life, military wives or partners may eventually embrace independence to
ensure an improvement in their own well-being and functioning.

            We have seen that the communication
and connection between partners is often what can influence individual’s
attachment styles and abilities to cope with relational distresses. Among
military couples that experience less connection during deployments, intimate
communication with one’s partner seems to be an essential factor for the
success and satisfaction of a relationship. Cigrang et al. (2014) agreed by
stating that, “distressed couples who continue to communicate infrequently
during deployment have limited opportunities to reestablish a more positive
relationship” (p. 339). If couples expect to survive periods of separation in
which communication will most likely decrease, shaping their positive bonding
behaviors and emotional connection, like what most military couples experience
during deployments, then while they are still together they need to be
deliberate when discussing their expectations for their relationship when they
are thousands of miles away from each other.

 

 

References

Allen, E. S., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S.
M., & Markman, H. J. (2010). Hitting home: Relationships between recent
deployment, posttraumatic stress symptoms, and marital functioning for army
couples. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(3),
280-288.

Cafferky, B., & Shi, L. (2015).
Military wives emotionally coping during deployment: Balancing dependence and
independence. The American Journal of
Family Therapy, 43, 282-295.

Cigrang, J. A., Talcott, G. W., Tatum,
J., Baker, M., Cassidy, D., Sonnek, S., Snyder, D. K., Balderrama-Durbin, C.,
Heyman, R. E., & Slep, A. M. S. (2014). Intimate partner communication from
the war zone: A prospective study of relationship functioning, communication
frequency, and combat effectiveness. Journal
of Marital and Family Therapy, 40(3), 332-343.