What we can learn from military and veteran families


Our troubles this winter in the northeastern US with bad weather, school closings, and power outages started me thinking about how couples and families cope with hardship. For us, what amounted to a series of uncomfortable inconveniences really made me (and my wife and kids) think hard about how to accomplish the normal things: making meals, getting homework done, getting showers, and getting to work. Since I work with military veterans and their spouses, I realize we can learn much about coping from these couples and their families.

Challenges for military and veteran Families. The media has paid a lot of attention recently to the impact of deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan on military families and the impact of war trauma and the reunion when the service member returns. Certainly these are hardships, but let’s look at the unseen, common stresses. The military is a demanding institution. Training deployments take the service member away from the household, so military spouses are used to taking over duties for weeks at a time. (See this article from a spouse of a service member). Employment and financial problems are imposed on military families in unexpected ways. Frequent relocations due to transfers may lead to fewer options for getting jobs or advancement in career for military spouses. Those serving in the National Guard and Reserve components of the military have civilian careers until they are called to serve in a combat deployment; military pay may not compensate for the loss of this income. And yes, for combat deployments, the risk of life and limb is a given and both partners have to cope with the potential for tragedy.

Shared sense of mission and becoming stronger in the face of adversity. Military couples share a sense of mission which helps sustain them through tough times. The military is a very “mission-oriented” institution. During military service, the goals of training and the goals of each mission are usually well-defined. The service member knows his or her role and what he or she will do each day. The partner knows that his or her mission is to keep the household running and support the service member and the military mission. One of the most important turning points for service members is the transition from active duty to veteran status, because of the need to redefine one’s life’s mission toward school or a new career.

Help comes from friends in your social network. The shared sense of purpose in military families also reaches across their social network, and they benefit from these connections through greater support. When there is a need within one family for childcare, transportation, or moving, others help out. For many other families, our culture has led to families being isolated from one another. In these families, needs are not as easily known by others and offers of help are less frequent. Any family who has kids participating regularly in team sports outside school understands how sharing the load of family needs can work. Parents often organize sharing the transportation to practices by carpooling which lightens the load for everyone.

Making the commitment to stay together. Commitment to your relationship is an essential factor for succeeding in the face of stress. Couples involved in our research in the Department of Veterans Affairs who overcame the stresses of combat deployment expressed this type of attitude.

“We just decided we will do whatever it takes and stick with

each other no matter what”

Why is this attitude so important? Deciding that you are in the relationship for the long haul leads you to work hard to find solutions for whatever problems arise. If you approach your relationship with this attitude, you will compromise on issues that are less important and always look for win-win solutions to problems. You will consider what is good for your partner at the same time you consider what is good for you. Most importantly, you won’t let disagreement and conflict in the short-term affect your long-term view of how to make the relationship work. You will hopefully deal with a problem the best you can and learn not to invest in your negative feelings but instead, to let them dissipate, and then move on. Read a great blog on commitment and other topics here.

You can choose how to approach your relationship. This choice will have tremendous impact on your success and overall personal happiness.

What is equal, really?

Mainstream American culture has embraced the idea that spouses can have equality in marriage. But what does this really look like? Should each partner want the same things -both working outside the home and both taking care of kids to the same extent? Should both do laundry or mow the lawn? If they have equal say in decisions, how do they manage to resolve a conflict when they disagree? Fortunately, there are ways to think about equality in marriage that resolve some of these questions.

“Egalitarian marriage” is a more useful term than an “equal marriage.” One of the definitions of egalitarian is democratic. In our society, it means that each person gets a voice or a vote, and this may be a more relevant concept in a marriage than equality. This does not mean that everything is the same for each person. When each spouse is an equal participant in the marriage through effective decision-making, the benefits of having a relationship can be more equally shared. This does not mean that both partners are getting the same thing from the marriage. For example, I know one couple, Emily and Vince, who each receive different things from their long-term relationship. Vince needed someone (Emily) who helped him remember to have fun, take a few risks every now and then, and let down his guard. Emily needed a person (Vince) who could remind her to make plans for the future, consider solutions carefully, and listen to her outrage about an injustice rather than take immediate action. Their challenge came in negotiating which approach to take at what time. When they did this well, each received great benefits from their relationship but in no way did they get the same things out of the marriage.

One of the true indicators of a healthy marriage is when both partners are supported in being the best versions of themselves. Each person wants different things from life, whether this is being career-minded, focusing on raising kids, or having a passion such as art or music aside from a job. It may also mean that each will have priorities that change over time. These shifts in interests and goals require spouses to re-evaluate their roles and duties within the relationship.

Break some stereotypes about relationship roles. Many couples “break the rules” of traditional roles because doing so suits them better. I have a colleague, a woman who is also an academic, who proudly told me that she always mows the lawn instead of her husband. Her husband is fine with the arrangement since mowing the lawn was something he hated doing as a kid. The lesson here is that only you and your partner should decide who prefers, and is best suited, to do any particular household task. Don’t hesitate to experiment with different duties once in a while. Being partners in an egalitarian relationship means occasionally trying on different roles and household jobs to see what fits you and your partner best at that particular time.

Spouses in military families often face changes in roles. Brief or extended deployments for training or for other military operations occur several times a year for many service members. Their partners often take on all aspects of running the household, including paying bills, day-to-day decision-making about the kids’ activities, and major purchases. The research interviews we have conducted with Veterans and their spouses in our study at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center have shown us that many spouses whose partner was deployed for combat operations in Iraq or Afghanistan embrace these responsibilities with enthusiasm. Their ability to take on these roles is essential to keeping the family operating as usual and essential in supporting service members as they serve the country.

An egalitarian relationship is more of a “process” than “fixed” relationship contract. Spouses need to talk from time to time about their needs and wants in order to have a successful egalitarian relationship. I mentioned above that Emily and Vince need to negotiate how to handle problems that arise for them. She often wants to try a new restaurant, and Vince likes to go to their usual place because he knows the dishes he likes and it is a low-cost option that saves money. Periodically they discuss a change in their routine, negotiate and agree on how often to try a new, potentially more expensive eatery. Because their preferences change, they return to this discussion every now and then. No decision they make, on this or any other issue, is ever set in stone.

Some spouses resist this give and take. At times this is because one spouse likes the status quo. At other times this occurs because frequent changes in plans can be bothersome. It is important for spouses to be willing to discuss a change in routines and roles often enough so that they don’t appear to be “stonewalling.” When one partner stonewalls often, he or she often hardens the other partner’s resolve and reduces the partner’s willingness to change, which only makes the situation worse.

Future blog entries will discuss how couples can learn to have brief, effective discussions about changes in their relationship that will make them feel good about negotiating with one another.

Check out Coming Back Together: A Guide to Successful Reintegration After Your Partner Returns from Military Deployment, by Steven L. Sayers, Ph.D.

When is it time to go to couple therapy?

A lot of couples wrestle with the decision to seek couple or marital therapy. Anita was unhappy that she and Chris fought, but he thought that all couples argued and she should not make it such a big deal. He did not want to involve a third party in their troubles. Thomas wanted Cassandra to go to marital therapy because they rarely had sex, but she was just fine with how things were. One spouse may not always see that their partner’s unhappiness reflects an underlying problem with how the couple functions as a unit.

No single factor will help a couple decide whether or not to seek therapy. Here are some things to consider:

Go to treatment before you and your partner are so bitter that one or both of you won’t be willing to make changes to improve your relationship. Recently one wife stated that she did not want to seek help because,

“All the couples we know who have gone to marital therapy have gotten divorced.”

Most couples simply wait too long. Partners become so hurt and self-righteous about their positions that they become unwilling to make changes in how they talk to and treat one another. Related to this is the idea that “We’re not doing that badly (as to need couples therapy).” Underlying that concern is the notion that to go to therapy means admitting defeat, admitting the significance of the problem, or worse yet, admitting blame for problems in the relationship.

Go to marital therapy when you want to have a happier relationship, not when it is the last thing you try before you give up. Your enemy in your attempt to improve your relationship is not your partner; it is hopelessness.

Go to therapy when you and your partner stop working as a team and instead are working against one another. A classic example of this is disagreement about child-rearing philosophies. Most parents can be caught off guard by challenges that some children present. When partners dig in and the goal becomes to convince one another that their ideas about parenting are “right,” the opportunity to take what is best from both partners’ ideas is lost. If this occurs, a therapist may be necessary to help the partners learn the skills of collaborative problem-solving.

Go to therapy when your disagreements or arguments are having a negative effect on your children. The parental relationship is the most powerful model of a relationship that children have. Children learn how to treat intimate partners and how they should be treated by their partners by watching their parents. If they see constant arguing or two people living separate lives, they will believe that this is how intimate relationships should be. Also, intense conflict or disengagement between parents threatens a child’s sense of security. Research suggests that parents in conflict tend to use poor and inconsistent child-rearing practices leading to anxiety, depression, disruptive behavior, and/or academic failure.

Go to therapy when you or your partner feel your needs are not being met, and this is leading to frequent arguments. These needs may include needs for (more) closeness (or distance, which couples are always negotiating), or different ways of talking about daily problems, and the need for more (or less) and different ways of lovemaking. Differences in needs between spouses do not mean a relationship is doomed—some differences in needs occur in every relationship. It is impossible for an individual to find a partner who is an exact match in every way, and often small differences become magnified over time.

When you and your partner take a long time to make up (or never make up) after an argument, it is time to get marital therapy. Consider this: when partners spend a great deal of time treating each other coldly, talking minimally, neither is experiencing the benefits of a relationship. These benefits include having fun, joking around, relaxing with one another, supporting one another, and having satisfying sex. Looked at another way, think about the time between when your arguments “flare-up” with angry words and the time you decide to bury the hatchet and stop feuding. For some couples, this period of time is several hours or a day, but for others, the feud continues for days or even weeks. Some partners never commit to end the fight or to solve the problem but maintain a resentful and negative attitude toward one another. This is a corrosive state that will end a marriage if the partners do not make changes.

There are many options for obtaining marital therapy including private practices, nonprofit institutes that specialize in couple and family therapy, and hospital based clinics. Referrals to therapists who are trained to conduct marital therapy can be found at http://www.abctcouples.org/ and www.therapistlocator.net/.