What we can learn from military and veteran families

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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.

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/.