Lessons from the communication of deployed soldiers and their spouses

Does it come as a surprise that many service members, when deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, communicated with their spouses from these combat zones almost daily? They reached each other by text message, email, video (Skype or Oovoo), or in some cases, satellite phone. Communication from combat zones varies depending on the time and place, but our improved technology has increased the possibilities tremendously over the last 10 or more years. Spouses who are separated usually want to communicate, but there are special issues military couples face that can teach the rest of us a great deal about communication in every intimate relationship. With other colleagues I recently presented at a conference some findings of interviews my research team has conducted over the past 5 years. Here’s what we learned:

Communication is about connection. Military couples communicate across great distances in order to stay emotionally connected to one another. Just seeing one’s partner on video frequently, a quick text, an email update, are ways that soldiers and their partners maintain their connection, and feel supported by one another. Unexpected events, including communications blackouts due to mortar attacks from the enemy or abrupt mission changes, can cause spouses to worry about whether the service member is still alive.

The lesson for all couples is that we communicate with our spouses in order to maintain an emotional connection, not just to solve problems about the kids, bills, or other mundane tasks. When this communication is disrupted through arguments, separation, or more difficult situations such as a combat deployment, the disruption affects each spouse emotionally. It takes effort to make sure that we keep talking, and stay emotionally connected, to our spouses. Communication is the glue of relationships.

Smart choices are needed regarding what to talk about, and when. Conflict with a partner may spill over into the thoughts of a soldier who needs to focus on his or her mission and survival. Some commanders warn their soldiers not to let their guard down and to communicate only superficially so their minds can stay focused on the job at hand. Both soldiers and their spouses report in our studies that they sometimes choose their topics carefully to protect the partner from worry or being upset. The goal often is to support the service member’s job in combat or the spouse’s job at home in keeping the family operating well. Extreme openness and honesty at all costs is not the best way to show kindness or consideration to your spouse, particularly when separated by continents and oceans. The biggest challenge for military couples experiencing a deployment is that timing is the least controllable of all the factors. Spouses in my interview study reported having to be up in the middle of the night in order to talk with their soldier. Talking about a financial problem at home could easily be upsetting for a deployed soldier who is powerless to help, especially when the spouse does not feel he or she could wait until the next unpredictable time they may be able to talk. All of us, whether or not we are part of a military couple, can learn to make choices about what needs to be said to our partners, and what is a minor worry or issue that can be left unstated.

When not having to conform to a military or combat schedule, we have the luxury of choosing the best time to address a problem with our partners. Bringing up a big problem about a child right at the end of your spouse’s long workday is probably not the best idea. Regular weekly meetings to discuss these issues can help because such meetings focus partners on solving problems, and are a natural way to limit conflict around the issue because these meetings can be time-limited.

Different types of communication have different effects on emotional connection, depending on one’s preferences. People differ in the type and frequency of communication in relationships they prefer, and the experiences that couples have in combat deployments really emphasize that there are no rules that work for everyone. Overwhelmingly, my colleagues and I believe that spouses expecting a separation due to a combat deployment should discuss in advance what type of communication they would expect, how often they prefer to be in contact, what topics are most important (e.g., child problems), and what types of discussions (e.g., complaints about one’s day) are distracting or upsetting at that distance.

Even if you are not in a military couple, discussing with your partner what kind of communication you want, and key times that are good or bad for communicating, is probably a good idea.

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

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