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.


Infidelity in relationships: Three things that get in the way of healing your relationship from cheating

I frequently work with married or dating couples in which one partner has cheated on the other, although the forms of cheating can vary. Many affairs involved having sex with a person outside the couple; these are clear cases of infidelity. In other cases the infidelity occurs more subtly, such as when Kahlil texts his friend Rachel about his sexual fantasies while he and his girlfriend Chandra are experiencing problems. Susan has another type of affair when she maintains a close, confiding relationship with her running friend, Andre’, even though she maintains to her husband Jordan that she had never kissed or had any other sexual intimacy with Andre’. Many people have written about why affairs happen. Here I address the issues that get in the way of healing from infidelity.

Partners often disagree about what constitutes “cheating.” Infidelity occurs when relationship boundaries are crossed, including sexual, emotional, and informational boundaries; partners don’t always agree about where those boundaries are and get hung up on whether “serious cheating” really happened. The exact boundaries in a relationship differ among partners but usually involve the belief that one partner has shared an experience with someone outside the relationship that should be restricted to the couple’s experiences within the relationship. A clear example is sexual intercourse with someone outside the relationship. Other situations are not so clear. After Kahlil texted to his friend Rachel questions about whether his sexual fantasies were normal, he justified this as a way to try to understand why he and Chandra were not sexually compatible. Kahlil did not see that this was a major crossing of boundaries because he mainly talked about his own preferences, not Chandra’s. In the example from above of Susan’s close friendship with Andre’, Jordan was not able to say what he did not like about her and Andre’s close relationship although he knew vaguely that they shared information about their marriages with one another. Susan stated she felt accused and controlled by Jordan’s complaints.

Agreement about when boundaries are crossed in relationship intimacy is not necessary to begin the healing process. It probably indicates that the partners need many more careful discussions about where the boundaries in their relationship stand. If couples get stuck on arguing about whether an infidelity occurred, or how serious was the crossing of the boundary, these important discussions will never happen. It is better for the couple to agree that at least one of the partners felt their implicit relationship boundary was violated. Their disagreement underscores the need to talk about where the boundaries are in their relationship.

The partner having the affair usually misunderstands the impact on the other person. Individuals having affairs usually know they are hurting their partners but often believe that this is the only effect. To the contrary, infidelity can be traumatic and life-changing in ways similar to other traumas such as a mugging or an assault. People who are harmed by an affair feel that the earth has moved underneath them. They are usually surprised that their partner has cheated; if they had suspicions, they had already started to feel confused and doubted their own conclusions about what was real and what was imagined.  After being told that the affair is over they continue to have questions—“Is my partner hiding something?” “Why is she getting off the phone when I walk in the room?” “Why does he not want to have sex?” “Is it still going on?” No explanation or reassurance by the offending partner is trusted. In the days, weeks, and even months after an affair comes to light, there is no one thing the unfaithful partner can say to calm these suspicions. There are many ups and downs. The smallest reminder of the affair can ruin the harmed partner’s mood. The couple often experiences the relationship as unstable. The unfaithful partner may wonder why the injured partner continues to be so moody and mistrusting even after the affair has been over for some time.

It can also be uncomfortable for a person whose partner has cheated to know that the partner has shared private information about the relationship. This adds to the injured partner’s feelings of vulnerability. This lethal combination of feelings makes even small infractions, say, shared intimate information or an “affair of the heart,” difficult for the couple to overcome. Even when an inappropriately close relationship not involving sex is revealed, the injured partner suspects that the outside person knows something intimate and embarrassing about him or her. This situation often keeps the injured partner from trusting enough to begin the healing process.

Disagreement about the meaning and importance of the affair can prevent healing from it. At times the partner who had the affair tries to convince the injured partner that the relationship was just sex and “didn’t mean anything,” or was a mistake and that he or she still loves the injured partner. In a brief affair, Jason had a one-time sexual liaison with a business associate whom he sees occasionally at industry conferences. He tried to convince his wife, Anne, that it was a mistake and that he still loved her. After two months of trying his best to make up for it, he became frustrated and tired, unable to convince Anne how little the other woman meant to him. Anne’s frustration was that Jason did not seem to get how the affair changed everything for her. It signaled to her that she was no longer desirable to him and that he obviously did not care how she felt. It did not matter to her that Jason now was on his best behavior; she kept trying to explain how his affair made her want to protect herself and unable to feel close to him as long as he did not understand how devastated she was. Jason felt continually punished by this, leaving him wondering when this punishment would end.

Each of the problems described above lead to a seemingly endless loop of unresolvable arguments about the affair and continued mistrust of the offending partner. Fortunately, there are steps that a couple can take to move beyond these roadblocks. My next blog entry will address these important steps: stabilizing the conflict in the couple caused by the affair, connecting the affair to pre-existing (and sometimes hidden) problems in the relationship, and helping the couple to address those problems or move ahead without 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.

The four best (almost) free things you can do to fix your marriage

Nancy and Michael were aware they had problems but did nothing about it because of one of the most common reasons–they did not think they could afford it. They were unwilling to take just any therapist off of their insurance plan’s list. What can a couple do about this?

There are at least four steps any couple can take that may improve their relationship satisfaction. Which of the following options you chose depends on the nature and seriousness of the problem, but these are all good options for most couples. Some are free, and some are very low cost.

Try an online couple therapy program. This online program called Our Relationship is a research study that is patterned from a well-researched approach called Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy. The program will help you understand your core problems and provide ways to stop blaming each other and seek solutions to these core issues. You can get a feel for the information provided through the link on the web age: “View a Sample Activity.” It is free, confidential, and is based on the research at several universities. The program also includes one to four telephone or Skype consultations with a therapist. The site discusses the research that supports this general approach and the background of the developers of the program, Drs. Andy Christensen and Brian Doss.

Work together on a self-help relationship book. Dr. Andy Christensen and Neil Jacobson are responsible for one of the largest and most successful research trials of couple therapy ever conducted. The approach tested, Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy, is presented in an easy-to-use format for couples in a book called Reconcilable Differences, Second Edition: Rebuild Your Relationship by Rediscovering the Partner You Love–without Losing Yourself. The volume can be bought at major book retailers online for less than $20. You’ll note that it is based on the same research as the online program above.

Respond to the challenge of infidelity. Another self-help book can help you figure out what to do when your partner cheats. The book, Getting Past the Affair: A Program to Help You Cope, Heal, and Move On, by Drs. Douglas K. Snyder, Donald H. Baucom, and Kristina Coop Gordon, does not assume that you want to stay with your partner. The first goal is to help you and your partner stop hurting one another and stabilize your relationship, the second is to figure out why the affair happened, and the third goal is decide whether to stay together or to separate. This book can also be bought for less than $20.

Attend a marriage enrichment program at your church. This is a good option for you whether or not your relationship is unhappy because it may help prevent problems in the future and simply help you enjoy your relationship more. Programs across the nation vary widely in focus and quality but here are the most important characteristics: 1) the importance of commitment to your relationship is emphasized (see this blog post and this blog about the importance of commitment), 2)  communication skills that reduce conflict, and 3) strategies for keeping fun in your relationship. A great example of such a program is PREP.  You’ll find at the PREP site listings of program workshops presented throughout the US.  Although these programs do have fees they tend to be cost effective compared to individual or couple therapy.

There is definitely help for couples who do not have the money or time to pursue couple therapy if they are willing to commit to understanding their issues and working on their relationship. I look forward to feedback about readers’ experiences with these options.

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


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.