Lessons from the communication of deployed soldiers and their spouses

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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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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.

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