Maintaining Healthy Military Couple Relationships Despite Transitions

by Jennifer K. Rea, Ph.D.

arm and arm couple with wedding rings
Used with permission by Military.com

The month of February is known for many things, including Black History Month, Groundhog Day, President’s Day,  and fast approaching, Valentine’s Day.  For many, Valentine’s Day is a time for recognizing and celebrating those we love.

To some, the holiday is an exciting time – a night out with your significant other, a special day filled with chocolates and flowers, or that one time of year when you treat yourself to a massage!

For others, Valentine’s Day can be filled with sorrow, devastation, and loneliness. It may be the time of year that couples need more support in rekindling their romantic relationships. From a military perspective, it may be a time when a service member is deployed or does not return from a deployment and their significant other or their family members are all alone.

As we know, service members and their families face several unique transitions over their time in military service. Such transitions may include frequent relocations, permanent change of duty stations (PCS), deployments, trainings, and the transition to civilian life. Various studies have found that during times of deployments, in particular, while many military couples thrive, others may experience greater stress and relationship turbulence or dissatisfaction (e.g., Allen, Rhoades, Stanley, & Markman, 2010; Bakhurst et al., 2017; Knobloch, Basinger, et al., 2018; Monk, Basinger, & Abendschein, 2020).

For example, “husbands’ deployment experiences were related to lower marital satisfaction, confidence in the relationship, and commitment for both husbands and wives” (Monk et al., 2020, p. 944).  Relatedly, spouses of deployed service members facing extended and repeated deployments experienced markedly higher rates of depression, anxiety disorders, sleep disturbance, and adjustment challenges (Bakhurst et al., 2017).

military couple
Cover image and logo used with permission by MilitaryBenefits.com

Although scholars have highlighted that military couples’ communication is challenging during deployment and reunion (e.g., Knobloch, Basinger, et al., 2018; Knobloch & Theiss, 2012), military couples with high relationship satisfaction, who communicated frequently during deployment, experienced lower PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms post-deployment (Bakhurst et al., 2017).

Military spouses are not the only ones who feel the effects of deployments; children feel them too. Some children experience anxiety and emotional problems from long deployments (Mustillo, Wadsworth, & Lester, 2016). “Learning to adapt to family changes during deployments can build resiliency in families” (Wolf, Rinfrette, Eliseo-Arras, & Nochaski, 2018, p. 14). This is an area in which military family service professionals (MFSPs) can be helpful, and where military-specific interventions focusing on marital and family functioning have been particularly beneficial (Lester et al., 2016).

With each transition a service member and their partner faces, it is important that they feel well-prepared, have resiliency skills, and are able to access resources and lean on their networks for support so that they can weather whatever storm comes their way. As MFSPs, you may find yourselves in more situations than one where you are the “mediator” (the love doctor if you will) in a conversation with a military couple.

For some, it may be out of your professional scope to be able to assist couples in handling relationship-specific matters. Thus, as a MFSP you may be inclined to refer the couple to marriage and family therapy, couple’s therapy, or a related form of counseling in order to assistance them in resolving matters beyond your line of duty.

military couple with little girl
Cover image and logo used with permission by WHUR.com

In other situations, you may find yourself leaning on your own personnel experiences, expertise, or professional background to support the military couples you serve. We all know that relationships take effort– they take time and patience – all  to ensure that the love does not “wear off”. Or more specifically, some trials and tribulations may send the couple overboard searching for a life raft to pull them back together.

So, what is it that contributes to a strong and healthy romantic relationship? And what current practices are you engaging your clients in to better support them as they work to maintain or rekindle their current relationships? Below we have highlighted a few activities for engaging military couples in building resiliency and maintaining strong, healthy relationships.

    • At the core of maintaining and strengthening couples’ relationships is healthy communication, a learned skill that MFSPs can teach through workshops, individual or group sessions.
      • This may be as simple as teaching the use of ‘I’ statements (such as “I feel like no one understands what I have been through and how I have changed.”) From here, the MFSP can provide a set of communication skills for couples to have and use in future conversations.
    • To ensure that the at-home partner feels prepared for the deployment ahead, MFSPs can help couples and families prepare prior to the separation.
      • Providing partners and family members with an opportunity to share their fears and expectations of the deployment can help ease the anticipation of separation.
      • You can also help couples establish guidelines regarding how everyday duties will be handled during separation and allow them to brainstorm how they will resolve problems as they arise.
    • Following deployment and transitioning to reintegration, MFSPs may help partners recognize and share the changes each have experienced while the service member was away.
      • This will likely include shifts in independence, roles, domestic routines, and readjustment to daily life. Additional changes may also include a new baby, pregnancy, infertility, parenting, and shifts in the well-being of children or extended family members.
      • Helping couples to establish [new] routines and reallocate household duties could allow for a smoother transition, especially during reintegration.
    • During reintegration, patience and perseverance can be especially important as partners rekindle their romantic relationship.
      • Offering beneficial strategies can provide military couples with guidance on ways to be patient with one another in times of stress or misunderstanding.
        • For example, you can work with couples on the best way to be supportive of each other through listening, conveying support, love or understanding, and through expressing feels.
    • Through all the unique challenges and transitions military couples and families face, utilizing resiliency skills will allow each family member to thrive.
      • You can help families improve their abilities to cope with complex challenges through education and guidance by assisting families in understanding and making sense of their reactions to military experiences and supporting them when professional attention is needed.

Resources for Building Resilience and Maintaining Healthy Relationships

    1. FOCUS, or Families OverComing Under Stress, offers support for couples and parents on building relationship strengths and teaching new strategies that support resilience.
      1. FOCUS also offers a virtual TeleFOCUS program which allows couples to meet with a FOCUS provider using video teleconference.
    2. Free resources and training courses are also available from the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center on ways to help couples improve communication, handle conflict, and more.
    3. Military OneSource has several unique resources to help those you serve in every relationship stage, including Love Every Day, coaching sessions through Building Healthy Relationships, My MilLife Guide, as well as virtual resources available to military couples.
    4. Total Force Fitness (TFF) is another resource that involves seamlessly integrating fitness of the mind, body, and spirit. To learn more about how to support the military couples you serve in optimizing social fitness within their family, within couple or intimate relationships, or within teams or as a leader, visit HPRC-online.org.
    5. The Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program (YRRP) promotes the well-being of National Guard and Reserve members, their families, and communities, by connecting them with resources throughout the deployment cycle.

For additional information and resources on engaging military couples and families in building resiliency and maintaining strong, healthy relationships, especially through various military-related transitions, be sure to check out these items from our MFLN webpage:

    1. Two blogs by our MFLN colleagues in Family Development, the first entitled, Relationships and Intimacy: Resources for Military Couples and the second, Military Marriages Matter: How Deployment Affects Marriages and Couples.”
    2. A blog series from our Family Transition’s team; The First 30 Days of Reintegration –Part 1 of 4: The Honeymoon Phase and “The First 30 Days of Reintegration –Part 2 of 4: Establishing New Routines.
    3. A few podcast episodes on an Intimate Insight into the Reintegration Experience of an Active Duty Air Force Couple.
    4. And, a podcast episode with Dr. Patricia Lester, who shares about her work and research with the FOCUS project entitled,FOCUSing on Strengthening Military Families from a Family Systems Perspective.”

Keep the conversation going! Please share your comments and thoughts below on how you support military couples and families in building resiliency and maintaining strong, healthy relationships.

 

This article was written by Jenny Rea, doctorate in Family Social Science, military spouse, and mom to three kiddos under four. Jenny consults with the MFLN Family Transitions team to support professional development for military family service providers. You may find more blogs, podcasts and webinars from Family Transitions. We invite you to engage with Family Transitions on Twitter @MFLNFT and with MFLN on Facebook @MilitaryFamilies.

References

    1. Allen, E. S., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2010). Hitting home: Relationships between recent deployment, posttraumatic stress symptoms, and marital functioning for Army couples. Journal of Family Psychology24(3), 280.
    2. Bakhurst, M. G., Loew, B., McGuire, A. C., Halford, W. K., & Markman, H. J. (2017). Relationship education for military couples: Recommendations for best practice. Family process56(2), 302-316.
    3. Knobloch, L. K., Basinger, E. D., & Theiss, J. A. (2018). Relational turbulence and perceptions of partner support during reintegration after military deployment. Journal of Applied Communication Research46(1), 52-73.
    4. Knobloch, L. K., & Theiss, J. A. (2012). Experiences of US military couples during the post-deployment transition: Applying the relational turbulence model. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships29(4), 423-450.
    5. Lester, P., Aralis, H., Sinclair, M., Kiff, C., Lee, K. H., Mustillo, S., & Wadsworth, S. M. (2016). The impact of deployment on parental, family and child adjustment in military families. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 47(6), 938-949.
    6. Monk, K., Basinger, E. D., & Abendschein, B. (2020). Relational turbulence and psychological distress in romantic relationships in the military. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships37(3), 942-964.
    7. Mustillo, S., Wadsworth, S. M., & Lester, P. (2016). Parental deployment and well-being in children: Results from a new study of military families. Journal of emotional and Behavioral Disorders24(2), 82-91.
    8. Wolf, M. R., Rinfrette, E. S., Eliseo-Arras, R. K., & Nochajski, T. H. (2018). “My family does not understand me”: How social service providers can help military families. Best Practices in Mental Health14(1), 78-92.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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