Military Relationships

Last Friday, Stephanie Wallace and I (Jeremiah Gibson) released the seventh episode of our podcast Under the Covers. We celebrated Veterans Day by talking about some of the unique features military and veteran couples face.

Image by Amanda Jordan via Unsplash

Image by Amanda Jordan via Unsplash

We focused more on the relationships of active duty members during this episode. As of 2013, we have about 1.4 million current Active Duty members, with another 1 million or so that are ready reserve and 68,000 or so in the Coast Guard. Of the 1.4 million Active duty members, 55% are married, and 42% have children. It's unknown how many of the remaining 45% of Active duty members are in long-term, unmarried relationships.

The emotional and psychological challenges that our military members face during and after deployment play significant impacts on their relationships.

Deployment

When a military member is deployed, the power dynamics in the family system understandably shift. The military partner often takes over administrative decision making, including financial and parenting choices. Social decisions also happen independently, particularly for the military partner, as they look outward to friends and family members for connection.

One of the significant challenges for military couples is determining how to communicate during deployment. How often? And for how long? Through what medium? (Fortunately, there are more options today due to technological advances.) What topics do we talk about? What topics don't we talk about? How do we do sex during deployment?

These are conversations that we encourage military couples to have prior to and following deployment. After all, numerous researchers have suggested the quality of relationship prior to deployment affects the way that communication during deployment is received. Couples with positive relationships before deployment generally report communication during deployment to be supportive and positive. Service members with negative couple relationships are actually less likely to communicate with their partners during deployment, which may increase the anxiety of his/her partner, particularly if there are long gaps between communication.

Re-Integration

Stephanie and I then talked a bit about the challenges of post-deployment, as the military member simultaneously re-enters new routines of civilian life and couple life. These people don’t just have to readjust to civilian life, which lacks the structure, excitement, and pressures of the military life, they have to make career decisions. They have to reintroduce themselves to their partners. They have to work together with their partners to complete administrative household tasks, things that were previously accomplished, in many cases, by their partner. Sex may be really awkward during the first few months of reintegration as couples relearn their bodies, particularly if said bodies carry physical or emotional injuries inside of them.

PTSD

It seems that PTSD is inextricably linked to the military experience, either as a result of witnessing traumatic experiences during deployment or as a result of physical/sexual harassment during training. It's estimated that between 20 and 30% of military members and veterans develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a crippling anxiety resulting in emotional numbing during subsequent stressful situations.

Stephanie and I talked briefly about the potential healing that disclosing traumas could bring for military members/veterans during our episode, but, due to time constraints, didn't really get into some of the ways that PTSD impacts relationship dynamics. I did want to speak more about that on the blog.

In 2014, Dr. April Gerlock and others at the University of Washington explored the cyclical impact of PTSD for the relationships of military members. The partner often takes the role of pursuer as they manage the lives of their veterans, protecting their partner from the effects of PTSD. Unfortunately, this may unintentionally bring up symptoms of PTSD, particularly if the military member fears he/she is losing independence due to depending too much on their partner. They provided six ways that the PTSD of military members can impact a couple relationship:

  1. Caregiving. Military partners often accommodate to the needs of their partners, such as making doctors appointments and encouraging them to find work. Gerlock notes that caregiving comes both from a place of concern and empathy for the plight of their partner and anxiety of the outcomes of PTSD, such as aggression and violence. Caregiving places the veteran in a double bind. They appreciate the support, but are also reminding of their own lack of independence, which may create anxiety and anger.
  2. Communication. PTSD encourages military members to avoid and dissociate as a survival method, leading to a reduction of initiation of conversation by the military member. Military partners reported having to guess (sometimes incorrectly) about the emotional state of their partner, and sometimes perceived the distancing and dissociation associated with PTSD as resistance and avoidance, which often lead to more pursuing and anger toward their partner. As we've talked about in other blog posts, the more one partner pursues, the more the other partner distances.
  3. Disability. Military members may return from deployment with physical disabilities, chronic pain, hearing loss, and problems with attention. We see this primarily affecting the sexual relationship--how can we adjust our expectations around intimacy and how we see our sexual selves if we reintegrate into our previous relationship with newly malfunctioning bodies or body parts? Disability can also lead to increased levels of irritability and anxiety, particularly if the military member has challenges accepting his/her new condition.
  4. Community. Military members often have a very exclusive community, particularly during deployment. They learn to trust people in their unit, and may have a challenging time trusting and broadening their community post-deployment.
  5. Responsibility. When a military member returns from deployment, he/she often re-enters the already scheduled routine of his/her partner. Rather than developing his/her own schedule, the military member may blend into the one defined by their partner. As a result, the military partner may make health, parenting, and relational decisions for their veteran partner, leading to some resentment from the military member.
  6. The trauma itself. At its core, trauma exposes a sense of vulnerability and powerlessness--that the world is unsafe and significantly uncontrollable. It becomes really challenging to trust and experience empathy if there are constant internal reminders that you killed someone, or that you were unable to protect your unit from an IED, or that you were unexpectedly awakened by a surprise attack. Trauma also may encourage the military member to control situations as much as possible, so that these stories don't repeat themselves.

Gerlock and her colleagues suggest that empathy, mutual decision making processes, a realistic sense of what's in/isn't in one's control, and an acknowledgement of need for help are interactions that can cut off ineffective relational processes caused by PTSD.

While Boston's role in the military has been reduced in the last century, our community still has thousands of veterans and active duty members, many of whom have had to figure out how to rebuild their relationship during and following a deployment. This is a really challenging process, and our couples therapists would love to help you consolidate the strengths of your relationship while improving communication and intimacy with your partner.

Call us at 617-750-0183, fill out the Contact Us section at the top of the page, or book an appointment online for more info.