Communication Currents

Deployments and Military Family Communication

February 1, 2010
Interpersonal Communication

Military families in the U.S. are experiencing frequent wartime deployments and other military-related separations that put a strain on their communication and relationships. These separations are stressful not only for military service members that deploy, but for the family members they leave behind, in particular military wives. The communication between military spouses before, during, and after deployment is affected in unique ways. We conducted in-depth interviews with 50 Army wives in order to better understand how deployments impact their interactions.

The wives we talked to said that the time leading up to a deployment is an uncertain and somewhat powerless time. Wives often do not know when and where their husbands will deploy, and they have many questions about how the deployment will affect them personally, their spouses, and their families. Although they feel some relief after hearing where their husbands will deploy, the departure date often fluctuates, leaving family members feeling a bit like they are on a roller coaster. Wives are also scared about the future of their marriages (e.g., “How will we maintain our marriage?”) before their husbands deploy. In order to deal with these unknowns, wives sometimes show excitement and support for their husbands, while other times they distance themselves by starting arguments, giving the silent treatment, or starting to communicate their independence. Once their husbands deploy, however, new issues arise.

During the actual separation, wives ask many questions about how to stay connected to their husbands while also living their own lives. We spoke to several women with children who struggled to play both mom and dad roles. Children might rebel in their father's absence, causing further difficulties for wives. In order to deal with these issues, some wives attempt to keep their husbands involved in decision-making. More common is when wives decide to become single parents of sorts, creating new rules and routines with the children (which may work during separation, but can create transition problems later). Some wives decide to explore new careers, focus on their physical health, or move back home to be near family and friends. Other wives focus more on their marriages and keeping their husbands involved in their lives by, for example, reading books together, talking to one another each day, or scheduling to pray at the same time. Although many couples can and do agree on how to deal with their time apart, some couples do not. Wives might want more independence, while their husbands don't want things to change too much while they are gone. Husbands and wives should talk about what they want and expect during deployment and be open to changes in their interactions, relationships, and their spouses.

After service members return from deployment, the reunion phase is a happy time for most. Many couples take vacations together, and experience a honeymoon period for four to six weeks. Although some couples make the transition relatively easily, many of the wives we interviewed said they had problems communicating with their husbands. Military couples might find themselves struggling to know how, when, and what to communicate with one another once they are back together. We found through our research that when husbands return they struggle with what to disclose, because they know they could be deployed again and do not want their wives to worry or imagine similar situations in the future. The wives struggle with what and how much they want to hear about their husbands' deployment, as well as what to share with their husbands about their time apart. While some couples agree to tell one another everything, other couples struggle with this decision. Some husbands want to talk about the harsh realities of war whereas their wives do not want to hear such things. In other couples, the wives want to talk but their husbands do not.

Communication across the various phases of a deployment is difficult for many military couples and their children. They often end up communicating in the extremes (too much or too little, for example). Military families should remember to use flexible communication that addresses their needs at different times. There are several online resources for families seeking information to help guide them through the challenges of military life.

Military couples should also remember that their difficulties communicating are not necessarily due to problems in their marriages. Communication around and about deployment is significantly affected by the military. When having troubles in their marriages, military spouses might ask questions, such as “What am I doing wrong?” or “Why is he acting this way?” when they should also ask, “How is being in the military affecting our relationship?” or “Is my spouse in control of how s/he is talking to me right now?” The military has formal and informal rules about what can be talked about. Some information is classified, and there is a culture of silence that might influence service members, particularly men, to hold back from talking to their families. Military service members are given the double burden of experiencing combat and not being consistently supported in talking about it. Although when service members talk to supportive family and friends they often deal with their jobs better, many of them don't feel comfortable sharing their fears or negative experiences because they think coworkers and family members might see them as weak. Family members, in particular, can help alleviate these feelings by showing support for the service member and giving them opportunities to talk without judgment.

Recognizing that communication is not entirely under the service members' control should help military couples place less blame on each other and hopefully help them navigate the stages of deployment a bit easier. Each deployment phase has its unique communication concerns, and each branch of the military has its own support services for managing deployments. Military spouses and children can also access online support services that address their unique perspectives. By paying attention to these issues as well as how to transition from phase to phase with flexibility, military families can better manage these challenging separations.

About the author (s)

Lindsay Timmerman

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Associate Professor