It’s been said that military services recruit families, not just members. And, there are many challenges for today’s military families, among them frequent relocations and spousal deferment of career opportunities while supporting the service member. But perhaps the greatest challenge of all is prolonged separation through deployment.
Military separations invoke a myriad of emotions – including fear, anger, loneliness, sadness, and stress due to added responsibilities – all of which take a toll on families. According to a 2016 Blue Star Families Military Family Lifestyle Survey, 37 percent of respondents report relationship challenges related to deployment. Children, too, suffer during parental absences, with behavioral and mental health issues being common.
While deployments seldom get easier for those on the home front, it’s good to make plans for handling stress successfully, both for your sake and that of the kids. Here are five tips from the experts – and from spouses who’ve been there:
■ Prior to deployment, discuss with your spouse ideas for handling extra responsibilities, advised A. J. Marsden, PhD, an assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida. And after he/she leaves, remember to take it one day at a time. “Focus on what you need to do that day, develop a plan, and put your plan into action. Use task lists, organizers, and reminders to help you stay on top of your extra responsibilities,” she said. This is the time, too, she added, to make sure that the kids help out as much as possible.
■ Seek out others for support and help, said Dr. Marsden. “Much research has shown that relying on social support from others during stressful times helps tremendously. Find a group of people that you feel comfortable talking with – it doesn’t necessarily need to be with people on base – and meet with them frequently.”
■ Help yourself by serving others, suggested Sharon Dodd, wife of U.S. Army (retired) Col. David Dodd, who was deployed five times during his career. Sharon used her time during these absences to organize family readiness groups and plan social events to help spouses avoid isolation during deployments.
■ Use your time for self-development, suggested Jane Salerno of New England, who kept herself busy with work and projects while her Coast Guard husband was away on search and rescue missions. “I would tell other new couples that ‘two halves don’t make a whole’ and I felt my marriage situation gave me opportunities to develop as a whole person, even if the service called us ‘dependents.’”
■ Keep your partner firmly in your heart by doing something for him/her each day, suggested Clark University psychology professor James Cordova, who runs a program called “The Marriage Checkup” with military couples through a grant from the Department of Defense. “You might buy a small gift, take loving care of something or someone that matters deeply to him/her, offer a special prayer, or even just face the direction he/she is in the world and send your love. These daily gifts will water the heart connection between you in ways that can be quite profound,” said Dr. Cordova.
By Linda Hepler, BSN, RN