The Internet is filled with video snippets of joyful family reunions of military service members returning from deployment. It’s hard not to stop in the middle of your social media feed to watch fathers, mothers, sons and daughters embrace at sporting events, school lunches and even at their own front door. We stop for a moment, sharing in the love we see, and gratefully acknowledging to ourselves in that moment the sacrifice that all family members make when a loved one is deployed.
What we don’t see is below the joyful surface: the hidden land mines that can get embedded in relationships during deployment. The relentless pressure of deployment separation can deteriorate even the strongest marriage. Combat deployment places a whole family at risk for losing a loved one. If the loved one comes home, however, the second risk is losing love itself.
Combat is tough on marriages and always has been. But as America passes 17 years of constant combat deployment, new threats to military marriages have emerged. The ability to be in constant communication with a deployed service member is a good example. While couples from previous wars would write lengthy, supportive love letters, now couples can talk normally about everyday issues. This constant, instantaneous communication also creates an illusion that the couple is in the same emotional space, even when everyday circumstances are vastly different for each individual.
Statistics bear out this recent stress. In a 2007 study, the Army determined that the divorce rate was about 50 percent higher for those who deployed than those who hadn’t. “After Operation Iraqi Freedom began, there was an increase of 3,024 divorces Army-wide,” the study, authored by the Army War College’s Col. Mearen Charlene Bethea, found. “Total Army divorces doubled from the 2000 fiscal year – an increase of nearly 5,000 divorces over this period. A year before September 11, total active duty Army divorces numbered 5,658 among 255,353 marriages. Divorces rose a year later to 7,047 in 248,180 marriages.”
Between September 11, 2001 and 2015, 1.33 million individuals serving with the Army have been deployed abroad. An estimated 225,000 soldiers have deployed at least three times. Chances are, here in Colorado Springs, you know someone in this category. Chances are, you know someone whose marriage has hit the dirt as a casualty of deployment stress.
What exactly is happening? It is difficult to say for certain, but the military looked at the issue and found a common theme: Exposure to combat and the bloodshed that goes with it will increase the likelihood of divorce.
Why, though? What specifically breaks the bonds of a relationship? What we do know is that when soldiers are exposed to combat conditions, a survival instinct is triggered that may result in hyper-vigilance and suspicion or create an instinct for emotional isolation to protect oneself. Some deployed military describe their experience in retrospect as feeling numb inside. The backdrop of war can inhibit emotional communication at times and can create a growing mistrust. What happens to trust in this situation? Different individuals react differently, of course.
There are three important connections in a relationship or marriage that can be disrupted by deployment separation: Fun, Fidelity and Philosophy.
Deployments Disrupts the Ability of Couples to Have Fun
A couple is challenged by their inability to play together and just have fun, both during the deployment and afterwards. Often combat creates a guilt reaction, and fun is no longer valid or meaningful. Couples want to laugh and enjoy themselves! One of the first questions asked in mental health assessments is whether a person still finds pleasure and enjoyment in their life. Healthy relationships and healthy couples will share a variety of activities that may seem relatively insignificant on their own, but collectively create a framework for shared happiness. The strongest relationships are found in couples that enjoy each other and their shared activities. Fun activities such as bicycling, bowling, hiking, video-gaming, travel, golfing, eating and laughing can be part of the wellspring of happiness and satisfaction in a relationship. Recreation is a key in relieving stress and bringing satisfaction to our lives. Sharing it is healthy and often the basis for our social interactions. A couple separated by deployment must rely on recounting stories of fun, instead of experiencing the fun together. Often new friends can create new opportunities for bonds that complicate their old bonds. Young military service members may find that they want to party more while deployed, perhaps in the face of dangerous conditions, reverting to a previous time that is more carefree. Married men and women socializing and partying with a background of loneliness and stress create an unanticipated risk.
Deployments Disrupt the Emotional Bond of Physical Intimacy
The separation of deployment impedes the ability for couples to be physically intimate, which creates emotional isolation. While deployed couples often joke about this, the deprivation is real. Physical touch is part of the comfort of love and bonds people together. Again, while the cell phone can keep a couple “talking,” the social media of separated couples presents a risk. Innocent friendships can be detected in social media from afar and misinterpreted by a spouse or a partner. It is easy to become jealous of a person who is simply laughing and enjoying life with your loved one, when you are separated by many miles. Strong bonds between two adults who are separated from their significant others during deployment can seem disloyal, and of course sometimes they are.
Emotional infidelity can place the “accused” on the defensive, causing them to respond in anger or indignation that “nothing ever happened.” Suspicion can fracture trust quickly during separation and deployment. Sexual intimacy is an integral part of a committed relationship; consistent deprivation of this intimacy is asking for trouble.
Affairs during military deployment are far too common. Hurt and rejection are tough emotions to grapple with under supportive, close –range circumstances. Dealing with infidelity long distance limits communication and the opportunities to rebuilt trust are compromised.
Deployments Relationships Can Be Strengthened by Shared Philosophy
Do people really get married for philosophical reasons? Absolutely. A background of shared beliefs is a powerful connector that gives a couple a bond of a higher purpose, one they are working on together. Some couples want to re-create the strength and security of their families of origin, others want to improve upon a history of family dysfunction, creating a better life for themselves and their families. Individuals in a relationship that are separated by deployment can often reach deep into this area of connection and gather strength from the shared purpose of their military service. Defining a shared philosophy creates the kind of bond that can be used for strength in times of prolonged separation.
Couples that share a purpose can lean on these values for decisions on parenting, finance and family goal-setting. When they communicate about these goals, and act on them, they create a bond of trust and shared purpose, whether it is cheering their children at a soccer game, a scout meeting, going to church, or just being neighborly and supportive of other military families.
Overcome the Disruption through Communication and Effort
Communication is the biggest liability to trust. Communication during deployment takes effort, creativity, and love. Relationships can survive deployment, but it takes awareness, self-control and the decision to communicate all along the way. No marriage or relationship is complete without it.
Repeated exposure to combat can break bonds and create barriers. War can shroud our loved ones in protective emotional Kevlar. Military deployment strains these three types of connections in every relationship. Awareness and communication and are key elements needed to keep the physical distance in a deployment from becoming an emotional distance.