Updated: Apr 16, 2020
Nov 11, 2019 By Jonathan Shippey, LMFT
Geographic separation, whether it is for 6 weeks, 6 months, or longer, is inevitably difficult. The key to a successful deployment for any couple is to learn together all you can in order to prepare for your time apart.
A deployment can be a very emotional and difficult time for many couples. Just as service members understand how essential mission readiness is, couples are wise to pursue “family readiness” as deployment approaches. Making intentional plans in advance will help you cope throughout this challenging time.
Your unit will surely offer a wealth of information regarding the logistical preparations necessary for you as a couple—this article’s focus is on emotional and relational preparations that will help you weather the challenges that are inevitable with any deployment.
Readers of this blog will be familiar with the Sound Relationship House. The foundational basis for all relationships is “Love Mapping.” Leading up to deployment is a great time to update your maps of each other’s inner worlds and also physical worlds.
Find out all that you can about the deployment
Where will your spouse be? How long will the deployment last? Learning as much as you can about where your partner will be and what he or she will be doing may help reduce anxiety and uncertainty. In some cases, you may not be able to get as much information as you’d like because of security issues, so part of this love map update needs to be a discussion of how you will communicate while you’re apart from each other. Will you be able to use communication apps, phone, or email? Know in advance what security limitations there may be, and do what you can to plan for staying in touch. Geographic distance, paired with the deployment’s schedule demands, can wreak havoc on your emotional closeness unless you plan intentionally for how you will stay in contact.
Practice having a check-in with each other regarding your feelings
Learn how to use the “Soft Start-Up” with each other to identify what you are each feeling and to learn to ask for what you need. Practice this together pre-deployment so that you’re better able to keep this experience going when you’re apart. Here is an article that explains more about this skill.
Share fondness and admiration
Even though you will be apart physically, you can still engage in a simple exercise together over the course of the deployment. This would be an excellent time to work through the “Seven Week Plan for Sharing Fondness & Admiration” in John Gottman’s book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Many of these activities involve writing short notes to each other. The suggestions may help you keep communication lines open and stoke your fires of love, romance, and passion for each other while you are away.
Build and connect with your community
Many branches of the service offer support in the form of social groups, counseling, or advice. Look into what’s available for you as a military family member. During Desert Storm, I was the company commander of the Heidelberg Army Hospital. Because of our location in Germany and the fact that our unit was made up of a wide variety of medical specialists, our soldiers were detailed out to, and then deployed with, other units one by one. Our post chaplain and I teamed up to offer a support group for the families left behind by my soldiers’ deployments and I saw firsthand how a connected, supported group helped the spouses at home to cope with and overcome feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Reach out to other people who are going through or have already experienced a deployment
Participate in any pre-deployment activities offered by your unit. Military families who have already experienced a deployment may have valuable tips and advice about handling the separation. In the landmark Deployment Life Study, which examined over the course of three years how deployment affects the health and well-being of military families, a key finding was that experience helps mitigate a deployment’s relationship challenges. The study’s authors concluded that deployments are indeed associated with lower marital satisfaction, but that the biggest drop in marital satisfaction occurs with the service member’s first deployment. Subsequent deployments showed no sign of further declines in marital satisfaction among the families participating in this study. It seems families use their experiences to foster resilience in ways that buffer against the potentially damaging effects of deployment, so learn from those who’ve traveled this road before you.
Be prepared for reintegration
Any couple who has gone through a deployment, then experienced the highs and lows of reintegrating when you welcome home your deployed service member, will tell you that it can be a bittersweet experience. You may have been longing for the reunion, so when it comes, you may be startled to discover feelings of sadness and frustration mixed in with the joy and passion. Understand that these feelings are somewhat to be expected, due to the separate lives you’ve been leading while apart. The non-deployed partner may have learned to navigate independently and may have even thrived with childcare and home management tasks, and the service member may struggle to find a place at home once reunited. These are predictable adjustments, which those around you with more deployment experience can help you prepare for so you are not as surprised when difficult feelings come up.
Geographic separation, whether it is for 6 weeks, 6 months, or longer, is inevitably difficult. The key to a successful deployment for any couple is to learn together all you can in order to prepare for your time apart, to communicate together as often as possible, and to regularly share and listen to each other’s feelings and needs.
Courtesy of The Gottman Institute.
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