Guest Perspective: Serving Military and Veteran Couples in Crisis

Guest Perspective: Serving Military and Veteran Couples in Crisis

Editor’s Note: As part of the Center for Deployment Psychology’s ongoing mission to provide high-quality education on military- and deployment-related psychology, we are proud to present our latest “Guest Perspective.” Intermittently, we will be presenting blogs by esteemed guests and subject matter experts from outside the CDP. This allows us to offer more insight and opinions on a variety of topics of interest to behavioral health providers.

As these blog entries are written by outside authors, one important disclaimer: all of the opinions and ideas expressed in them are strictly those of the author alone and should not be taken as those of the CDP, Uniformed University of the Health Sciences (USUHS), or the Department of Defense (DoD).

That being said, we’re very happy to offer a platform where we can feature these individuals and the information they have to share. We’d like to make this an ongoing dialogue. If you have questions, remarks, or would like more information on a topic, please feel free to leave comments below or on our Facebook page, and we’ll pass them along to the author.

Douglas K. Snyder
Guest Columnist

I never served. My time would have been during the Vietnam War. But from 1970-1974, I completed my undergraduate studies under a 2-S student deferment; when President Nixon revoked the student deferment with a new draft bill in September 1971, the first to be impacted were men in the Class of ’75 – those a year behind me. When the draft lottery was held in August of 1971 for men in my cohort, I drew #264. (Had I been born on December 4th of 1952 instead of January 4th, I would have drawn #1.) And so I transitioned uninterrupted from undergraduate to graduate studies, completing my doctoral degree three years after the fall of Saigon.

My older brother’s narrative was different from mine. After completing his undergraduate degree in 1968, and preparing to pursue a doctorate in biochemistry, it became clear that selective service was not about to wait for him another five years. It was the height of the Vietnam War, and the Tet offensive of that January was still fresh in the nation’s collective conscious. Rather than waiting for the draft, my brother enlisted in the Marines. After initial orders to join the ground forces in Vietnam, someone in his command decided he could better serve in an emerging computer programming unit at the Pentagon, and he spent his next two years there – the most atypical Marine one could imagine.

I never served, but my father-in-law did. He volunteered for the Army during World War II because he felt called to serve his country. Because he carried ammunition for his unit, he was a primary target for the enemy. He was seriously wounded during the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944 and nearly lost his left arm. It was an experience I never heard him speak of until late in his life, one afternoon out on the porch watching a thunderstorm roll through, when he needed to unburden the heavy memories and I needed simply to listen. He epitomized the Greatest Generation – and continued public service throughout his civilian life. (Among other roles, he chaired the local draft board for 23 years – something that gave young men pause before daring to date any of his four daughters.)

My own father served in a different way. Early during World War II he completed his seminary studies under a 4-D deferment assigned to clergy or divinity students. He and my mother moved to New York City following their marriage in September of 1942, and until 1947 he served a church on Broadway just blocks from the New York Port of Embarkation – the largest of the Army’s ports during the war moving troops and supplies overseas. Decades later, my father would still describe serving young soldiers as they prepared for or returned from deployment as one of the special privileges of his 40-year ministry.

I never served, but two of my sons served in theaters of combat and continue to serve. One flew air missions over Afghanistan as an F18 Navy pilot in support of OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom), and continues to train pilots out of NAS Oceana as a Reservist. His twin brother has served for the past 12 years with Air Force Space Command, but volunteered in 2009 for a six-month ground mission with the Army Corps of Engineers outside of Fallujah in support of OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom). From both of them I have learned, in a more intimate way, the challenges of military life confronting young couples – and from each of them I have acquired deeper humility.

My opportunity to serve in a different way came later in life. It was April of 2005 and I was giving a presentation on treating relationship trauma at a meeting hosted jointly by the mental health staff from the Central Texas VA Medical Center and Darnall Army Medical Center at nearby Fort Hood. For several years prior, two of my colleagues and I had been developing a treatment model for helping couples recovery from sexual infidelity. Our interest grew from a shared conviction that one of the most critical survival skills for couples is being able to recover from deep interpersonal injuries that can occur in intimate relationships. Infidelity provided a compelling testing ground for our therapeutic model – and our intervention drew upon the existing literature on trauma recovery as well as an emerging literature on forgiveness.

Also attending my talk that day was Chaplain (Lt. Col.) David Scheider, Director of the Family Life Chaplain Training Center at Fort Hood. From that chance meeting, he and I became close collaborators in adapting our affair recovery protocol for military and veteran couples. It became a shared passion to guide much of my work for the next 10 years.

Restoring Intimacy Following Infidelity: An Integrative Approach

Sexual infidelity occurs with high frequency and has significant adverse impact on both partners and their relationship. Representative U.S. community surveys indicate a lifetime prevalence of extramarital sex of approximately 12% for women and 23% for men; broadening infidelity to encompass emotional as well as sexual affairs approximately doubles these rates. Although data on the incidence of infidelity among couples in which one or both partners serve in the U.S. Armed Forces are limited, the available evidence suggests significantly higher rates compared with civilian samples, attributable at least in part to individual and relationship risk factors these couples experience prior to as well as during military service.

The adverse individual as well as relationship consequences of infidelity are well-documented. For persons recently learning of their partner’s affair, research demonstrates a broad range of negative emotional and behavioral effects, including partner violence, depression, suicidal ideation, acute anxiety, and symptoms similar to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Concerns about infidelity have been shown to be significantly associated with general psychological symptoms among military spouses. Among persons having participated in an affair, similar reactions of depression, suicidality, and acute anxiety are also common effects, particularly when disclosure or discovery of infidelity results in marital separation or threats of divorce. The U.S. Army has estimated that approximately 50% to 65% of suicides among active-duty soldiers in recent years were precipitated by the breakup of an intimate relationship.

We view affairs as major relationship trauma that disrupt spouses’ basic beliefs about their relationships, their partners, and themselves. Following an affair, partners often lose predictability for their future and a loss of control, leading to deepened feelings of unbearable anxiety and despair. As long as injured partners don’t have a clear understanding of why the affair or trauma occurred, they can’t trust their participating partner not to hurt them again. At the same time, participating partners often struggle with their own feelings of guilt, shame, anger, or depression and thus end up ill‑equipped to respond effectively to their injured partner’s strong expressions of emotions.

If recovery from an affair is conceptualized as a response to an interpersonal trauma, then the recovery process can be understood as unfolding in three major stages that parallel the stages involved in the traumatic response. These include: (a) absorbing and addressing the traumatic impact of the affair, (b) constructing meaning for why the affair occurred, and (c) moving forward with one’s life within the context of this new understanding.

Stage 1: Dealing with the initial impact. Following disclosure or discovery of an affair, one or both partners may feel unable to complete the most basic daily tasks of caring for themselves or their children and may be unable to function effectively outside the home. Questions of whether to continue living together, how to deal with the outside affair person, whom to tell of the affair and what to disclose, how to attend to daily tasks of meals or childcare, or how to contain negative exchanges and prevent emotional or physical aggression – all need to be addressed early on to prevent additional damage from occurring to the partners or their relationship. Toward this goal, interventions in the first stage of recovery emphasize (1) setting clear and strong boundaries or limits on how partners interact with each other and with persons outside their relationship; (2) promoting essential self-care attending to physical well-being as well as both social and spiritual support; (3) teaching time-out and venting techniques as a way of regulating difficult negative emotions; (4) facilitating emotional expressiveness and empathic listening regarding the impact of the affair, along with offering a rationale for the importance of this process; and (5) helping both partners to recognize and cope with “flashback” phenomena including intense feelings, images, or recollections of the affair. 

Stage 2: Exploring context and finding meaning. Affair couples need a roadmap for recovering trust and intimacy. Injured partners, in particular, need ways to restore emotional security and reduce their fear of further betrayals. Both partners often crave mechanisms for restoring trust – injured partners for regaining it, and participating partners for instilling it. Interventions in the second stage of recovery are designed to promote partners’ shared comprehensive understanding or formulation of how the affair came about. For injured partners, this understanding contributes to greater predictability of whether the participating partner will be faithful in the future and a more balanced and realistic view of their partner (either a softening of anger or confrontation of enduring negative qualities). For participating partners an expanded understanding helps them accept responsibility for decisions resulting in the affair. Using a guided discovery approach, partners are encouraged to examine potential contributing factors from within the couple’s relationship, outside their relationship, and in themselves that increased their vulnerability to an affair. For both partners, a comprehensive and accurate understanding of factors contributing to the affair prepares them for necessary individual and relationship changes aimed at reducing these influences if they decide to stay together, and prepares them for a thoughtful decision to end the relationship in some instances.

Stage 3: Moving on. Intervention strategies in this final stage initially emphasize helping partners examine their personal beliefs about forgiveness and how these relate to their efforts to move on from the affair. Additional interventions are designed to help partners address individual or relationship barriers to moving on. Sometimes one or both partners may hold specific beliefs about forgiveness that make it more difficult to move forward. Other times unresolved resentments or inequities in the relationship block progress toward recovery. Interventions facilitate partners’ integration of what they’ve learned about themselves and their relationship – well beyond the affair – to reach an informed decision about whether to continue in their relationship or move on separately. For couples deciding to move on together, interventions emphasize additional changes partners will need to undertake either individually or conjointly to strengthen their relationship and reduce any influences that potentially make it more vulnerable to another affair in the future. If one partner or the other reaches an informed decision to end the relationship, the couple is helped to move on separately in ways that are least hurtful to themselves and others they love – including children, other family members, and friends.

Disseminating the Treatment to Service Providers for Military and Veteran Couples

My two colleagues and I who co-developed this affair recovery protocol have had the opportunity to present our work to numerous groups of counseling providers over the past decade and have written numerous resources describing this intervention approach. We’ve written a detailed treatment manual for therapists (Helping Couples Get Past the Affair; Guilford Press, 2009) and a self-help resource for couples (Getting Past the Affair: A Program to Help you Cope, Heal, and Move On – Together or Apart; Guilford Press, 2007).

Since 2009, I’ve had the privilege twice each year to contribute to the Chaplain Captains Career Course at the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina. For two days on each occasion, chaplains immerse themselves in understanding the affair recovery process, view videos of recorded therapy sessions with couples in treatment, engage in the role-play of critical interventions, and discuss issues in integrating the intervention protocol within their own theological and counseling perspectives. To date, approximately 500 chaplains have participated in this training experience, and each is charged following graduation from the class to train at least two additional chaplains under their supervision in this intervention protocol. No fewer than 1500 chaplains have been trained using this method, and are now equipped to provide specific counseling to military couples struggling with issues of infidelity – using this evidence-based approach. Each training occasion at the Chaplain School is a profoundly personal experience for me. I never fail to be overcome by the passion and commitment of these chaplains, and their welcoming of a non-chaplain into their midst for intense and sometimes difficult discussions. It is also an opportunity for me to connect to my own family – in memory of my father and his service to young soldiers in World War II, and in honor of my sons’ more recent service in the global war on terrorism.

Over the past decade, similar training experiences have been extended to other service providers across all branches of the Armed Forces, having diverse roles and professional backgrounds, in diverse settings serving both our active-duty and Veteran couples and families. However, the reach of these efforts has been constrained by the availability of myself or my two colleagues to deliver these training experiences. Now that is about to change.

This past March, the Center for Deployment Psychology invited me to join them in developing training materials to help professionals better assist military and Veteran couples struggling with issues of infidelity. I was already familiar with CDP, having sent two of my doctoral students there for week-long intensive trainings in prior years, and also knowing and admiring some of the CDP staff with whom I had interacted or collaborated previously. I was both humbled and excited by the privilege of working with CDP. From the perspective of dissemination, I recognized it as a force-multiplier – an opportunity to “train the trainers” through an organization known for the quality and broad impact of its training resources. From a more personal perspective, I recognized the collaboration with CDP as a new opportunity to serve.

This past August, several members of the CDP staff and I had opportunity to test-pilot a two-hour webinar on working with military couples who have experienced infidelity. Twice since then, in September and October, I’ve been privileged to co-deliver this webinar to service providers across the country with April Thompson, a CDP therapy trainer whom I had met in Spring of 2012 during a two-day training at Naval Station Mayport. April is a gifted clinician and presenter who has helped to expand CDP’s training resources for military couples and families. So with confidence and admiration, I will now step back as she and her colleagues begin to deliver this webinar training without me.

Some Final Reflections

I never served in the Armed Forces, but I have been privileged over the last third of my career to offer service of a different kind to the men and women who have given of themselves and their families to our nation’s security whether during peace or war. I am indebted to CDP for this additional opportunity to serve.


Dr. Douglas Snyder is Professor of Psychology and previously served as Director of Clinical Training at Texas A&M University in College Station. He has been recognized internationally for his research on assessment and treatment of distressed couples. His research on couple therapy has been funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and was recognized by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy as the Outstanding Research Contribution in 1991. Dr. Snyder is coeditor of two texts on Treating Difficult Couples and Couple-Based Interventions for Military and Veteran Families, and has recently coedited the 5th edition of the Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy. He is also co-author of two books that address working with couples recovering from an affair, including Getting Past the Affair: A Program to Help You Cope, Heal, and Move On, and Helping Couples Get Past the Affair: A Clinician's Guide. Dr. Snyder received the 2005 Award from the American Psychological Association for Distinguished Contributions to Family Psychology, and the 2015 Distinguished Psychologist Award for Lifetime Contributions to Psychology and Psychotherapy. He is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies. Dr. Snyder lives in College Station, Texas, where he also engages in private practice. Individuals interested in additional information regarding clinical workshops offered by Dr. Snyder are invited to contact him directly at

Citations & Resources

Baucom, D. H., Snyder, D. K., & Gordon, K. C. (2009).  Helping couples get past the affair: A clinician’s guide.  New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Snyder, D. K., Balderrama-Durbin, C., & Fissette, C. (2012). Treating infidelity and comorbid depression: A case study involving military deployment.  Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 1, 213-225.

Snyder, D. K., Balderrama-Durbin, C., Fissette, C., Scheider, D. M., Barnett, J. K., & Fiala, S. (2012). Infidelity. In B. A. Moore (Ed.), Handbook of counseling military couples (pp. 219‑235).  New York, NY: Routledge.

Snyder, D. K., Baucom, D. H., & Gordon, K. C. (2007).  Getting past the affair: A program to help you cope, heal, and move on – together or apart.  New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Snyder, D. K., Baucom, D. H., Gordon, K. C., & Doss, B. D. (2012). Infidelity and other relationship betrayals.  In D. K. Snyder & C. M. Monson (Eds.), Couple-based interventions for military and veteran families: A practitioner’s guide (pp. 90-121).  New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Snyder, D. K., Gasbarrini, M. F., Doss, B. D., & Scheider, D. M. (2011). Intervening with military couples struggling with issues of infidelity.  Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 41, 201‑208.