Staff Perspective: Communication During Deployments

Staff Perspective: Communication During Deployments

In a recent blog I wrote about resilience in military couples, and one of the key things that’s consistent in the literature is that communication is one of the fundamental processes in building resilience. We also know that one unique aspect of many military families’ lives is the experience of deployment. Research has shown that one of the best ways for couples and families to maintain a sense of connection during deployments is through communication.

It wasn’t that long ago that letters from home were the only way that deployed service members stayed in touch with their loved ones. But recent advances in technology have dramatically changed the ways that families communicate during deployments, leading to unprecedented increases in communication between deployed service members and their intimate partners. For me, this is best illustrated by thinking back on my first experience with a military deployment. While today’s families have a variety of communication options available (e.g., telephone, text, social media), I remember how excited I was back in 2007 to have a single opportunity during the course of my spouse’s deployment to participate in a video teleconference (VTC). This was the only time during the deployment that I was able to talk with my husband “face-to-face”, and it required me having to go on base at a certain date and time and only being able to see and talk with him for a short amount of time in the presence of another person who was monitoring the equipment.

Relative to 20 years ago, communication between deployed service members and family members is highly available and often immediate, which changes the nature of the relationship experience of service members and their families. Alongside these changes, there’s been an increase in the literature looking at the nuances of communication among deployed couples, which I find really interesting.

In a 2018 study, Sayers and colleagues looked at aspects of communication in 58 service member/intimate partner dyads during combat deployments to develop a better conceptual understanding of the impact of communication. Their findings suggested that communication between service members and their partners during a deployment is important to help maintain an emotional connection, to prevent distancing to ease the transition back, and to obtain assurance regarding the safety of the deployed partner.

One area of interest in the research literature centers around the idea that different types of communication (e.g., video/phone calls, letters) may serve different functions during deployment separations (e.g., providing relationship reminders vs. facilitating problem resolution). Carter et al. (2018) were interested in learning more about the different topics couples discuss during deployment. They looked at the communication patterns of 56 Army couples during deployment and assessed both the topics discussed and how they communicated. Specifically, they categorized topics as:

  • Friendship talk, which included discussions a variety of topics, including shared interests and day-to-day chit-chat
  • Love talk, which included expressions of love, affection, appreciation, and encouragement
  • Problem talk, which included discussions of both minor, day-to-day problems and major, significant problems

They found that couples engaged in different types of communication depending upon the type of media that was being utilized:

  • When using synchronous communication methods (those with the possibility of immediate vs. delayed responding, such as phone/video calls), couples engaged in significantly more friendship talk than love or problem talk. One explanation for this is that synchronous communication is potentially less compatible for love and problem talk due to the lack of privacy many service members have when engaging in phone or video conversations in a deployed location. Additionally, the ability to see and/or hear one’s partner during problem discussions may intensify them.
  • With letters, on the other hand, couples reported similar levels of friendship talk and love talk, with very little problem talk. The inherent delay between when letters are written and when they’re received may make them most ideal for love talk as they can be re-read when partners are most in need of support. (Letters are also one of the few ways that non-deployed spouses can initiate communication, as only service members are able to initiate video/phone calls).

The authors suggest that the high incidence of friendship talk in both synchronous communication and letters is an indication that they frequently use communication as a way to catch up with each other, joke around, or simply chat – in other words, to maintain connection.

Another aspect of communication that’s been looked at has to do with “protective buffering”, or intentionally withholding or minimizing information/concerns in an attempt to protect the other partner from potential distress. Historically, topic avoidance between romantic partners has been considered a harmful communication strategy and related to decreases in both relationship satisfaction and functioning. Qualitative studies of military couples, however, suggest that protective buffering is prevalent during deployments, often in an attempt to reduce service member distraction in dangerous situations. A recent study by Carter et al. (2020) looking at 54 Army couples during deployment found that while non-deployed partners do commonly engage in protective buffering, it was associated with higher psychological distress and lower marital satisfaction for both service members and their partners.

While we know that communication during deployment is an important way to maintain connection during times of family separation, these studies show us that a discussion of the details of communication is also important. Among other things, this discussion should include:

  • The potential pluses and minuses of each type of communication (e.g., ease of daily email writing, scheduling phone calls across multiple time zones)
  • How much disclosure couples desire (for example, some partners may not want to know about potential stressors/dangers, whereas others may see limiting information as unacceptable)
  • Attempts to plan for the unexpected (e.g., What happens if a service member isn’t able to access the internet for several days or a phone call suddenly gets disconnected?) Having backup plans may help couples and families better navigate the stresses of deployments.

The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.

Marjorie Weinstock, Ph.D., is a Senior Military Behavioral Health Psychologist for the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences at Bethesda, Maryland.


Carter, S. P., Osborne, L. J., Renshaw, K. D., Allen, E. S., Loew, B. A., Markman, H. J., & Stanley, S. M. (2018). Something to talk about: Topics of conversation between romantic partners during military deployments. Journal of Family Psychology, 32(1), 22-30.
Carter, S. P., Renshaw, K. D., Allen, E. S., Markman, H. J., & Stanley, S. M. (2020). Everything here is fine: Protective buffering by military spouses during a deployment. Family Process, 59(3),1261-1274. https://10.1111/famp.12457
Sayers, S. L., Barg, F. K., Mavandadi, S., Hess, T. H., & Crauciuc, A. (2018). Deployment communication: Underlying processes and outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology, 32(1), 3-11.