Military deployments and family separations due to trainings and other military duties are not easy – not for the Service members nor for the spouses left behind. These military experiences can place significant stress on couples which can result in marital dissatisfaction. Therefore, understanding the specific ways these military experiences impact couples as well as identifying interventions that help combat relationship distress is of critical importance. While many studies have examined the impact of military experiences from the perspective of the Service member, a 2018 study (Pflieger et al.) examined them from the perspective the spouse and consequently provided important clues to further our understanding of the mechanisms of stress for these spouses.
The study was conducted using data from the Millennium Cohort Family Study – a Department of Defense project at the Deployment Health Research Department in San Diego, California. The Millennium Cohort Family Study is a prospective study of military couples which seeks to understand how military experiences impact families’ health. It includes spouses of active duty, Reserve, and National Guard members from all five service branches (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard) of the US military. The Family Study is an offshoot of the Millennium Cohort Study which, to date, has been collecting data from over 200,000 Service members. Because the two studies are co-occurring, the Family Study is able to compare data between Service member–spouse dyads, providing a comprehensive study of military families. Spouses voluntarily participate in this study and are assessed at baseline and approximately every three years thereafter.
In Pflieger et al.’s study, 9,341 married couples from across all branches were included. Researchers were seeking to understand how military and non-military experiences influence spouse’s perceptions of marital quality. They considered Service member’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), combat experience and time away from home (including deployments) as the “military experiences”. The “non-military experiences” for spouses included caregiver responsibilities, financial strain, lack of social supports and challenges associated with the work-family balance. After controlling for spouse enduring traits and military contextual factors, they found that the non-military experiences had a stronger influence on low marriage quality compared to military experiences. The only military experience that was an exception to this was Service member’s PTSD. Of the non-military experiences contributing to low marriage quality, the one with the biggest direct effect was lack of social support,
While these results may be a surprise to some, many military spouses can probably relate to them. People without firsthand knowledge or experience of the military may only understand the military marriage in the context of images they see in the media. Deployments are portrayed as the main focus in relationships with brief, tearful good-byes and exuberant homecomings. However, deployments are just one aspect of military family life. For military spouses, the day-to-day challenges of maintaining a career, raising children and managing a home while their Service member comes and goes with an unpredictable schedule can create many challenges. Having a support system of others who care, understand and listen can make a huge difference. A support system can mitigate some of the stresses that come with military life and consequently improve marriage quality.
During the last twenty years of marriage to my active-duty spouse, I’ve experienced five deployments and countless separations. Reflecting back, the most difficult times I’ve had personally were times when I felt alone and/or unsupported. While those times may have been exacerbated by a military separation or deployment, they were not the cause. Sometimes they were caused by a recent move, sometimes by caring for children or just the challenges of trying to maintain a career while moving every eighteen months. The findings of the above-mentioned study resonate with me. I am encouraged to see research that seeks to identify and understand the needs of military spouses and couples.
Hopefully this and other research that is to come from the Millennium Cohort Family Study will translate to targeted interventions designed to increase social connection and support for military spouses. Healthy military marriages are important not just important because they support the psychological well-being of both partners, but because they also directly impact mission readiness. We need a military force that is focused on their mission and ready to deploy on a moment’s notice. Supporting spouses and military marriages is a key component of this.
For more on military spouses, see Dr. Marjorie Weinstock's recent blog, "Resilience in Military Couples" and Danielle Carrier's "Living in River CIty - Family Challenges During Deployment"
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.
April Thompson, LCSW, is a clinical social worker working as a Military Behavioral Health Social Worker at the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences at Bethesda, Maryland.
Pflieger, J. C., LeardMann, C. A., McMaster, H. S., Donoho, C. J. & Riviere, L. A. (2018) The impact of military and nonmilitary experiences on marriage: Examining the military spouse’s perspective. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 31, 719-729.