With a continuing focus on military families during Military Family Appreciation Month, today I want to talk about military families’ connections to the civilian communities that they live in.
As a military spouse, one of the most challenging aspects of military life for me has always been the frequent moves. As Dr. Lisa French noted in her recent blog “Through the Eyes of a Military Child,” moving is a normative military family stressor. In most branches of service, military families move to a new duty station every two to four years. While moving to a new place is an exciting aspect of military service for many Service members and their families, it’s also unquestionably stressful to relocate and have to reacclimatize repeatedly.
Our most recent move landed us in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, an area without an active duty military base. I didn’t grow up in a military family, and when my husband and I first started dating he used to tell me that the military community was very supportive and welcoming for military families. To be honest, at the time, I wasn’t quite sure I believed him, but when faced with figuring out how to meet people and make new friends in a city without an established military community, I realized that I had indeed come to view this community as very much my own. While I’ve found a lot to appreciate in Pittsburgh over the past two years, I’ve noticed that I’ve had to be much more creative in my efforts to connect with people in the community.
In my work at the Center for Deployment Psychology I frequently present on the topic of military families, and I’m always interested to see the data in each year’s Blue Star Families’ (BSF) annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey report. So perhaps not surprisingly given my personal experiences, when reading the 2017 report, I was immediately drawn to the headline: “the majority of military families do not feel they belong in their local civilian communities”.
For those who many not be familiar with this report, the BSF annual survey examines the experiences and challenges encountered by military-connected families. The 2017 BSF Survey was the eighth iteration and was conducted in conjunction with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University. Respondents included over 7,800 Service members, Veterans, and military family members.
Accoring to the 2017 BSF Comprehensive Report, military families are experiencing low integration with civilian communities. Specifically, data showed that:
On some level, this data is not surprising – relationships take time to build. Even though most military families live off-installation, the transitory nature of the military lifestyle makes creating community connections challenging for many families. In fact, 45% of military family respondents cited relocation issues as one of their “top 5” military family life stressors. However, I was particular startled by this last statistic – almost 1/3 of respondents haven’t talked with their civilian neighbors in the past month! This is particularly important as those respondents who engaged with civilians in their local communities at least once a week reported higher levels of belonging. These same individuals were also more likely to recommend military service to others.
While not much research has been done in this area, it has been found that social support predicts a sense of community, which in turn is associated with psychosocial well-being among military spouses (Wang et al., 2015). Even fewer studies have looked specifically at the importance of civilian community connections, but there is some data showing that these connections are particularly important for military spouses (Davis et al., 2011). Recently, O’Neal et al. (2016) looked at connectedness both within the military community and the wider civilian community. They found that while military-specific community connections are important for both Service members and military spouses, civilian community interactions were more relevant for military spouses. I think it’s very exciting that research is starting to emerge looking at this important issue, and I look forward to seeing what might come in the future.
If you are part of a military family, what are some of your experiences integrating with civilian communities? Are there particular strategies that have been most helpful for you? Additionally, if you are a behavioral health provider working with military families, how do you assess integration with civilian communities? And are there recommendations you make to assist families who are struggling to connect? I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences.
Marjorie Weinstock, Ph.D., is a Senior Miiltary Behavioral Health Psychologist at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.
Blue Star Families. (2017). 2017 Blue Star Families military family lifestyle survey: Comprehensive report. Retrieved from https://bluestarfam.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/MFLS_ComprehensiveReport17-FINAL.pdf
Davis, J., Ward, D. B., & Storm, C. (2011). The unsilencing of military wives: Wartime deployment experiences and citizen responsibility. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 37, 51-63. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2009.00154.x
O’Neal, C. W., Mancini, J. A., & DeGraff, A. (2016). Contextualizing the psychosocial well-being of military members and their partners: The importance of community and relationship provisions. American Journal of Community Psychology, 58, 477-487. doi: 10.1002/ajcp.12097
Wang, M. C., Nyutu, P., Tran, K., & Spears, A. (2015). Finding resilience: The mediation effect of sense of community on the psychological well-being of military spouses. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 37(2), 164-174. doi: 10.17744/mehc.37.2.07054x614489204m