Staff Perspective: Military Couples Communication: Recommendations for Managing Expectations and Communication While Deployed

Staff Perspective: Military Couples Communication: Recommendations for Managing Expectations and Communication While Deployed

Dr. Jenny Phillips

As a military spouse, and even earlier as a family member of a Service member, I experienced multiple instances of being on the home end of communication during deployments. The quality and quantity of communication varied depending on the specific deployment and circumstances. Somewhat surprisingly, the best was when my husband was stationed in Fallujah, Iraq as a clinical psychologist and regularly had daily access to all three of our primary forms of communication: telephone, video chat, and email. The worst was probably my husband’s carrier tour when communication was often at the whim of the weather, location, and the mission-specific priorities of the ship’s comm systems. But even the less frequent communications from the ship represented significant progress from options available to military families even a decade earlier. While some specific missions and locations still present infrequent access to comms, many military deployments and separations allow for frequent, even daily, communication between the Service member and their partners and families.

However, as CDP discusses in trainings for behavioral health providers on the topics of deployment and military families, increased access to communication can represent a double-edged sword for families and Service members. Enhanced communication during deployment may contribute to the development of resilience and positive post-deployment outcomes, but it also may add to sources of distress for both the family and the Service member. A recent study by Blow and colleagues (2021) sought to better understand how to best achieve healthy communication between couples with a particular emphasis on how to handle the uncertainties that accompany a deployment.

The authors chose to examine communication through a longitudinal study of 31 National Guard Service members and their partners over the course of an Afghanistan deployment, spanning the pre-deployment phase, deployment, and then two years post-deployment for follow-ups. They examined the qualitative information gathered from semi-structured interviews during this time frame and identified a series of communication and structural barriers and facilitators that predicted positive or negative outcomes during and after deployment. Using these positive and negative factors, the authors developed four recommendations to facilitate healthy communication throughout the deployment and reintegration experience:

  • Develop a communication plan before deployment. The plan should address any necessary preparations for the use of new or different technology to communicate. It should also strive to establish a predictable routine, to the degree that this is possible, that meets the needs of both parties in terms of frequency and purpose.
  • Utilize active and open communication. When possible, couples should share information as openly and honestly as possible during deployment. Partners can discuss and establish any “taboo” topics or situations prior to deployment with considerations towards operational security and individual discomfort or burden.
  • Establish social media rules and guidelines. Couples should discuss whether they wish to use social media as a mechanism of communication with one another and/or with others during the deployment. If they choose to use it, they should intentionally plan how it will be used in active, constructive ways to help maintain the connection.
  • Plan for communications blackouts. Couples should create a plan together of steps that the partner at home can take if/when there is a media or communications blackout in the deployed environment (e.g., reaching out to a military point of contact or to family and friends). The authors also urge the military to be proactive in educating Service members and family about blackout communication protocols prior to deployment as a preventative measure against surprise or concern should they occur.

Beneficial communication during deployment is, like many aspects of military life, a balancing act. Sharing the above recommendations by Blow and colleagues (2021) with clients who are preparing for deployment can be a good first step in preparing them for a positive deployment communication experience. Additional resources for managing deployment communication are listed below.

  1. Military OneSource article: 10 Tips for Keeping a Relationship Strong During Deployment and Separation 
  2. Blue Star Families article: The Latest on Communication During Deployment
  3. Consortium for Health and Military Performance (Uniformed Serviced University) article: Keep in Touch During Your 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.

Jenny Phillips, Ph.D., is the Assistant Director of Evaluation for the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, MD.

Blow, A. J., Farero, A. M., Ufer, L. G., Kees, M., & Guty, D. (2021). National Guard couples communicating during deployment: the challenge of effective connection. Contemporary Family Therapy, 1-10.