Staff Perspective: Pondering the impact of Dynamic Force Employment on Navy Couples - Managing Relationships During Times of Uncertainty

Staff Perspective: Pondering the impact of Dynamic Force Employment on Navy Couples - Managing Relationships During Times of Uncertainty

April Thompson, LCSW

“Dynamic Force Employment” When I first heard this term, I thought it was a new program designed to help military spouses find jobs.   There are new initiatives being created all the time to support spouses and families and I thought this might be one of them.  I was wrong.

Dynamic Force Employment (DFE) is an initiative created by former Secretary of Defense James Mattis which aims to make the military force “more agile and less predictable” than it has been in the past.  As I learned about DFE, it made sense.  We don’t want our adversaries to know where our ships are, where they are going and how long we will be there.   This concept was demonstrated in the Navy by a group of ships that deployed from Norfolk, Virginia a few months ago.

A recent article describing DFE ( explains that a number of ships left on deployment, but then unexpectedly returned to their home port after only a few month at sea for an “extended port visit” before leaving again a few weeks later to finish the deployment.  It is easy to see how this type of unpredictability would make good strategic sense.  However, I also thought that it must be challenging for the families who experienced it.  In this model, spouses said good-bye to their Service members thinking they would be gone for a certain number of months only to have them return midway through for a few weeks and then leave again. 

As a military spouse for over 20 years, I have seen first-hand the changes that occur regarding what information families are told about deployment.  On my husband’s first ship, spouses knew when the ships would leave, when they would return, as well as dates and locations of most port visits along the way.  Today, operational security (OPSEC) dictates strict limitations on who can know and discuss ship movements.  Gone are the days when deployment lengths and port visits were so predictable that you could buy a plane ticket months in advance to visit a Service member during a port visit in an overseas location.  Military spouses understand and support the need for safety, security and mission success with regard to deployments.  But, introducing another change to the deployment “cycle” will require another shift in the way spouses respond to these deployments.

Each military spouse and family prepares for separations in their own way.  As a way to understand what families go through, Pincus et al. in 2001 described the “emotional cycle of deployment” as including five stages: pre-deployment, deployment, sustainment, re-deployment and post-deployment.   Over the 18 years since that article was written, much has changed about the nature of military deployments.  Now the “stages” are no longer predictable or linear in their order and length.  The families from the DFE deployment may have experienced each stage two or three times.  That unpredictability can sometimes be destabilizing to otherwise strong relationships.

As both a family member and a clinical social worker, I am aware of the importance of identifying resources to help couples cope and thrive. Behavioral health providers who work with these couples need to be aware of the issues which can arise from unpredictable separations and be able to offer tools to help manage challenges.  It is well documented that knowing what is normal for couples can help decrease stress.   However, in this situation, there may not be a “normal” to compare to, so couples are left to wonder.  Research tells us that, in general, following a deployment military couples usually return to whatever their baseline functioning was prior to the separation (Meadows et al., 2016).  I imagine this will be the case with couples who experience this new type of deployment.  Knowing that support is available from providers who understand military culture and want to help them navigate and communicate during these times can help decrease the impact of the separation on their relationship. 

Understanding military culture is a process that involves staying informed about the unique circumstances military couples face. Whether a provider is working on or just near a military installation, they should take steps to learn about the types of deployments that are occurring.   Deployment missions vary significantly depending on the branch of the military and the type of unit. 

The one constant in the military is change.  Dynamic Force Employment may be here to stay or a new philosophy may evolve.  Regardless, military couples will find ways to be resilient hopefully knowing there is a support system in place to help them if needed.

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 currently working as a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Trainer at the CDP at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences (USU) in Bethesda, Maryland.


Meadows, S.O., Tanielian, T. & Karney, B. eds., The Deployment Life Study: Longitudinal Analysis of Military Families Across the Deployment Cycle, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, RR-1388-A/OSD, 2016.

Pincus, S.H., House, R., Christenson, J & Adler, L.E. (2001). The emotional cycle of deployment: A military family perspective. US Army Medical Department Journal. 2. 15-23.