When husbands go off to war, wives who stay behind to maintain the home front often experience a roller coaster of emotions that makes communication between spouses difficult before, during and after deployments.
Couples who maintain successful marriages have found a balance in what to discuss and what not to talk about when the military adds stress to their families as they try to lead normal lives, according to a study of 50 Army wives by a communications expert at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and two colleagues at Midwestern universities.
"Military couples need to remember that their problems are a matter of context. Their struggles are due in part to the situation, and it's not that there's something wrong with one or the other," said Erin Sahlstein, assistant professor for communication studies at UNLV.
She recently spoke about the study published in December in the academic journal Communication Monographs and in Communication Currents, a publication of the National Communication Association. The papers were co-authored by Katheryn Maguire of Wayne State University and Lindsay Timmerman of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
They interviewed 50 Army wives whose husbands were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan between 2003 and 2005. Thirty-one have children. The average wife who participated in the study was 32 years old, had been married for seven years and had two children.
Sahlstein said spouses who maintained successful marriages through one or more deployments were good communicators, "but you have to be careful how you talk about certain things."
"Keeping the flow of communications open is important to mental and even physical health," Sahlstein said. "It's not the quantity of communication, but the quality of communication and being thoughtful of how you're communicating with your spouse."
Those who struggle with deployments should realize that when problems arise they shouldn't focus on whether something is wrong with the marriage or blame each other for a situation. A wife might take on a role of being more independent during her husband's deployment, and both might appear more distant in their thoughts about each other.
"Military service members are given the double burden of experiencing combat and not being consistently supported in talking about it," according to the report by Sahlstein and her co-authors.
Another problem that wives grapple with is what to tell their children when they ask, "Is Daddy going to die?"
"I think every parent needs to think about their child and how to address that question. The age of the child is very import," Sahlstein said. "From my perspective being honest with the child is good, and that is a possibility. But it's really a difficult question and my research really doesn't address that."
The study found that before a soldier deploys, married couples struggle with communicating about what to expect.
"They also don't want to know certain things that will cause more stress when he goes away," Sahlstein said. "Some wives would be open and talk quite a bit and that would alleviate stress. But in some cases that increases stress."
Some try to avoid conversations that increase the stress level, particularly when a soldier has deployed before.
"To them it's risky and scary to have conversations about what will things be like," Sahlstein said.
Returning from a war zone "is the most important phase" for spouses to communicate.
In a new study that focuses on deployments of local airmen, Sahlstein is looking in more depth at how both spouses try to overcome communication gaps when the wife doesn't want to hear about the combat experience or the husband doesn't want talk about it.
"One of the major problems I see is sometimes the wives and husbands don't necessarily see things the same way. ... Again, the problems are problematic. Some would go to the extremes of not talking at all to get things back to normal."
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