Military families are very diverse. And military marriage counseling also deals with many of the same problems and challenges faced by civilian families. Teen rebellion, behavior problems with younger children, ADHD, financial stress, and caring for aging parents. But Military families also have their own special problems, unique virtues, and strengths.
Popular culture tends to emphasize the dramatic life challenges discussed in military marriage counseling.
In this post, I’d like to first discuss the virtues and positive traits found in military marriages. There are important benefits to military service.
For many young people, military service is a rite of passage into an economically subsidized early adulthood, offering external stability, benefits, and security. Military service is also a buffer from the harsh realities of employment capitalism.
Military families have benefits and other resources that are world-class. Active-duty service entitles you to be efficient and reliable child care, world-class health-care, and tax-free discount stores.
But perhaps the most significant asset shared by military families is their sense of community and cohesiveness. These are traits not often found in civilian marriages. Their sense of duty, patriotism, and discipline are also admirable, resilience-building traits.
But many couples need military marriage counseling to manage the unique stressors of being active military.
The military has its own unique culture. The active military lifestyle influences family dynamics, functioning, and parenting behavior. When a young adult enlists, they enter an authoritarian culture that demands conformity and rigidity.
And these values are reflected in military families (Hall, 2011a; Kelty, Kleykamp, and Segal, 2010). Although military families face some of the same challenges as civilian families, they also face unique stressors unique to military life; deployments, frequent relocations, and separation from their families.
Military marriage counseling helps couples to manage the loneliness, stress, and unpredictability that are part of military life, these stressors spill over into extended family relationships, and particularly with children.
Military couples are at increased risk of using harsh parenting strategies to discipline their children (Gibbs et al., 2007). Another factor is youth. Service members are typically young, and many have children.
Research shows that almost half of the active-duty U.S. military population is under the age of 25 (Kelty et al., 2010), and nearly 50% are married, and 42% have young children. Specifically, just under 42% of service members’ children are younger than five years old; Defense Manpower Research Center, 2014).
Stressors on military families are well known. Military families move an average of every two or three years.
Balancing family life with deployments and separations is a predictable challenge, and the departure and re-entry into the family is perhaps the most constant issue in military marriage counseling.
Some experiences encountered by military families include multiple deployments and separations from family, frequent moves, financial strain, and distance from support systems (Kelley, Herzog-Simmer, & Harris, 1994; Sogomonyan & Cooper, 2010) which can lead to increased stress to include parenting stress, marital conflict, and psychological distress.
The fact that military spouses earn less than their civilian equivalents is another aggravating factor. But the motherload of predictable stressors, deployment to a war zone… is linked to anxiety, sleep disorders, adjustment disorders, and even acute stress reaction (McCarthy et al., 2015). Erel & Burman (1995) found that active-duty families had a “spill-over” effect of anxiety which flows from the marital system into sub-systems, and even extended family systems.
The marriage bond is enormously crucial to military families. Research over the last half-decade has shown that the ending of an intimate relationship prompts 40-50% of the veteran suicide rate.
Perpetual war has spiked the divorce rate to a rate of 41% among military staff between 2000 and 2011. Intimate relationships that are functionally resilient can handle the stresses of marital life. But resilience is under assault on multiple fronts with PTSD IPV, and alcoholism. Military marriage counseling is keenly focused on managing the mental stress of being a warrior.
Depression, and/or a drug and alcohol problem impact many military families. Research estimates that as many as 30% of vets have a substance abuse issue or PTSD.
The two categories may overlap somewhat. Another difference in trauma experience is gender.
While some men will have PTSD symptoms from war experiences, some female veterans may have sexual trauma from harassment, rape, or sexual assault. Somewhere between 13% and 58% of active military and veterans at one time or another have committed intimate partner violence ( IPV).
The great family therapist, Salvador Minuchin, invented the term “accordion families” to those families who frequently adjust to the absence and then the return of a family member.
Military families are a type of “Accordion Family” (Minuchin & Fishman, 1981), where one parent leaves for long periods and the center of emotional gravity in the family shifts to a now often overfunctioning partner.
Separations can be tough on military families. But with proper military marriage counseling, many families acquire strategies and skills to adjust.
When a partner is deployed, those at home shift their roles and responsibilities to cover for the person who’s absent.
When they return, then the family must shift roles again. These “accordion families” must contract and expand as service members are home or deployed elsewhere. Some families can handle this with skill. Others need military marriage counseling to acquire to manage the stress of deployment.
You can make this challenge more manageable. Ask yourself the following questions about how your family handles separations. The answers will help you come up with a plan that works for everyone.
Military marriage counseling advises active military to rejoin the family slowly. Usually, there is no need to make quick changes because most families have found a way to operate that works. Your family loves you and needs a chance to get to know you again. Take advantage of their present stability and goodwill toward you
Moving slowly is particularly challenging for the active military, who often have a high need to be in control. This need for control is often perceived as an effort to dominate the family and can create tension in the marriage.
Military marriage counseling typically advises focussing on emotionally reconnecting rather than on re-asserting family control.
Couples Therapy Inc. is proud to be an approved Military ONE mental health contractor. We have two team members with deep experience working with this population, Jennifer Sue Taylor LMFT, and Dr. Heide Rodriguez-Ubinas in Puerto Rico.
If you’re a science-based couples therapist, and you’d like to learn more about working with military families, check out a free five-module online training created by Michelle Sherman and Michael Kauth. The training can be found at www.vacouplestherapy.org.
A new 12 module Cognitive-behavioral program called the Strength at Home intervention is showing promise as an evidence-based treatment plan for dealing with PTSD and preventing IPV. This new method of treating wartime PTSD has been getting impressive results (Tast et al., 2013).
Erel, O., & Burman, B. (1995). The interrelatedness of marital relations and parent-child relations: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 118, 108-132. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.118.1.108.
Hall, L. K. (2011a). The military culture, language, and lifestyle. In R.B. Everson & C.R. Figley (Eds.), Families under fire: Systemic therapy with military families (pp. 31-52). New York, NY: Routledge.
Hall, L. K. (2011b). The importance of understanding military culture. Social work in health care, 50, 4-18. Retrieved from http://reader.eblib.com.proxy.lib.odu.edu/ (S(kf3ow5mkwdwuwco1uwsknicp))/Reader.aspx?p=981599&o=1971&u=QNygx%2bK kMeiUjhBZgmDsWQ%3d%3d&t=1475184884&h=E62E6045E66CADDF3D50749CEC C0C1FF460331B1&s=48400213&ut=6510&pg=1&r=img&c=-1&pat=n&cms=- 1&sd=2#
Kelley, M. L. (2002). The effects of deployment on traditional and nontraditional military families: Navy mothers and their children. Military brats and other global nomads: Growing up in organization families (pp. 1-20). London, England: Praeger.
Kelley, M. L., Herzog-Simmer, P. A., & Harris, M. A. (1994). Effects of military-induced separation on the parenting stress and family functioning of deploying mothers. Military Psychology, 6, 125-138. http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/s15327876mp0602_4
McCarthy, R. J., Rabenhorst, M. M., Thomsen, C. J., Milner, J. S., Travis, W. J., Copeland, C. W., & Foster, R. E. (2015). Child maltreatment among civilian parents before, during, and after deployment in the United States Air Force families. Psychology of Violence, 5, 26- 34. doi: 10.1037/a0035433
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He is the Blog Editor. He currently works online seeing couples from Massachusetts at Couples Therapy Inc. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.