Handling Pre-Deployment Emotionally

daughter and father

Before a servicemember is deployed, It's natural for deployees and family members to feel:

  • A sense of despair.
  • A feeling that the marriage is out of control, feeling a desire to separate, to run away to reduce the pain.
  • A lack of energy, feelings of fatigue and depression.
  • Difficulty in making decisions.
  • Ambivalence towards one's partner and sex. It is difficult to be physically intimate when trying to separate emotionally. This should be viewed as a reaction to deployment rather than rejection of each other.

The pre-deployment stage is characterized alternately by denial and anticipation of loss. As the departure date gets closer, spouses often ask: "You don't really have to go, do you?" The pre-deployment medical and training requirements, preparation, and the anticipation of the unknown and months away from home herald the extended separation that is to come. Deployees will energetically talk more and more about their upcoming deployment and what they anticipate life in Iraq or Afghanistan will be like. This could also create an increasing sense of emotional and physical distance for spouses of deployees. In their frustration, many spouses might complain: "I wish you were gone already." It is as if their loved ones are already "psychologically deployed."

As the reality of the deployment finally sinks in, the deployee and family try to get their affairs in order. Long "honey-do" lists are generated dealing with all manner of issues including: home repairs, security (door and window locks, burglar alarms, etc.), car maintenance, finances, tax preparation, child care plans and wills, just to name a few. At the same time, many couples strive for increased intimacy. Plans are made for the "best" Christmas, the "perfect" vacation, or the "most" romantic anniversary. In contrast, there may be some ambivalence about sexual relations: "this is it for six months, but I do not want to be that close." Fears about fidelity or marital integrity are raised or may go unspoken. Other frequently voiced concerns may include: "How will the children handle the separation? Can I cope without him/her? Will my marriage survive?" In this very busy and tumultuous time, resolving all these issues, completing the multitude of tasks or fulfilling high expectations often falls short.

A common occurrence, just prior to deployment, is for deployees and their spouses to have a significant argument. For couples with a long history, this argument is readily attributed to the ebb-and-flow of marital life and therefore not taken too seriously. For younger couples, especially those experiencing an extended separation for the first time, such an argument can take on "catastrophic" proportions. Fears that the relationship is over can lead to tremendous anxiety for both deployee and spouse. In retrospect, these arguments are most likely caused by the stress of the pending separation. From a psychological perspective, it is easier to be angry than confront the pain and loss of saying goodbye for six months or more.

However, the impact of unresolved family concerns can have potentially devastating consequences. From a command perspective, a worried, preoccupied deployee is easily distracted and unable to focus on essential tasks on construction sites or the critical movement of heavy equipment. In the worst-case scenario, this can lead to a serious accident or the development of a stress casualty who is mission ineffective. On the home front, significant spousal distress interferes with completing basic routines, concentrating at work, and attending to the needs of children. At worst, this can exacerbate children's fears that the parents are unable to adequately care for them or even that the servicemember will not return. Adverse reactions by children can include inconsolable crying, apathy, tantrums, and other regressive behaviors. In response, a downward spiral can develop - if not quickly checked - in which both servicemember and spouse become even more upset at the prospect of separating.

Although easier said than done, it is often helpful for couples - in the pre-deployment stage - to discuss in detail their expectations of each other during the deployment. These expectations can include a variety of issues, to include: freedom to make independent decisions, contact with the opposite sex (fidelity), going out with friends, budgeting, child-rearing, and even how often letters or care packages will be sent. Failure to accurately communicate these and other expectations is frequently a source of misperception, distortion and hurt later on in the deployment. It is difficult at best to resolve major marital disagreements when face-to-face, let alone over six thousand miles apart.

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Deployment Family and Spouse