Filed under: Couples
Being in combat is physically, emotionally, and mentally stressful. Part of the body's natural stress response is to remain on high alert in order to have a better chance of staying alive. This can lower your tolerance for relationship disagreements and can cause irritability and conflict. The following are some tips to help you overcome the effects of combat on your interactions with loved ones:
- Practice emotion management strategies prior to and after communicating with your loved ones to help you calm down first.
- If you are upset, wait to communicate with your loved ones rather than writing or saying something in the heat of the moment.
- Describe your feelings and thoughts starting with "I.” I-statements are more personal and reduce feelings of blame.
- Focus on the communication interaction between you and your partner, not just on the way that one or the other of you communicates.
- Compliment each other!
Research shows that particular styles of fighting often lead to divorce. In successful marriages, both partners are willing to work out problems by talking to each other. If one partner withdraws, the other may perceive that as lack of interest in the relationship, and the likelihood of divorce is high. Successful couples empathize with each other and handle conflict constructively. For more information on how to better communicate with your partner, please visit our Family Skills page.
Couple dynamics can be a significant resource for individuals when positive and emotionally supportive. For example, in a study of civilian families under economic distress, a key buffering factor to feeling distress was spouses who were emotionally supportive to each other. In contrast, couples with similar external financial stressors who had relationships low in emotional support reported greater feelings of distress (Conger & Conger, 2002). Therefore, how the couple interacts with each other is an important factor that can either buffer or enhance feelings of distress.
Conger, R., & Conger, K. (2002). Resilience in midwestern families: Selected findings from the first decade of a prospective, longitudinal study. Journal of Marriage and Family, 64, 361-373.
Military families have created unique ways to maintain close communication through deployments and long duty times. Merolla (2010) studied military spouse communication during deployment and found that while deployed, families deal with the stress of being separated well through balancing talk of everyday things (such as routines and everyday information) with deeper more meaningful conversations. Additionally, another key finding was that though there were individual differences – with creativity among couples an asset – couples seemed to benefit from keeping deployment communication similar to nondeployment communication in both planned and spontaneous discussions (Merolla, 2010).
Merolla, A. (2010). Relational maintenance during military deployment: Perspectives of wives of deployed US Soldiers. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 38(1), 4-26.
Being in stressful situations activates the body’s physiologic stress response, which is what allows Warfighters the ability to respond to any threat at any time. In the sports world, the stress response is associated with the adrenaline rush that pumps athletes up during competitions, and gives them the edge to win.
Unlike athletes, however, Warfighters are a select group who operate in stressful situations day in and day out. Prolonged exposure to stressful situations has been found to be harmful both physically and psychologically, unless one learns how to successfully manage one’s internal response. To that end, there are programs throughout the uniformed services that teach Warfighters combat stress management techniques. Many use a stoplight system—utlizing the colors green, yellow, and red—to teach Warfighters how to calm the stress response and bring the body back into balance, in order to give it a reprieve. Successful warfighters learn these skills and apply them in theater.
These same skills, which allow one to calm the body’s physiologic response to stress, can also be applied to other areas—most notably, in one’s relationships. The stress response triggered by external threats is the same stress response that is activated during emotionally-charged conflicts with someone you care about (although the degree of stress is different). Conflict between two people creates the same internal stress, coupled with a flood of negative emotions. The techniques learned to manage combat stress are techniques that can also help Warfighters in their personal relationships.
A recent study examined 149 couples in a 15-minute discussion about a marital conflict found that positive emotions helped couples regulate, or calm, their physiologic responses after the conversation. Interestingly, how happy the individual was with their relationship did not impact this finding. This indicates that positive emotions seem to have the ability to “undo” the physiologic arousal of conflict.
The next time you get in a fight with someone you care about, try this: stop, take yourself out of the situation, and start thinking positive thoughts—either about yourself, something else, or your partner. Notice whether you feel calmer, if your body temperature decreased, if your heart rate slowed down, and if your body moved less (we tend to move more when we are upset). You might find this to be an excellent addition not only to your combat stress strategies, but also to your positive relationship strategies.
Source: Yuan, J., McCarthy, M., Holley, S. & Levenson, R. (2010). Physiologic down-regulation and positive emotion in marital interaction. Emotion, 10(4), 467-474.
Known as the Michelangelo phenomenon, partners can help sculpt each other’s best possible self and achieve goals. Through affirmation and support, couples can help each other achieve their goals. Listen to your partner and dream together while encouraging each other. Reach for the stars together!
In all relationships, conflict management is often a key ingredient for success. However, the old belief that the best relationships are those without conflict is being replaced with the new understanding that conflict is normal in intimate relationships. The happiest couples, come to find out, are those who manage conflict without being destructive to each other.
Interestingly, research of couples problems over time shows that 31 percent of the problems couples deal with are solvable, and 69 percent are perpetual problems - so being able to manage differences over time is key to marital happiness!
Dr. John Gottman, having studied couples for over 20 years, found that there are key ingredients for relationship happiness:
- Having a strong friendship with your spouse.
- Being able to manage conflict in the relationship (and knowing which problems are solvable).
- Avoiding destructive behavior like criticism, contempt, defensiveness or ignoring your spouse.
- Building dreams and shared meaning with each other.
For military couples in particular, the ability to problem-solve and manage conflict is key to relationship happiness. Fortunately, problem-solving and conflict management are essential ingredients for Warfighter success. Through pre-deployment training, deployment, and reset, Warfighters within each branch learn key strategies for how to manage their emotions, identify problems, develop friendships, share memories together and map strategies for optimal outcomes - all of which are skills that can help foster great family relationships.
However, while deployed, each partner can change in ways that their spouse might not be aware of (both in theater and at home). That’s why making the effort to get to know each other again (even if you've been together for 50 years) is an important part of relationship happiness over time.
Take some time to ask your partner questions like:
- What attracted you to me when we first met?
- Who are your best friends at this point?
- What would you like to see happen for us in the next five years?
- What about yourself are you most proud of?
Questions like these can help foster friendship and positive feelings between you, and keep building dreams for a happy relationship and future together.
Source: These strategies were discussed at the recent American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists conference in September. Specific ideas from Dr. John Gottman's keynote speech, as well as Dr. Robert O'Brien's workshop on "Research-based Conflict Management After Combat Trauma," were used.
The American Psychological Association offers strategies to make blended families work:
- Have your own identity separate from your spouse and children.
- Maintain some autonomy in relationships while building togetherness through intimacy and identity.
- Maintain time for a rich sexual relationship that is safe from work and family intrusions.
- Be flexible in dealing with issues - life is unpredictable.
- Use humor to keep perspective.
- Remember how you felt falling in love and keep those images and feelings alive.
See the American Psychological Association site for more information.
Hooah 4 Health describes the "7 Emotional Cycles of Deployment" for couples - that both the deployed partner and one at home experience. At first, there is anticipation of departure, then detachment and withdrawal. This can lead to feelings of emotional disorganization. Over time, each partner copes with the deployment so that recovery and stabilization occur. Then, anticipation of the partner's return can start the countdown to deployment’s end. Once back home, partners adjust and renegotiate their roles and can be completely reintegrated and stabilized within a few months. These stages are discussed in detail at the Hooah4Health website.
Social support after deployment significantly decreases symptoms of PTSD and depression, a recent study found. Individuals who have emotional support from family, friends, coworkers, employers, and community members had less PTSD and depression. Warfighters who received social support immediately following deployment reported substantially reduced symptoms.