Filed under: Relationships
Having good social support is beneficial in many ways and can come in a furry package! Pets are wonderful companions, and you benefit by having one (or more) in so many ways: They get you out exercising, increase your self-esteem, decrease a sense of isolation, and help you through tough times. If that’s not enough, there’s a growing amount of research on the use of dogs providing therapeutic benefits to individuals coping with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Dog owners are also more likely than those who don’t have dogs to meet physical activity guidelines. So if you have a furry creature at home, remember to give them a big pat for enhancing your life. Indeed, one researcher described these relationships as truly “friends with benefits.”
For Warfighters about to be deployed, pets also can come with the added stress of needing to find a temporary home. To get some tips about what to do with your pet while you’re on deployment, check out this Department of Defense blog.
You often hear it said you should just walk away from a fight. But when it comes to your personal relationships, it’s better to learn the communication skills you need to work through your differences, with both of you coming out as the victor. Happy couples fall into three types depending on the way they handle conflicts: validators, volatiles, and avoiders.
Validators are couples who are great at communicating their feelings and opinions and talking through their problems. There is often a lot of mutual respect and compromise for these couples.
Volatile couples tend to be explosive and heated when dealing with conflict, expressing both negative and positive emotions passionately. The key to success in such relationships is that the positive has to greatly outweigh (by five times) the negative in these exchanges.
Avoiders are couples who play down their problems and avoid disagreements. They focus on the positive aspects of their relationship and can ignore any negative parts or agree to disagree.
One style isn’t better than the other, but your conflict style needs to work for both of you. This is easiest when each person’s individual conflict style matches the other’s. But sometimes they don’t. Watch for our upcoming article about what do when this happens.
Whether you know it or not, you’ve probably engaged in “triangulation,” and not just as a kid when you ran to Mom because Dad just said “no” (or vice versa). Similar triangles can also happen with leadership or any work group, committee, or organization (including military) where two people talk about a third.
On the surface, triangulation can look pretty harmless. You vent out of frustration because someone is not acting the way you’d like. Depending on where you are in the triangle, you either receive sympathy or provide it, possibly exerting any power you have to fix the situation. These triangles tend to consist of a “victim,” a “villain,” and a “rescuer.”
Because people are often uncomfortable with conflict, they figure out ways to maintain the status quo, even if it’s a bad one, instead of addressing what the core issue is. Triangulation is one way to avoid facing things, and it can feel like a fix, but it’s temporary at best. The rescuer provides a sympathetic ear so that the victim doesn’t feel a need to take action, or tries to take charge of the situation, but inevitably, the same problems pop up between the original two people.
Next time you feel like a victim and consider going to another person with your conflict, first be clear about your goals. Do you want to be rescued, or do you want to be coached? Before reaching out, ask yourself if you can possibly self-coach your way through whatever is popping up. Prepare yourself for whatever criticism might come your way if the “villain’s” defenses get triggered. And “preparing” does not mean bracing yourself or getting ammunition ready to fire back at that person. It means getting ready to really listen and validate how the other person feels, even if you don’t agree with the content of what that person says. If that person feels listened to, he/she will become more receptive to your position.
When a triangle does occur, the best scenario for the third person (the potential rescuer) is to be a good coach. Coaches don’t play the game for their players; they help them become more self-sufficient. Similarly, good leaders ask challenging questions of the people under their command, helping them to think through situations and become better equipped to face conflict directly. If you’re the potential rescuer, resist your own impulses to fix things and instead work on enabling the victim to fix the situation directly. Know that if you dive into this triangle, any other solution is probably temporary at best.
These strategies may seem simple, but they take practice. Try letting go of triangles and use some of the same kinds of communication strategies that work for couples.
Bad things happen. Unfortunately, you can count on experiencing different traumas, deaths, illnesses, and injuries. As a Warfighter (or military family), you can probably expect to face these kinds of situations more often than other people. That doesn’t make these experiences any more pleasant, and often it doesn’t make them any less surprising. After a major trauma, illness, or life-changing event, it is often necessary to adapt and create a “new normal.”
Studies of “post-traumatic growth” have found that trauma survivors can grow mentally, emotionally, and spiritually after horrendous experiences such as cancer, terrorism, sexual assault, plane crashes, and even combat. It’s common to react with an emotional roller coaster of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Your natural instinct might be to run from these feelings. However, post-traumatic growth can be accomplished better by taking steps to approach them. The people who support you (including but not limited to therapists and family members) can do the following:
- Listen empathically, accepting and encouraging full expression of feelings.
- Avoid clichés and easy answers. Hearing “there will be brighter days” is not helpful.
- Be patient. Changing perspective won’t happen overnight.
- Offer a helpful relationship, recognizing there is no “magic technique” or “quick fix.”
You can also be an active agent in your own healing. One technique that can be useful to you is to tell and retell versions of your story in order to become more immune to the hard parts and to reach a point where you can find new meaning in it. People of any age, including Warfighters, can benefit from actively embracing a “new normal” through taking advantage of your relationships and developing a new twist on their story, even when this initially might seem far-fetched.
Reconnecting with your family when you return from deployment presents unique challenges, especially with young children. Depending on how long you were deployed—a few months to a year or more—a lot could have happened in your child’s life while you were away. If you’re finding it hard to reconnect with your child, you’re not alone. Military Parenting’s website has tip sheets that describe typical behaviors for different stages: infant, toddler, preschooler, school-aged, and teen. Just knowing what’s typical for you child’s age can help you reestablish your relationship.
Reconnection can occur in small, everyday moments when you respond to your children’s needs and provide them with support and nurturing, such as holding them when they cry, playing games or sports together, being silly and laughing, taking a walk together, or eating dinner together and talking about your day.
For more tips on reconnecting, check out “Reestablishing Your Parental Role,” also from Military Parenting, a website devoted to parenting resources for Warfighters. For more tips on returning home, check out “Building Family Resilience...During and Following Deployment.”
Listening is half of communication. The other half is what you say and how you say it. The best way to express yourself is to be assertive. Assertive communication feels neither aggressive nor passive. It’s a balance between issuing a directive and being overly cooperative.
Communication between siblings can provide some good examples. Here’s the super directive approach: “You need to call me too. Don’t make me do all the work to keep up our relationship.” That may make sense, but the other person may not take it in because it triggers defensiveness. And here’s the overly cooperative approach: When your sibling says, “I hope you don’t mind that I never call,” you reply, “No, it’s okay, whatever you want is fine” (even if it isn’t). An assertive approach would be: “I’d really like to talk with you on the phone more, and I know you’re busy. What can we do to stay in better contact?”
The approach is basically a combination of “This is what I need” and “Can you join my team in figuring out a solution?” It’s straightforward and mutually empowering, opening the door for real communication. And for the other half of the communication equation, read last week’s article about how to be a good listener.
If you find yourself at odds with those around you more than you’d like, think about bolstering your communication skills. Communication is a key skill in all relationships, and half of this skill is knowing how to listen. “Active listening” lets your loved one, friends, and associates know that you heard them and understand their perspective. Active listening happens when the listener—you—takes part in the conversation, not just listens. Here’s how you do it:
- Repeat back to the other person the gist of what he or she just said.
- Reflect the other person’s feelings; that is, recognize out loud that you understand how he or she feels
- If you need clarification, ask for it in a gentle way.
- Show interest and curiosity in what the other person is saying.
To see what this might look like, watch this video from the Kansas National Guard about active and constructive communication. FOCUS has a handout on “Effective Communication Skills” that further describes this skill.
Deployment can be a challenge for couples, but it can also be a time of potential growth for a relationship. Questions invariably arise such as, “How much should I share with my partner? How often can we talk?” Some couples easily develop a dynamic that works for them; for others, the feeling of closeness is hard to hold on to when one partner is far away. Whether it’s your first deployment or you’re a seasoned veteran, here are some tips you can add to your deployment arsenal:
- Balance talk of "everyday" things with more-intimate conversations about deeper feelings and meaning.
- When there’s a lull in communication, whether it’s a day or a few weeks (due to mission requirements), think about creative ways to stay feeling connected such as journaling, burning video-diary messages on a DVD, or writing cards or letters.
- Communicate marriage-related emotions that come up during deployment; don’t put them off for later.
- If you’ve been through deployments before, think and talk about what worked for each of you and what you would like to do next time. Sometimes couples want the same things, but more often each person has different or even opposing wants. When this happens, it’s a good time to practice problem solving to find compromises that address each person’s desires as much as possible.
- Take good care of yourself and use your favorite stress-management techniques. Stress can increase the likelihood of getting into fights with your loved ones!
- Finally, don’t forget to weave appreciation for your partner into your conversations; read "Thankful for you?" to learn why appreciation is important for couples.
But most important: Figure out what works best for you. For more ideas on strengthening relationships check out HPRC’s Relationship Enhancement section.
More than likely you’ve learned some great and helpful relationship skills through the years to keep your relationships strong. It can often be helpful to add some more to your tool belt to keep things going well (or to get them back on track). Check out HPRC’s “Keeping Strong Family Relationships for Military Life” for some strategies.
The wounds of war also affect the family members of injured or ill Warfighters. The job of caregiving often falls to a family member, and while it can be a rewarding job, it can also be stressful. Taking time for yourself is important. You run the risk of burnout when your attention is directed solely towards others without time to recharge. Below are tips to help you find balance in taking care of both your loved one and yourself.
- View caregiving as if it were a team sport, not a solo one. Get other people to share the responsibilities.
- Encourage independence by supporting your loved one to do as much as possible for him/herself.
- Take a pro-active and positive perspective.
- Have a take-charge attitude for problems, and then reframe those problems into challenges.
- Avoid tunnel vision; find a balance between taking care of your injured loved one and taking care of yourself and others in the family.
- Create a care plan for yourself that includes fun time, down time, and relaxation methods. For some ideas, check out the Mind-Body Skills section of HPRC’s website.
- Seek professional help when needed.
For more information, read this handout on “Coping with Caregiver Challenges,“ which addresses common caregiver challenges such as stress and symptoms such as headaches and then suggests ideas for coping. Other strategies include keeping yourself healthy with exercise, rest, and eating well. For more ideas, check out the Traumatic Brain Injury website’s “Stress Busters” section. Building your stress-management skills can be a big help. Finally, assess yourself regularly to check on your well-being (to prevent burnout) can also be helpful. You can find assessments for caregiver stress at Afterdeployment.org (online) and Traumatic Brain Injury (for download).