Filed under: Relationships
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).
How we interpret events or interactions has a big impact on how we react to them. We all fall victim to “thinking traps” from time to time, and HPRC’s recent article identifies common traps and suggests strategies for dealing with them. Your personal relationships are particularly prone to thinking traps that can lead you to draw false conclusions. For example, let’s say you’ve been married for some time now and recently find yourself thinking your partner doesn’t love you any more because she/he no longer says so.
One way to address this kind of thinking trap is to ask yourself—or have a friend ask you—questions that make you think about the reasoning or evidence behind what you’re thinking. Some examples are:
- What specifically makes you think that he/she doesn’t love you any more?
- What did he/she do in the past that made you feel loved?
- Are there any other possible explanations that might explain your partner’s behavior, such as job stress, an ailing parent, children acting out, or recent return from deployment?
- When you think back to the beginning of your relationship, how could you tell he/she loved you? Was it something (s)he said? Or what (s)he did?
- Has your behavior toward him/her changed recently?
Such questions can get you to start thinking logically by taking a close look at what’s behind what you’re thinking—the real evidence and surroundings of the situation. Sometimes it can help you gain perspective to write down the answers to these questions. Once you’ve gone through this self-questioning process, it’s possible you’ll find a different interpretation of your partner’s behavior. Maybe you were just caught up in a thinking trap.
For more ideas on strengthening your relationship, check out HPRC’s Relationship Enhancement section. And for specific strategies on changing your relationship dynamic, check out HPRC’s Performance Strategy on Couples Communication.
Think about your feelings of connection in an intimate relationship, or the last time you were physically intimate with your loved one, and how you felt afterwards. Did you feel a flood of happiness, a feeling of closeness, or a sense of bonding? There is actually a physical reason behind some of these sensations: the hormone oxytocin.
Your body releases oxytocin into your blood and brain in response to sex, breastfeeding, and childbirth, as well as everyday behaviors such as touching and stroking—usually in trusting relationships. Oxytocin promotes social bonds; that is, it makes you feel “close” (emotionally) to another person, and it makes you feel good. Specifically, it increases eye contact, your ability to remember faces, and feelings of trust, generosity, and empathy. Other benefits of oxytocin include reduced aggression and stress and increased bonding, especially maternal bonding after birth. In fact, oxytocin is so effective at making you feel good and loving that it’s often called the “love hormone” or the “cuddle drug.”
With Valentine’s Day approaching this week, many of you have love on your brains. So now you can think about it from a deeper perspective: how oxytocin plays a role in your love life.
The stress of deployment can linger when you return home and resume (or start new) work responsibilities and relationships. Sometimes it can be difficult to know how much to share about recent deployment experiences in the work environment, particularly if your coworkers are not or have not been in the military. Some may ask a lot of questions and others may steer clear of the subject entirely. This can create an interesting dynamic in your work relationships. Afterdeployment.org emphasizes that discussing your experience is a decision that’s completely up to you. So think ahead of time about how much (if any) you want to share, and be cautious about whom you choose to share with initially.
Afterdeployment.org also describes some common problems that can affect performance in the workplace. For example, combat experiences sometimes can impact your sleep quality, making it difficult to be at your peak at work. Other possible issues include inappropriate anger in response to people or situations and feeling uneasy and unable to let one’s guard down in a crowded office or worksite. This Work Adjustment factsheet provides more information and tips that can help with common issues, and another on Informal Relationships at work for more information.