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You are here: Home / HPRC Blog / Deployments, reunions, and family roles

Deployments, reunions, and family roles

published: 08-18-2011 Journal entry icon

When my own husband returned from deployment, I was thrilled but anxious as I stood on the airstrip waiting for his helicopter to arrive. I thought about all of the birthdays, holidays, and special events he had missed during his time away. I wondered what it would be like to share a home with him again after I had become so independent.

This is an experience felt at some point by most military families, and it has a name: “boundary ambiguity.” Boundary ambiguity can affect military families in two ways: ambiguous absence (during deployment) and ambiguous presence (post-deployment).

When one member of the family is deployed, the rest of the family knows that their service member is absent physically but senses psychologically that he or she is present. The family continues to focus on its service member by seeking information about his or her location and well-being. When deployment information turns out to be uncertain, feelings of hopelessness, confusion, and at times resentment may increase among family members.

As with most families, flexibility is important for military family success and happiness. When the service member leaves for deployment, the usual roles and responsibilities he or she once filled now have to be filled by the other family members. This can cause additional uncertainty because, although they still consider their loved one is a viable family member, the other spouse must take over decision-making responsibilities that affect the family unit. The spouse at home can also feel a loss of emotional support, which heightens the stress load he or she is carrying.

Additionally, once the service member has returned from deployment, the rest of the family knows that he or she is physically present yet still perceives psychologically that he or she is absent.

The reunion, although joyful, may bring about the added and unanticipated stresses of trying to get back to the family’s pre-deployment lives or adjust to new roles. Role confusion may increase if the family is not comfortable communicating with each other regarding each person's roles, responsibilities, and needs. And at the same time, the returned service member may feel disconnected and may not know how to re-engage without interfering with the family’s new roles.

Researchers of military reserve families in wartime interviewed 16 reservists and 18 family members (spouse, significant other, or parent) upon the reservists’ return from deployment, and they found that all family members experienced boundary ambiguity. Family members sought to cope with these feelings during deployment by:

  • Continuing to seek additional information from the media, even though too much information sometimes caused additional stress; and
  • Attending a military-sponsored Family Support Group (FSG) for family members of reservists, which provided emotional support.

When reunited after deployment, family members and reservists adjusted over time. Once the reservist went back to civilian employment, the family’s routines became “normalized” and roles were established. In addition, open communication about issues such as reestablishing previous tasks or assigning new ones helped to stabilize the family unit.

Once home, my husband wanted to resume certain family roles immediately, while I was hesitant to give up my new capabilities so quickly. Fortunately, after reestablishing open discussions over the next several weeks, we began to speak honestly about our preferences. Once we opened up clear lines of communication and listened to each other, our stress levels diminished. We made some compromises and were able to establish an even better household environment than we had pre-deployment.

So be flexible, take advantage of available counseling and support resources, and be patient with your spouse when reestablishing your family roles. After all, there aren’t many things more important than the happiness of your family.