Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

17385 Partner Attunement In Military Couples: Assessing Empathic and Behavioral Responses During the Deployment Cycle

Saturday, January 14, 2012: 9:00 AM
Wilson (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Samanda Bryant, MSW, MDiv, Research Assistant, Boston University, Boston, MA
Ruth Paris, PhD, Assistant Professor, Boston University, Boston, MA
Ellen DeVoe, PhD, Associate Professor, Boston University, Boston, MA
Purpose: US involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq have greatly increased the demands on military personnel, raising concerns for the resulting impact on families, particularly couples. Considering nearly half of those serving in the military are married, stability and quality of military partnerships has received particular attention, from both the Armed Forces and mental health communities given that it affects service member safety, effectiveness, and retention (Wadsworth & Riggs, 2010). Research suggests that the strains of military life hinder effective interactions among spouses (Karney & Crown, 2007). How military couples interact and handle stress profoundly influences their relationship, deployment adjustment, and ultimately, the families' overall well-being. Emotional attunement between couples—that is, how they relate to and perceive relations, is central to couple functioning and predictive of long-term satisfaction (Renshaw, Rodebaugh, & Rodrigues, 2010). This paper explores emotional attunement among military couples during the deployment cycle.

Methods: The current study builds upon a larger ongoing investigation to develop a home-based intervention for returning OEF/OIF service members and their families who have children birth to 5. During the first phase of the study, audio-taped semi-structured interviews were conducted with service members and spouses focused on couple and family experiences before, during and after deployment. For this study, interviews with 19 couples were transcribed and analyzed separately using grounded theory techniques (Charmaz, 2006). RAs coded transcripts using the QDA software Atlas.ti. From there, two research assistants, in consultation with senior investigators, extracted themes from the interviews that pertained to the ways in which couples saw and discussed their relationship in light of their recent deployment cycles.

Findings: Findings illustrate that emotional attunement in military couples functions on a continuum. Based on type and frequency, themes were ranked into three categories —connected, striving, and struggling. Of the 19 couples, 10 were connected, 7 were striving, and 2 were struggling. Connected couples demonstrated high levels of attunement, meaning that they felt understood by their partners and were themselves able to respond to partners' needs, wishes and concerns. Striving couples were inconsistent in their abilities to attune to their partners, sometimes demonstrating awareness and acknowledgement and other times not. Struggling couples exhibited low levels of emotional attunement, rarely aware of their partners' feelings or needs and frequently lacking adequate responses.

Conclusions: Although it can be inferred that military service significantly impacts couple functioning, there is no clear evidence to support such an assumption, primarily due to the lack of empirical data on relational processes among military couples (Karney & Crown, 2007). This study sought to explore a relational process, emotional attunement, in military couples within the deployment cycle—looking at the ways couples listened, responded to, perceived, and connected with one another (Booher & Jacobvitz, 1998). As the military seeks to develop programs and resources to promote and/or improve spousal relations, study findings can enhance the effectiveness of such supports (Wadsworth & Riggs, 2010; Karney & Crown, 2007). Similarly, results have important implications for social work practice with military couples; those implications will be discussed.

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