Abstract: A Qualitative Examination of Changes in Army Couples' Marital Relationships across the Deployment Cycle (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

A Qualitative Examination of Changes in Army Couples' Marital Relationships across the Deployment Cycle

Friday, January 17, 2020
Mint, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Alison Drew, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, Boston University, Boston, MA
Cindy McGeary, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, TX
Tabatha Blount, Assistant Professor, University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, TX
Juliann Nicholson, Doctoral Student, Boston University, MA
Ellen DeVoe, PhD, Professor, Boston University, MA
Background and Purpose: Approximately 855,000 active duty Army service members were deployed from 2001-2015, nearly 60% of whom were married (Wenger et al., 2018).  Not surprisingly, separations due to deployment and the stress they cause for service members and their spouses have been shown to contribute to reductions in marital satisfaction during deployment and reintegration.  However, little is known about the specific changes in military couples’ relationships throughout the deployment cycle or the strengths that may buffer couples against challenges they may face.  Therefore, this qualitative study examines changes in the marital relationships of active duty Army soldiers and their wives across the deployment cycle, including barriers and supports to the relationships.

Methods: Participants were 9 active duty Army soldiers and their female partners, who were involved in the needs assessment of a larger, multi-phase study aimed at adapting a primary prevention program to reduce parental stress among active duty military families.  Participants had at least one child 5 or under during their most recent deployment.  Each participant completed an individual, semi-structured, in-depth interview, which was audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim.  A multi-step thematic analysis was conducted to examine the quality and nature of the marital relationships over time, barriers and supports to the relationships, and differences between service member and spousal reports of relationship quality.

Results: Service members and their spouses reported major changes in their relationships as they transitioned throughout the deployment cycle.  Participants noted the importance of open communication as they navigated these changes, which helped them to plan and make decisions as a team, and which was facilitated by technology (e.g., video chatting) during deployment.  On the other hand, relationships that were already strained were often further tested by separations, especially when there were issues of trust or the partners had rushed into marriage.  While spouses and service members were excited to be reunited after deployments, they also talked about having to adapt and adjust their relationships during reintegration (e.g., redistributing household and childcare responsibilities).  Some service members reported feeling like they were single during deployment and had trouble adapting back to couplehood upon their return.  Ultimately, most couples felt like they went back to normal or even improved their relationships post-deployment. However, a small number of participants used the separation during deployment to decide whether they wanted to continue the relationships, which eventually led to divorce.  There were additional challenges for dual military couples who often spent significant time apart due to conflicting deployment and training schedules.

Conclusions and Implications: Overall, this small sample of Army couples showed considerable resiliency in their ability to adapt to changes in their relationships over the course of deployment and reintegration.  Many did note challenges that suggest areas for potential intervention.  Specifically, these findings suggest that social work practitioners looking to support military couples may seek to help these couples improve communication throughout the deployment cycle and that efforts should focus on improving the quality of vulnerable relationships pre-deployment when possible to lessen the strain of separation.