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Subscriber: Google Scholar Indexing; date: 17 April 2024

Military Families and Communicationunlocked

Military Families and Communicationunlocked

  • Steven R. WilsonSteven R. WilsonBrian Lamb School of Communication, Purdue University
  •  and Leanne K. KnoblochLeanne K. KnoblochDepartment of Communication, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Since the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil on September 11, 2001, communication scholars have turned their attention to understanding family communication processes across the deployment cycle. Military families are composed of service members as well as their spouses/partners, children, and extended family members. In 2012, U. S. Department of Defense statistics indicate that 53% of U.S. military personnel are married and 44% have children. Although scholars from fields such as family studies, psychology, and sociology have been studying military families since World War II, family communication scholars are relative newcomers to this topic.

There are several reasons why communication scholars have spent the past decade investigating how service members, spouses, and children interact with each other as well as their larger social networks. One reason is the length and scope of the post 9/11 conflicts, such that millions of families in the U.S. and abroad have been impacted by these wars. A second is that the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq represent the first time the U.S. has fought two wars simultaneously with an all-volunteer force. This has meant that the burden of service has fallen on a small percentage of the U.S. public, which sometimes has left military families feeling isolated from their civilian counterparts. Third, communication technologies have evolved in comparison to prior conflicts, such that service members often have had the opportunity to interact regularly with family via multiple channels (e.g., phone, video, email, and social networking sites as well as letters/packages) during recent deployments. A fourth reason is that deployments create a context in which families are faced with choices and potential dilemmas about communicating. From the time that deployment orders are received, throughout months of separation, and after the service member returns home, military families must decide what to talk about (or avoid talking about) openly. During deployment, family members must find ways of maintaining their relationships while coping with new stressors. After the service member returns home, families often must manage relational uncertainty while renegotiating routines. In cases where service members have difficulty readjusting to civilian life, family members must find ways of navigating dilemmas that can arise when they attempt to voice their concerns. Most military families display remarkable resilience in responding to these communicative transitions and tensions.

By conducting research framed by a number of theories, family communication scholars have worked towards better understanding the experiences of military families and producing knowledge useful for those serving with military families. Although comparative work on military families in other countries is starting to emerge, most research on communication processes has focused on U.S. military families. Research grounded in the relational turbulence model, communication privacy management theory, multiple goals theories, relational dialectics, and intergroup communication theories has helped clarify how military families communicatively navigate the process of having a service member deployed.


  • Interpersonal Communication

Important Features of the Post-9/11 Wars

Millions of families in the U.S. and abroad have been impacted by the post-9/11 conflicts. Since 2001, approximately 2.5 million members of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard have deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, leaving behind spouses, children, parents, siblings, and extended family worried about their safety. These conflicts have influenced not only millions of families in the U.S. but also the families of coalition forces as well as families in Afghanistan and Iraq that have seen the effects of war firsthand (MacDermid Wadsworth, 2010).

The post-9/11 wars differ from prior U.S. military involvements in at least four respects that have relevance for understanding family communication across the deployment cycle. First, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq represent the first time that the U.S. has fought an extended conflict on two fronts with an all-volunteer force (Tanielian & Jaycox, 2008). Given the protracted nature of these conflicts, the U.S. responded with troop surges to Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan in 2009. These circumstances necessitated longer, and often repeated, deployments with less time at home between deployments. Of the 2.5 million military personnel that have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, approximately 1/3 has deployed two more times. During the troop surges, Army deployments were extended from 12 to 15 months, and many units were redeployed after being home only 12 to 18 months (Tanielian & Jaycox, 2008). Repeated deployments with shorter times at home in between have created stress not just for service members but also for their families.

Second, the U.S. National Guard and Reserves have played an unprecedented role during the post-9/11 conflicts. During the past decade, these “civilian soldiers” or “weekend warriors” have been transformed from a strategic reserve that responded to domestic disasters to an operational force activated as needed. Approximately 30% of troops serving in Afghanistan and Iraq have come from guard and reserve units (Tanielian & Jaycox, 2008). Reservists and their families face unique communication challenges because they are not embedded in military communities that can offer understanding and support from an insider’s point of view.

Third, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have exacerbated a growing military–civilian divide. More than 11% of the U.S. population served in World War II, whereas less than 1% of the population has served in the post-9/11 conflicts (Tanielian & Jaycox, 2008). This trend, plus the phasing out of the draft in 1973, has led to a generational gap in family connections to the military. In a Pew Research Center survey (2011), more than 75% of adults 50 years and older reported an immediate family connection to the military (i.e., a parent, sibling, spouse, or child who had served at some point), whereas only 33% of adults 18-29 years of age did so. Given these trends, it makes sense why large majorities of both veterans and civilians feel that the general public does not understand the problems faced by service members (Pew Research Center, 2011). These numbers highlight challenges that service members and their families may face in communicating about their circumstances with their larger social network.

Finally, communication technologies now allow for much more frequent and diverse contact between service members and their families during deployment. Unlike earlier conflicts where contact occurred primarily through letters, care packages, and occasional telephone calls, recent quantitative studies conducted during the latter stages of the OIF/OEF conflicts indicate service members and their at-home partners typically were in daily contact via multiple channels including phone calls, emails, instant messaging, posting on social networking sites, and/or video chats (Carter & Renshaw, 2015). This unprecedented access via multiple communication channels has changed expectations (e.g., even a day or two delay in replying to a previous message may raise concerns) and necessitated decisions by military families about what to talk about on a day-to-day basis during a service member’s deployment.

Frequency of Communication and Adjustment During Deployment and Reunion

Given unprecedented access via communication technologies, researchers have explored whether frequency of interaction between service members and at-home partners/children is associated with positive and/or negative outcomes during deployment and reunion. On the one hand, increased access means that family members potentially are regularly available for each other as sources of informational and emotional support. Deployments are stressful for everyone involved (Maguire, 2015). Service members in combat roles often receive artillery and/or small arms fire and may witness friends being injured or killed while being separated from their family. Spouses take sole responsibility for running the household and become single parents while worrying about their service member’s safety. Children also worry about their parent and often take on greater responsibilities at home. Frequent contact may be reassuring and help families remain resilient. On the other hand, conflict or disclosures of problems might distract service members from their mission while also increasing the anxiety of family at home (Greene, Buckman, Dandeker, & Greenberg, 2010).

Research to date suggests a complex relationship between the frequency of family communication and adjustment during deployment and reunion. More specifically, associations vary depending on the nature of communication as well as the existing family relationship. In one study, at-home spouses who communicated more frequently with their service member during deployment were less likely to report losing their temper with the service member but more likely to report feeling lonely (Houston, Pfefferbaum, Sherman, Melson, & Brand, 2013). These associations are cross-sectional (i.e., talking might remind spouses how much they miss their service member, or spouses who are lonely may choose to talk more often with their service member), but the findings nonetheless show that frequency of communication can be associated with both positive and negative outcomes. In another study, the association between frequency of communication during deployment and service member’s PTSD post-deployment varied depending on marital satisfaction. For service members with higher marital satisfaction, those who recalled that they had communicated more frequently with their spouse during deployment also reported lower levels of PTSD symptoms after coming home. In contrast, for service members with lower marital satisfaction, those who recalled that they had communicated more frequently with their spouse during deployment actually reported higher levels of PTSD symptoms after coming home (Carter, Loew, Allen, Stanley, Rhoades, & Markman, 2011). These findings highlight the need to focus on the quality rather than simple quantity of communication (Stafford, 2005). Scholars of communication have taken up that task by examining relational maintenance, disclosure and privacy management processes, identity issues, and turbulence in military families.

Relational Maintenance During Deployment

Research on relational maintenance offers insight into what military families actually say and do when communicating during deployment. Relational maintenance refers to cognitive and communicative activities that service members and their spouses/partners undertake to create a sense of connection and sustain/repair/enhance feelings of satisfaction and commitment (Merolla, 2010). Such actions may be “strategic” (e.g., consciously planned) or “routine” (e.g., enacted without conscious forethought about their purpose). A large body of communication research has explored relational maintenance (Stafford, 2005), though most studies have investigated college student dating or civilian marital relationships; only recently has attention turned to unique issues associated with relational maintenance in military families (Carter & Renshaw, 2015). Most work to date has been conducted from the perspective of at-home spouses/partners rather than from the viewpoint of service members or their children.

As Merolla (2010) has argued, relational maintenance, social support, and coping with stress are interdependent processes—especially during a service member’s wartime deployment. For example, a wife who copes with stress by seeking support from her family or other military spouses may receive advice or perspective that helps her engage in maintenance activities with her deployed husband more productively. In addition, talking with third parties about her husband helps keep him salient in the wife’s mind, which prior research with civilian couples has indicated is itself a form of relational maintenance (Stafford, 2005). Research also indicates that relational maintenance strategies sometimes have unexpected consequences; that is, actions designed to enhance feelings of connection in some cases may fail to do so or even magnify feelings of separation or disconnection. Each of these themes is explored further below.

Based on in-depth interviews with military spouses, two studies (Maguire, Heinemann-LaFave, & Sahlstein, 2013; Merolla, 2010) have grouped the various means by which military service members and their spouses attempt to maintain their relationship during deployment into three large categories. Intrapersonal strategies refer to thoughts or actions that spouses engage in individually to maintain connection with their service member. Common examples mentioned by military spouses include looking at photos, wearing the service member’s dog tags, reflecting on happy memories, keeping the service member in their prayers, reflecting on perceived advantages they have relative to military spouses from earlier conflicts, keeping a journal of thoughts to share with the service member, imaging conversations with the service member, and planning future interactions. Partner interaction strategies are actions performed while communicating as a couple. Examples include debriefing talk (i.e., describing recent events), making affectionate statements (e.g., saying “I love you”), avoiding topics that might create conflict, carrying out joint tasks and problem solving from a distance, planning for the future, offering reassurances of safety and commitment, being pleasant and upbeat, and communicating openly and honestly even about potentially distressing topics. Social network strategies involve interactions with the military spouse’s social network that facilitate relational maintenance with the service member. Examples include family or friends reminding the spouse that each passing day is one day closer to having the service member back home, family sharing updates of their own interactions with the service member, friends distracting the spouse from feelings of loneliness, children whose actions and presence tie the spouse to the service member, and other military spouses who can share an insider’s perspective.

Spouses in both studies reported using multiple strategies from each of the three categories during their service member’s deployment. Many of these strategies have emerged in studies of civilian couples, but some (e.g., reassurances of safety) appear unique to the deployment context. Moreover, these strategies reveal potential tensions in how military couples attempt to maintain their relationship. For example, the fact that both avoidance and openness were commonly-mentioned dyadic strategies may reflect that couples differ in their preferences for how openly they want to talk about some topics or that couples value openness while also realizing the necessity of restraint and discretion (see the next section). Likewise, spouses in some cases wanted to distance themselves from their social network to focus attention on their service member even though in other cases interactions with their social network helped them feel connected to their service member.

Examples of tensions such as these illustrate what Maguire, Heinemann-LaFave, and Sahlstein (2013) describe as “maintenance paradoxes.” Given the duration and uncertainty of wartime deployment as well as internal and external constraints on communication, actions designed to enhance feelings of connection do not always function as anticipated and in some cases may have counterproductive effects. Maguire et al. identified four such paradoxes. Violations of expectations occurred when the use of a particular behavior or its outcome contradicted participants’ expectations, such as when a service member sent a much shorter reply than normal or did not respond at all to a spouse’s message (e.g., due to an unannounced mission), which led to feelings of disconnection and worry. Technical difficulties referred to instances when challenges associated with technology (e.g., long phone lines, slow Internet connections, lack of privacy during webcam conversations) interfered with relational maintenance attempts. Overload involved instances when spouses experienced “too much” presence or information, such as when hearing a service member’s voice made spouses feel even lonelier because their service member was present virtually but not physically. Finally, trade-offs occurred when one relational maintenance strategy may have interfered with another, such as instances when spouses felt that family or friends who gave them updates were interfering with their own ability to connect with the service member directly. According to Merolla (2010), tensions such as these illustrate how relational maintenance during deployment necessitates a balance between careful planning and spontaneous creativity so that couples can respond constructively to circumstances such as technical difficulties or unexpected outcomes.

Research on relational maintenance during military deployment has yet to explore whether use of particular strategies is associated with relational outcomes during deployment and/or reunion, although research with civilian couples has found associations with relational satisfaction, commitment, and stability (Merolla, 2010). Research on “coping strategies,” which have direct parallels to maintenance strategies, has shown that military wives report better mental health when they cope by remaining optimistic and work actively together with their service member to resolve difficulties (Maguire, 2015). Several longitudinal studies of military families across the deployment cycle currently are underway, and findings from these studies should increase our knowledge about what forms of maintenance enhance feelings of connection during deployment as well as adjustment after service members return home.

Balancing Disclosure and Discretion During Deployment and Reunion

Military families often encounter conflicting suggestions about how they should communicate across the deployment cycle. On the one hand, military families are encouraged to talk openly about issues they encounter together. For example, the National Military Family Association suggests that families should communicate openly and honesty and let school-aged children know about upcoming deployments early on. Likewise, the Army’s “Strong Bonds” initiative, a chaplain-led program that trains couples about communicating effectively, encourages couples to find ways such as using humor to talk openly about sensitive topics.

Military families are encouraged to talk openly for several reasons. As noted in the prior section, openness is an important dyadic strategy couples use to maintain their relationship during wartime deployment. Research on “protective buffering” has found that even after controlling for frequency of interaction, spouses who feel that they have to refrain from sharing bad news with their service member during deployment experience poorer health, whereas spouses who feel they can openly disclose to their service member report higher marital satisfaction (Joseph & Afifi, 2010). Likewise, service members who report higher levels of conversation orientation in their family, such that they and their children talk openly about a wide range of topics including feelings, also report that their children experience fewer difficulties during the reunion period (Wilson, Chernichky, Wilkum, & Owlett, 2014).

Although military families are encouraged to talk openly, qualifications about the content, timing, and developmental appropriateness of talk often are attached to this advice. Before a military deployment begins, service members receive Operation Security (OPSEC) guidelines that explain how they should handle confidential information. As part of these instructions, service members and their families are told not to discuss information such as the locations and times of unit deployments to protect this information from being intercepted. Concerns about whether too much disclosure might interfere with service members’ occupational productivity or needlessly frighten at-home family members also have been expressed (Greene, Buckman, Dandeker, & Greenberg, 2010). Consistent with this thinking, one study reported a “U” shaped curvilinear association between depth of parental disclosures and child stress, such that children who reported receiving very low or very high levels of personal disclosure from their deployed parent reported the highest levels of stress (Wong & Gerras, 2010).

Rather than promoting simple recommendations about openness, these findings suggest the importance of understanding how military families balance competing tensions between disclosure and discretion. Two studies have explored this issue in depth. Drawing on relational dialectics theory, Sahlstein, Maguire, and Timmerman (2009) analyzed the same interviews with 50 Army wives described in the section on relational maintenance in terms of the contradictions couples experienced before, during, and after the husband’s most recent deployment as well as the strategies they used in response to contradictions. Relational dialectics theory assumes that relationships are characterized by ongoing change as participants experience and respond to contradictions (i.e., competing needs or meanings that are necessary yet seemingly opposed, such as openness and discretion). Different contradictions may be more or less salient across time given changing circumstances, and couples may be more or less similar in their preferences for managing any given contradiction.

Based on their interview data, Sahlstein, Maguire, and Timmerman (2009) argue that the most salient tensions that Army wives experienced were contradictions between uncertainty and certainty during predeployment, between autonomy and connection during deployment, and between openness and closedness during reunion. Regarding the latter contradiction, after a brief “honeymoon” period service members and their spouses sometimes struggled “to know how, when and what to communicate with one another” (p. 433) during the post-deployment period. When they were overseas on deployment, husbands often could not share details about what was occurring over the phone or Internet; hence, they struggled with how much to reveal after they returned home given that they might be deployed again. Wives also struggled with how much they wanted to know about their husband’s wartime experiences as well as how much to reveal about their own challenges during deployment.

Couples differed in how they responded to the tension between openness and closedness. Some wives reported that they and their husbands were completely open with each other but used greater discretion when talking with other military spouses (especially those whose husbands were still deployed). A second group reported that their husbands wanted to tell them more than they were comfortable hearing, which in some cases led husbands to talk instead with military peers or other family members (e.g., fathers). A third group wanted their husbands to disclose more than they had to date, and hoped that changing circumstances (e.g., transfers to new locations away from current Army buddies) might lead their husbands to open up in the future. These findings reveal how couples vary in terms of how they manage competing tensions between disclosure and discretion.

In a second investigation, Owlett, Richards, Wilson, DeFreese, and Roberts (2015) drew on Communication Privacy Management (CPM; Petronio, 2008) theory to explore military adolescents’ experiences of managing private information within their family during parental deployment. CPM uses a boundary metaphor to illustrate how private information is shared with others. For example, if a service member who currently is deployed discloses particular events that occurred to his spouse, they then “co-own” this information and must coordinate who else they should (or should not) tell. Families develop rules about how to manage private information, based on a variety of factors (e.g., culture, context, risk/benefit ratio). When family members disagree about whether information should be (or should have been) shared with others, “boundary turbulence” occurs which often necessitates renegotiating privacy rules. Based on the CPM framework, Owlett et al. interviewed 38 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 years about privacy rules they and their family developed during their military parent’s deployment, how those rules were created/acquired, and whether instances of boundary turbulence occurred.

Adolescents described three broad categories of privacy rules: (a) information the family should shield from the deployed parent, (b) discretion children should enact when talking with the at-home parent, and (c) information both parents should filter from their children. For the first category, adolescents described how they and their at-home parent/siblings avoided talking about topics that might distract their military parent or make their military parent feel homesick. Regarding the second category, adolescents limited the amount and timing of their talk about the service member and sometimes masked their feelings of fear/sadness to avoid upsetting the at-home parent. For the third category, adolescents perceived that both of their parents at times avoided telling them (or especially their younger siblings) about danger/risks, masked negative emotions, and purposefully displayed strength/positivity.

As these examples make clear, privacy rules were motivated by a combination of other- and self-protection. Adolescents reported that in some cases privacy rules were explicitly communicated (e.g., the at-home parent telling them what they should/should not talk about during phone or video conversations with the deployed parent), while in other cases privacy rules were learned through trial and error, by observing siblings, or by reflecting on their experiences. Instances of boundary turbulence were relatively rare, but adolescents did experience situations where they refrained from asking for advice from the deployed parent because they perceived their at-home parent would not approve (anticipated turbulence) or where they asked one of their parents not to disclose particular topics to them again in the future (expressed turbulence). Among other things, these findings illustrate how decisions about balancing disclosure and discretion involve and reflect interdependency between all members of military families.

Social Identities and Communication with Ingroup/Outgroup Members

As noted previously, the burden of service during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has fallen directly on a small portion of the U.S. public, and U.S. citizens are less likely now than in the past to have an immediate family connection to the military. These trends have strengthened the sense of a military/civilian divide and can leave military families feeling disconnected from their civilian counterparts (Pew Research Center, 2011). Although structural factors (e.g., the move from a draft to an all-volunteer U.S. military force in 1973) have contributed to a military–civilian gap, communication between military families and the civilians in their larger social networks also plays a role. Researchers are beginning to apply intergroup theories to understand how military families define their identity, how interactions with civilian peers can make the military/civilian divide salient, and how the gap influences perceptions of social support. These theories also offer a nuanced view of the military–civilian divide by recognizing that more specific military-related social identities (e.g., service branch) can create divisions between military families, that military–civilian divides can occur within military families, and that gaps are more salient under some conditions than others (Wilson & Chernichky, 2016).

According to social identity theory (Hornsey, 2008), people define themselves in part based on social identities, or through connections to and feelings about social groups. To enhance self-esteem, people strive for positive distinctiveness by drawing comparisons that highlight desirable characteristics of their own ingroup relative to outgroups. Service members and their spouses/children are likely to define themselves, in part, as members of “military families” given the demands of military life (e.g., frequent relocations, separations during temporary duty or deployment). Hence, a relevant question is how family members integrate their connection to the military into their view of themselves. One way of addressing this question is to explore “military culture,” which is evident in the unique language, dress, rituals, and values that characterize membership in the U.S. armed forces. Core military values include dedication to a larger mission, commitment to one’s comrades, adherence to the chain of command, personal sacrifice, strength, and self-discipline. Given the centrality of military culture to their lives, one might expect military families to positively distinguish themselves from civilians based on these values (Knobloch & Wehrman, 2014).

Interviews with service members, spouses, and youth reveal remarkable consistency in how they describe what is unique about having a military connection (Wilson & Chernichky, 2016). Consider the large number of military veterans who have recently returned from deployment to study at U.S. universities. Although they often are not much older than their civilian counterparts, student-veterans typically feel different than other students; they refer to values such as maturity, self-discipline, self-reliance, leadership, and being part of a team to describe these differences. Military spouses also draw on values such as personal sacrifice, strength of character, and self-reliance to distinguish themselves from women outside of military life. Likewise, when asked what being a “military youth” means beyond having a parent in the military, adolescents refer to factors such as maturity, self-discipline, and a family tradition of serving others to distinguish themselves from civilian peers. Instead of referring to the demands of military life, individuals initially describe core military values when asked what it means to be part of a military family. This process of positive distinctiveness likely functions to enhance self-esteem, but it also may make norms (e.g., self-reliance) salient that inhibit military family members from disclosing problems or asking for help, especially from outgroup members.

Communication accommodation theory (CAT; Gallois, Ogay, & Giles, 2005) clarifies how specific types of messages can make the military–civilian divide more salient. CAT suggests that individuals modify their communication (e.g., dialect, speech rate) with others based on social identities (e.g., military affiliation). Specifically, people can use language to either increase similarity (convergence) or accentuate differences (divergence) as a means of downplaying or emphasizing group boundaries. For example, service members may use military jargon (e.g., OEF, OCONUS, TRICARE) in part to highlight knowledge shared by ingroup as opposed to outgroup members. More broadly, CAT assesses how individuals adapt their communication to emphasize similarity (accommodation) or difference (nonaccommodation) from others, where the latter includes moves that make little attempt to adapt across boundaries (underaccommodation) or that attempt to adapt based on stereotypes (overaccommodation).

Inappropriate questions and comments are examples of messages that make the military–civilian divide especially salient. Perhaps the most common example occurs when civilian peers ask student-veterans, spouses, or children whether they (or their service member) have killed anyone. As one military youth explained, “that’s like asking a lady her dress size. You don’t ask things like that” (Wilson & Chernichky, 2016, p. 271). Similar examples include a civilian neighbor who says that she knows how a military spouse whose husband has been deployed for months feels because she misses her own husband when he’s gone on weekend business trips, or a civilian schoolmate who says that it’s cool that his friend’s father is deployed because it is just like the G.I. Joe movies. Questions and comments like these are viewed as insensitive because they raise emotionally-laden topics that members of military families may not want to discuss, demonstrate lack of comprehension regarding what it is like to be part of a military family, and/or draw comparisons that downplay the sacrifices made by military families. Although such questions and comments often are clumsy attempts by civilians to accommodate (e.g., overaccommodation), they nevertheless reinforce the military–civilian gap by broaching topics or making inferences that ingroup members would know better than to enact.

Aside from showing how messages can heighten the salience of group boundaries, intergroup perspectives also highlight how messages may be evaluated differently depending on whether they come from ingroup or outgroup members. Rossetto (2015) conducted in-depth interviews with 26 women whose husbands/partners currently were deployed overseas to explore what these women perceived to be “helpful” vs. “unhelpful” forms of social support, as well as the reasons why they found particular forms of support to be (un)helpful. From a communication perspective, social support—verbal and nonverbal behaviors produced with the intention of offering assistance to others who are perceived to be in need—can take various forms such as informational, emotional, esteem, tangible, and network support (MacGeorge, Feng, & Burleson, 2011).

Rossetto’s (2015) investigation revealed a number of “support paradoxes,” in that the same forms of support often were evaluated as helpful under some circumstances but unhelpful under others. More specifically, three dimensions seemed to underlie women’s judgments of helpfulness: (a) ingroup vs. outgroup, (b) identity-confirming vs. identity-disconfirming, and (c) burden-reducing vs. burden-inducing. Regarding the first dimension, informational support (i.e., advice) often was evaluated as helpful when it came from ingroup members (husbands, other military spouses) but almost never when it came from outgroup members because they were not seen as being in a position to understand the military spouse’s experiences. As an example of the second dimension, emotional support in the form of statements of recognition and appreciation (e.g., “you’re doing a great job at this, and it’s really hard”) generally were evaluated as helpful because they validated the family’s sacrifices, but emotional support based on faulty assumptions or unfair comparisons (e.g., overaccommodation) took away from women’s feelings of pride. In terms of the third dimension, nonintrusive instrumental/tangible support reduced women’s feelings of burden and bolstered their sense of control, whereas unhelpful emotional support such as expressions of pity from civilians made military spouses feel less confident in their own abilities and/or forced them to cope with someone else’s emotions in addition to their own.

In sum, ingroup members such as husbands or other military spouses appear to have greater latitude in offering helpful support than their civilian counterparts. Ingroup members are able to offer many different forms of social support in ways that were perceived as helpful by military spouses. In contrast, civilian neighbors and friends are constrained by being able to offer fewer forms of support (e.g., expressions of gratitude and appreciation) that are likely to be positively evaluated. Military family members often do not think that civilians can understand how their lives are impacted by a service member’s deployment and hence are reluctant to turn to outgroup members for emotional or information support.

Consistent with intergroup theories, the boundary between “ingroup” and “outgroup” is fluid, and hence divides also can occur between military families (Wilson & Chernichky, 2016). For example, Family Readiness Groups (FRGs) can be paradoxical sources of support that often but not always are seen as helpful (Sahlstein Parcell & Maguire, 2014; Rossetto, 2015). Formed at the unit level, with the commanding officer’s spouse and spouses of other officers typically assuming leadership positions, FRGs are designed to enhance information flow between the command and families, provide assistance and referrals to families, and organize shared activities. Because they connect ingroup members who can offer each other informational, instrumental, and emotional support, FRGs are a formal mechanism through which many military spouses receive helpful assistance. Given the hierarchical structure of FRGs, however, officers’ wives sometimes feel overwhelmed with requests for assistance or uncomfortable sharing information that might fuel rumors, whereas wives of enlisted personnel at times feel that they cannot receive the support they are seeking from a group led by officers’ wives. Other ingroup/outgroup divisions also occur at times between FRG members who do/do not have children as well as between members who are highly/less involved. Put simply, when other social identities (e.g., officers vs. enlisted personnel) become salient, women connected to the same military unit do not necessarily see themselves as ingroup members, which has implications for how these women evaluate social support.

Reunion as a Period of Relational Turbulence

Military deployments involve a recognizable series of stages from receiving deployment orders and preparing to depart (pre-deployment), to being separated and eventually settling into new routines (deployment), to returning home and renegotiating routines once again under the shadow of possible future deployments and/or transition out of the military (reunion; Knobloch & Wilson, 2015). Although reunion may begin with a brief “honeymoon” period, stressors often occur during the first few months home. Returning service members may find it difficult to adjust to milestones they missed, changes that occurred, and family routines that emerged while they were gone. At-home spouses may be reluctant to yield newly developed independence and decision-making power, and they may grow resentful if the service member is unable or unwilling to help with household responsibilities. Children may have difficulty relating to the service member, resist discipline attempts, and distance themselves from one or both parents.

A growing body of work has employed the relational turbulence model (RTM) to investigate how military couples navigate the transition from deployment to reintegration (Knobloch, Ebata, McGlaughlin, & Ogolsky, 2013). RTM proposes that times of transition can spark upheaval for individuals in romantic relationships as they navigate changes to their communicative patterns, roles, and identities. For example, returning service members and at-home partners reunited after deployment face tasks such as getting to know each other again, restructuring their everyday routines to accommodate each other’s involvement, deciding what information to disclose and withhold about their time apart, renegotiating autonomy and control, readjusting to parenting as a team, and reconnecting with friends and extended family members. All of these tasks can complicate the transition from deployment to reunion.

RTM identifies relational uncertainty and interference from a partner as two mechanisms underlying people’s experience of turmoil during times of transition (Knobloch & Theiss, 2012). Relational uncertainty is how sure or unsure individuals are about the status of their relationship. During reunion following deployment, relational uncertainty can emerge via questions about whether partners remain committed to each other, whether compatibility still exists, and how to move forward in the relationship. Interference from a partner happens when individuals hinder each other’s everyday goals. The post-deployment transition is laden with opportunities for partners to get in each other’s way, particularly as returning service members and at-home spouses reconstruct their routines for eating, sleeping, parenting, working, relaxing, and completing household chores.

Studies drawing on RTM have documented relational uncertainty and interference from a partner during reunion as predictors of upheaval in various forms. For example, returning service members and at-home partners grappling with relational uncertainty and interference from a partner engage in less relationship maintenance, see their partner as less responsive to their needs, and view their relationship as more tumultuous (Theiss & Knobloch, 2014). More broadly, they also report greater difficulty making the transition from deployment to reintegration (Knobloch, Ebata, McGlaughlin, & Ogolsky, 2013). These findings are compatible with the RTM’s proposition that relational uncertainty and interference from partners may complicate the post-deployment transition.

Other investigations utilizing RTM have considered people’s mental health as a contributor to turmoil upon homecoming after deployment. In a longitudinal study, Knobloch, Ebata, McGlaughlin, and Ogolsky (2013) observed that the depressive symptoms of returning service members and at-home partners, as well as their experiences of relational uncertainty and interference from a partner, were positively associated with their difficulty reintegrating after deployment. A second report by Knobloch, Ebata, McGlaughlin, and Theiss (2013) from the same longitudinal project showed that returning service members and at-home partners experiencing generalized anxiety symptoms and relational uncertainty were less willing to talk about sensitive topics upon reunion. This work, taken together, illustrates how mental health symptoms such as depression and generalized anxiety share strong connections with people’s experience of turmoil during the post-deployment transition beyond relational uncertainty and interference from a partner.

In sum, scholarship applying RTM to the transition from deployment to reunion has several implications for understanding how military couples communicate across the deployment cycle. First, the model helps explain why times of transition, even a joyful occasion such as homecoming after deployment that is eagerly anticipated and full of excitement, can pose challenges for military couples. Moreover, the model focuses attention on the interpersonal dynamics within couples as pivotal factors in the well-being of returning service members and at-home partners upon reunion. Third, the model demonstrates that mental health symptoms are important to consider alongside of relationship parameters during the transition from deployment to reintegration.

Dilemmas of Communicating About Reintegration Difficulties

Given stressors associated with military deployment and reunion, and in some cases the transition to post-military careers, some service members and veterans experience prolonged difficulties adjusting to family and civilian life. Although most service members and their families display tremendous resilience throughout the deployment cycle, about 20% screen positive for PTSD and/or depression after returning home (Tanielian & Jaycox, 2008). Family members often want to encourage their service member to seek help so as to improve the service member’s health and address the potential negative impacts of PTSD or depression on family relationships (as seen in the prior section on relational turbulence).

Despite this, only 30–40% of service members who struggle with PTSD or depression actually seek professional help, even though most who do so say it was helpful (Tanielian & Jaycox, 2008). Common reasons service members resist seeking behavioral healthcare include concerns that unit leaders and peers as well as possible future civilian employers will have less confidence in them, skepticism about the efficacy of psychotherapy, concerns about medication side effects, and perceived difficulties in navigating the military healthcare system. Service members’ concerns also reflect societal stereotypes such as that most mentally ill people are violent or permanently broken.

Families often play an important role when service members eventually do seek help. Reflecting this, the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs (2015) has launched “Coaching into Care,” a telephone support service for family members who would like to help a military veteran seek behavioral healthcare. Coaches encourage family members to talk openly about their concerns but also to avoid coercive pressure and recognize that veterans must make the commitment to seek care themselves. Until recently, however, research had not systematically explored how family members talked with service members about seeking help.

Drawing on Goldsmith’s (2004) normative theory of social support, a recent study highlighted dilemmas military family members may experience when encouraging help-seeking and strategies families use to manage these dilemmas (Wilson, Gettings, Dorrance Hall, & Pastor, 2015). According to normative theory, dilemmas arise when a family member’s attempt to pursue a task (e.g., encouraging a service member to seek help) can be construed as communicating incongruent meanings about participants’ identities. Thus, the family member is faced with multiple, potentially conflicting goals. Dilemmas are “situated” in the sense that the plausible meanings that may arise depend on the particular sociocultural context (e.g., military culture, mental health stigma). Strategies are effective when they manage meanings associated with a family member’s efforts to encourage help-seeking in ways that they do not undermine the participants’ identities or relationships. Participants were 80 military family members (i.e., spouses, parents, siblings), drawn from a larger sample, whose service member had returned from deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan in the past five years. After reading a hypothetical scenario describing a service member experiencing PTSD symptoms (e.g., sleep problems, frequent mood swings), participants responded to open-ended questions about what goals they would pursue in the situation, what obstacles they would encounter, and what advice they would offer to other military family members in a similar situation.

Results revealed that families had to manage four potential dilemmas when talking with service members about seeking behavioral healthcare. The first dilemma, convincing you to seek help without implying you’re not normal, reflected that family members often wanted to persuade service members they had changed or were acting differently than before (i.e., they were “not normal”) to justify help seeking. At the same time, to destigmatize help-seeking, families wanted to stress that service members were not “crazy” and that anyone who had experienced wartime deployment might benefit from talking with a professional (i.e., they were “normal”). Second, convincing you to seek help without implying you’re weak reflected that families wanted to persuade service members they couldn’t handle issues without outside help and yet not imply that service members were “weak” given the importance military culture places on self-reliance. Being persistent yet patient reflected a third tension between wanting to say what needed to be said and never giving up on service members (persistence) without constantly nagging (patience). A fourth dilemma, I’m trying to understand you but I can’t understand you, reflected that family members often wanted to encourage service members to open up and share what they had experienced, but also wanted to acknowledge that they had not been deployed or exposed to combat themselves and hence could not fully understand these experiences. This fourth dilemma illustrates how military–civilian divides can sometimes become salient within military families (e.g., between service members and spouses/parents).

Families also recommended numerous strategies for managing dilemmas, which were grouped into four categories. When to talk included strategies pertaining to the amount and timing of talk, such as family members purposefully not raising the topic during every conversation or stressing that they were available day or night if service members ever wanted to initiate a conversation. How to talk included advice about the style or relational tone of talk, such as family members avoiding making demands and listening non-judgmentally. How to frame talk included strategies attempting to alter the meaning of health seeking, such as family who talked about getting healthy rather than mental illness or who emphasized seeking help for the family as a whole rather than singling out the service member. Finally, where else to turn involved actions beyond talking directly to service members, such as asking third parties (e.g., military buddies) to do so, praying about the situation, and taking care of themselves until service members were ready to seek help. These strategies all represent attempts to balance competing goals such as families wanting to be honest with their service member, avoid seeing their service member’s life degenerate in front of their eyes, stand together with their service member no matter what, and respect their service member’s autonomy.

Looking Forward

This review reveals several concepts that have gained salience over the past decade as communication scholars have explored how members of military families interact with each other as well their larger social network. Military life involves numerous transitions (deployments, changes in duty station, annual training) that tend to increase feelings of turbulence and require families to adjust how they communicatively maintain their relationships. Communication can downplay or highlight boundaries between military families and their civilian counterparts, and members of military families also coordinate boundaries when deciding whether to reveal/conceal information with each other. Being connected to the military is an important social identity for service members, veterans, and their spouses/children, one that functions to positively distinguish them from civilians via the internalization of core military values but also to reinforce norms that may inhibit asking for help. Finally, military families experience numerous dilemmas or paradoxes (i.e., tensions, unexpected consequences) as they attempt to maintain relationships, seek and/or provide support, and discuss difficult topics. Although dilemmas and paradoxes may be sources of frustration, they also offer opportunities for reframing situations so as to address multiple goals in creative ways. Future theoretical development in these areas should help family communication scholars better understand the experiences of military families and produce knowledge useful for those who serve them.

Further Reading

  • Carter, S. P., & Renshaw, K. D. (2015). Spousal communication during military deployments: A review. Journal of Family Issues.
  • Knobloch, L. K., & Wehrman, E. C. (2014). Family relationships embedded in U.S. military culture. In C. R. Agnew (Ed.), Social influences on romantic relationships: Beyond the dyad (pp. 58–82). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  • Knobloch, L. K., & Wilson, S. R. (2015). Communication in military families across the deployment cycle. In L. H. Turner & R. West (Eds.), The Sage handbook of family communication (pp. 370–385). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.
  • MacDermid Wadsworth, S. M. (2010). Family risk and resilience in the context of war and terrorism. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 537–566.
  • Sahlstein Parcell, E., & Webb, L. M. (2015). (Eds.). A communication perspective on the military. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Wilson, S. R., & Chernichky, S. M. (2016). Intergroup perspectives on military families and the military–civilian divide. In H. Giles & A. Maass (Eds.), Advances in intergroup communication (pp. 265–282). New York: Peter Lang.


  • Carter, S., Loew, B., Allen, A., Stanley, S., Rhoades, G., & Markman, H. (2011). Relationships between soldiers’ PTSD symptoms and spousal communication during deployment. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 24, 352–355.
  • Carter, S. P., & Renshaw, K. D. (2015). Spousal communication during military deployments: A review. Journal of Family Issues.
  • Gallois, C., Ogay, T., & Giles, H. (2005). Communication accommodation theory: A look back and a look ahead. In W. B. Gudykunst (Ed.), Theorizing about communication and culture (pp. 121–148). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
  • Goldsmith, D. J. (2004). Communicating social support. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Greene, T., Buckman, J., Dandeker, C., & Greenberg, N. (2010). How communication with families can both help and hinder service members’ mental health and occupational effectiveness on deployment. Military Medicine, 175, 745–749.
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  • Houston, J. B., Pfefferbaum, B., Sherman, M. D., Melson, A. G., & Brand, M. W. (2013). Family communication across the deployment experience: Child and spouse report of communication frequency and quality and associated emotions, behaviors, and reactions. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 18, 103–119.
  • Joseph, A. L., & Afifi, T. D. (2010). Military wives’ stressful disclosures to their deployment husbands: The role of protective buffering. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 38, 412–434.
  • Knobloch, L. K., Ebata, A. T., McGlaughlin, P. C., & Ogolsky, B. (2013). Depressive symptoms, relational turbulence, and the reintegration difficulty of military couples following wartime deployment. Health Communication, 28, 754–766.
  • Knobloch, L. K., Ebata, A. T., McGlaughlin, P. C., & Theiss, J. A. (2013). Generalized anxiety and relational uncertainty as predictors of topic avoidance during reintegration following military deployment. Communication Monographs, 80, 452–477.
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  • Knobloch, L. K., & Wilson, S. R. (2015). Communication in military families across the deployment cycle. In L. H. Turner & R. West (Eds.), The Sage handbook of family communication (pp. 370–385). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.
  • MacDermid Wadsworth, S. M. (2010). Family risk and resilience in the context of war and terrorism. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72, 537–566.
  • MacGeorge, E. A., Feng, B., & Burleson, B. R. (2011). Supportive communication. In M. L. Knapp & J. A. Daly (Eds.), The Sage handbook of interpersonal communication (4th ed., pp. 317–354). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.
  • Maguire, K. C. (2015). Military family communication: A review and synthesis of research related to wartime deployment. In E. Sahlstein Parcell & L. M. Webb (Eds.), A communication perspective on the military (pp. 19–37). New York: Peter Lang.
  • Maguire, K. C., Heinemann-LaFave, D., & Sahlstein, E. (2013). “To be so connected, and yet not at all”: Relational presence, absences, and maintenance in the context of a wartime deployment. Western Journal of Communication, 77, 249–271.
  • Merolla, A. J. (2010). Relational maintenance during military deployment: Perspectives of wives of deployed U.S. soldiers. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 38, 4–26.
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  • Owlett, J. S., Andrews, K. A., Wilson, S. R., DeFreese, J. D., & Roberts, F. (2015). Privacy management in the military family during deployment: Adolescents’ perspectives. Journal of Family Communication, 15, 141–158.
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  • Rossetto, K. R. (2015). Evaluations of supportive and unsupportive responses during spousal deployment. Communication Monographs, 82, 291–314.
  • Sahlstein, E., Maguire, K. C., & Timmerman, L. (2009). Contradictions and praxis contextualized by wartime deployment: Wives’ perspectives revealed through relational dialectics. Communication Monographs, 76, 421–442.
  • Sahlstein Parcell, E., & Maguire, K. C. (2014). Comfort, cliques, and clashes: Family readiness groups as dilemmatic sites of relating during wartime. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 31, 497–515.
  • Stafford, L. (2005). Maintaining long-distance and cross-residential relationships. New York: Routledge.
  • Tanielian, T., & Jaycox, L. H. (2008). Invisible wounds of war: Psychological and cognitive injuries, their consequences, and services to assist recovery. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. Retrieved from the RAND corporation website:
  • Theiss, J. A., & Knobloch, L. K. (2014). Relational turbulence and the post-deployment transition: Self, partner, and relationship focused turbulence. Communication Research, 41, 27–51.
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  • Wilson, S. R., & Chernichky, S. M. (2016). Intergroup perspectives on military families and the military–civilian divide. In H. Giles & A. Maass (Eds.), Advances in intergroup communication (pp. 265–282). New York: Peter Lang.
  • Wilson, S. R., Chernichky, S. M., Wilkum, K., & Owlett, J. S. (2014). Do family communication patterns buffer children from difficulties associated with a parent’s military deployment? Examining deployed and at-home parents’ perspectives. Journal of Family Communication, 14, 32–51.
  • Wilson, S. R., Gettings, P. E., Dorrance Hall, E., & Pastor, R. (2015). Dilemmas families face in talking with returning U.S. service members about seeking professional help for mental health issues. Health Communication, 30, 772–783.
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