In this time of national political and social discord, one belief shared by many Americans is that men and women serving in the military, as well as their families, make enormous personal sacrifices. Americans have general notions of the hardships endured by personnel deployed to war zones: being separated from families; living in Spartan conditions and without the familiar comforts of home; patrolling in dangerous and stressful conditions; coping with difficult emotions generated by deaths and injuries to comrades.
The images of the hardships endured by their families are usually more vague.
The family system, like any other system either adapts or falls apart when a vital part of the system, like a spouse or parent, is absent for a prolonged period of time. Generally, military families do not fall apart when a member is deployed. They adapt with the assistance of officers' wives, formal and informal military support systems, extended families, and the boarder community. The family's success at coping often reflects the emotional strength of the parent left stateside and the preexisting mental health of the family, i.e., how successfully the family contributes to the emotional wellbeing of each member
Parents left stateside develop their own ways of operating as they are forced to take on responsibilities that were previously shared. Some spouses enthusiastically take on the challenges while others do so with resentment. As the family adapts to daily life without one parent, children may become more independent because the at-home parent has less time and has to be more discriminating about tending to their children's need. Older children may grow to fill voids created by their absent parent and younger children may become more reliant on older siblings. While the family system adapts, each member usually matures through developing an array of required functional, interpersonal, and psychological skills. Growing confidence and a sense of personal power often accompanies this progression.
Army Wives, the hit Lifetime show that is avidly followed by many military spouses, poignantly dramatizes the stresses added to ordinary family life by the demands of being married to someone who serves in the military, especially during times of war. Some military wives comment on the show's website that finally, they feel seen and appreciated. The show illustrates a phenomenon that I have observe among military families with whom I have worked - that re-integrating the family after deployment is often more stressful than adapting to the deployment itself.
Further, military families are particularly vulnerable to the negative repercussions of the favorite child complex. In the book, The Favorite Child, I describe the impact on families when a given parent favors a given child because that child fills needs of that parent. Parents left stateside have many varied needs left unmet when their partners are deployed. These parents are susceptible to favoring the child who instinctively meets their needs, whether they do chores around the house without being asked or offer social companionship at the end of a long day.
In exchange for filling their parent's needs, these children are rewarded, often with inappropriate privileges and by not being held accountable for their behaviors. Left unattended, these favorite children can grow up vulnerable to feelings of entitlement and to believing that rules do not apply to them. The entire family is impacted, often adversely, by the coupling of the given parent and child. Families functioning with one involved parent and one absent parent are particularly vulnerable to the adverse affects of the favorite child complex. In military families coping with the deployment of one adult, the absence of one parent is real, not just a psychological dynamic making the family more susceptible to the negative consequences of this complex.
When the deployed parent returns, again the family system must readjust. Often this reintegration is more challenging than was the original separation and is more difficult to work through than expected. Soldiers, in their absences, had experiences profoundly influencing their personalities. Most often they return very different than the people who left. And, in their absences, life moved on for their families. By necessity, family members had to adapt to life without them.
How relationships integrate these disparate experiences impacts the ultimate mental health of all family members.
o Returning soldiers are different people, their personalities affected by battlefield experiences.
o Stateside parents are different people, their personalities affected by the added responsibilities they carried during their partners' absences.
o Children are different people, their personalities affected by having coped with the absence of one parent and responded to the requirements of the other parent.
The relationships that family members have when they reintegrate after deployment are different than the one they had at the time of "good bye."
o If a stateside parent and child developed a favored relationship, what happens? Does the child maintain the favored status or is the child relegated back to the status held prior to deployment? Does the child feel rejected or relieved? How does this impact the relationship between this child and the returning parent, and the relationship between the returning parent and other children?
o Stateside parents learned to operate alone. What happens now? Do they readily make room for their partner; or do they feel entitled to "time off," resentful at having been the responsible parent 24/7? Do they resent their returning partner's input, perceiving it as critical, or are they appreciative, perceiving it as supportive?
o Returning partners were not apart of their families' daily lives. How do they fit it? How do they get caught up on the history and experiences they missed? Are family members eager to bringing them up to speed or resentful?
o Returning partners are expected to respond to the demands of daily family life. How do they make the transition from the war zone? Are they respectful of the demands, or in comparison with those experienced when deployed, do they trivialize them?
o Children learned how to function with just one parent. How do the children adjust to the presence of two authority figures? What happens to the responsibilities they fulfilled and privileges they received? Are they eager to reconnect with their parent or angry with them for having been gone?
o Children's ages and the length of parents' deployments impacts the coming together. Do younger children remember the deployed parent, or when they return, are they like strangers? Have older children moved-on and developed an independence they cherish, or upon their parent's return, do they demonstrate infantile behaviors in their hunger to be taken care of?
Separations and reunions are a way of life for military families. Adapting to them leads to stress and affects the dynamics of the family. The mental health of all members - parents and children alike - is impacted by the family's skill in addressing the issues posed by these experiences.