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Emotional Cycles of Deployment

It doesn't matter whether you are a "first-timer" or a pro, we all go through these stages of deployment. It's helpful when you can read exactly what to expect.

Stage 1- Anticipation of Departure
In this stage, spouses may alternately feel denial and anticipation of loss. As reality sinks in, tempers may flare as couples attempt to take care of all the items on a family pre-deployment checklist, while striving to make time for “memorable” moments. In the new emotional cycles of deployment, Stage 1 may begin again before a couple or family has even had time to renegotiate a shared vision of who they are after the changes from the last deployment.

Stage 2 – Detachment and Withdrawal
In this stage, service members become more and more psychologically prepared for deployment, focusing on the mission and their unit. Bonding with their fellow service members is essential to unit cohesion, but this may create emotional distance within the marriage. Sadness and anger occur as couples attempt to protect themselves from the hurt of separation. In the new emotional cycles of deployment, as this stage happens more often and more frequently, marital problems may escalate. When a husband or wife must repeatedly create emotional “distance”, they may gradually shut down their emotions. It may seem easier to just feel “numb” rather than sad, but the lack of emotional connection to your spouse can lead to difficulties in a marriage.

Stage 3- Emotional Disorganization
With back to back deployments, one might think that this stage of adjusting to new responsibilities and being alone would get easier. Although a military spouse may be familiar with the routine, (s)he may also be experiencing “burn-out” and fatigue from the last deployment, and feel overwhelmed at starting this stage again.

Stage 4- Recovery and Stabilization
Here spouses realize they are fundamentally resilient and able to cope with the deployment. They develop increased confidence and a positive outlook. With back to back deployments, however, spouses may find it hard to muster the emotional strength required, but many resources are available to provide needed support.

Stage 5- Anticipation of Return
This is generally a happy and hectic time spent preparing for the return of the service member. Spouses, children and parents of the service member need to talk about realistic plans and expectations for the return and reunion.

Stage 6 – Return Adjustment and Renegotiation
Couples and families must reset their expectations and renegotiate their roles during this stage. The key to successful adjustment and renegotiation is open communication. Families also need to be prepared to deal with the effects of combat stress on the returning service member. Such stress and trauma can be difficult to deal with. Troops with combat stress are often irritable, guarded, and want to be alone. Some may use increased alcohol or drugs in a failed attempt to “numb” the emotional pain they are experiencing. Attempts at renegotiation may result in increasing marital arguments.

Stage 7- Reintegration and Stabilization
This stage can take up to 6 months as the couple and family stabilize their relationships anew. As noted with Stage 6, the presence of combat stress can severely disrupt the stabilization process. Reintegration and stabilization can hit more roadblocks when a family must make a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move immediately upon the return of the service member. Back to back deployments create stress as families stabilize only to begin Stage 1 again.

Source: Morse, J., (2006).The new emotional cycles of deployment. Retrieved pdf June 28, 2007 from the U.S. Department of Defense: Deployment Health and Family Readiness Library: San Diego, CA.

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