July 20, 2010

Left Behind: How Military Wives Experience the Deployment of their Husbands

Beth Easterling, M.S., Sociology, University of Tennessee

David Knox, Ph.D., Professor, Sociology, East Carolina University



Deployment of military personnel has a profound impact on the wives left behind. There are three stages of deployment (pre-deployment, deployment, and post-deployment) which have unique challenges for military wives. Previous research has not addressed coping strategies and experiences of deployment through the various stages.  Using survey data from wives (N = 259) of current or past military men who had been through at least one deployment, this paper reveals that actual deployment was the most difficult deployment stage and talking with other military wives was the most helpful strategy for coping with deployment. Ambiguous loss theory is suggested as a framework for examining these results.  



Table of Contents (hide)

             Surviving multiple deployments has become a fact of life for United States military wives and their children.  Beginning in late 2001 with an all volunteer military force involved in the  wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military families have been forced to cope with longer, more frequent deployments than in recent history.  Currently, there are over 1.4 million members of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force. 1Including active and reserve components of our armed forces serving in both Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF, Iraq) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF, Afghanistan), there were over 220,000 troops deployed at the end of 2008.2 For every marine, soldier, sailor, and airman who is deployed, there is a family 3(spouse, children or parents or all three) left behind to face challenges on the home front in their absence.  About half (49 percent) of enlisted military personnel and 68 percent of officers are married. 4More recent statistics suggest that the enlisted force is an "almost all married enlisted force."5Spouses of military personnel who are left behind to face taking care of the children and operating the family household  are greatly affected by deployments.  As men make up the vast majority of military personnel in America,6this paper focuses on the wives of deployed military men.
             The purpose of this study is to explore and describe some of the experiences of military wives whose husbands had been deployed.   Coping strategies for dealing with the unique circumstances of military life 7have been discussed in general but rarely in the context of the stages of deployment.  An exception is research on  Air Force members' perceptions of their spouses' abilities to cope with deployment.8Though military studies and military family studies have gained popularity in recent years, there is limited research on military wives and their coping  experiences during various stages of deployment..
Finley, Pugh, and Jeffreys 9assessed how military families deal with deployment by addressing post-deployment readjustment when a service member sustained an injury. The current study takes a more general approach to provide a picture of how military wives perceive the experience of deployment throughout the various stages and how they cope with the challenges presented by deployment.  Further, the current research uses ambiguous loss as a theoretical framework for understanding the findings. 10
Review of Literature
Uniqueness of Military Families
            Military wives confront unique challenges not faced by civilian wives.  In addition to adjusting to the constant moves and a demanding work schedule of their military husbands, deployments place additional strain on the wives left behind.  These wives and their children are forced to cope not only with the absence of their husband and parent of their children but also often the concomitant fear associated with a partner who is deployed to war.  Combat deployments generally involve a risk to the partner's physical and psychological well being when compared to  other types of deployments and civilian life.  Even when deployed to combat, the objective risk varies based on individual stations and can even vary from day to day for an individual service member.  Regardless of the actual risk, spouses left behind at home carry differing levels of perceived risk to deal with in addition to the stresses caused by separation.
            The role of military wives differs from that of civilian wives.  The former often fill  roles unique to military families (e.g. be supportive of the husband whose life belongs to the military and who may constantly be called to the base to deal with a crisis, attend training missions, etc.).   Military wives also assume the roles of the military husband when he is deployed (hence, she must now do it all as he is no longer there). Military wives also commonly face some unsettling consequences of being a military wife 11 which include significant barriers to employment (employers are reluctant to hire a military wife as she will move when her husband is transferred) and education (starting a degree program is extremely difficult as the military husband may soon be moved to a new location).  Being unemployed while actively seeking employment can have a negative impact on the well-being of military spouses. 12  Nevertheless, some wives cope by finding employment 13  or volunteering, 14each of which has been found to be beneficial in the well-being of military spouses.  Building on the existing academic knowledge base, this study seeks to identify strategies that have been successfully used by military wives in coping with the deployments of their husbands.
Entire families are impacted by deployments.  Children often exhibit emotional (e.g. anxiety and depression) and/or behavioral difficulties (e.g. trouble in school) as they cope with the deployment/absence of their parent. 15Divorce rates of military marriages (when compared to civilian marriages) are also higher, 16  no doubt influenced by stress due to deployments.  
          According to Burrell et al., spouses' perceptions of Army relocation and separation were more important in determining outcomes than the actual number of either event. 17 Separation and risk to the service member are two major facets of deployment.  Stress related to these phenomena potentially produce negative feelings for military spouses who experience deployment across all branches of service.  It is plausible to assume that spouses' perceptions of the experience of deployment are just as important, if not more so, in dealing with the deployment itself.  Drawing on the Thomas Theorem that situations an individual defines as real are real in their consequences,18perceptions of experiences for military spouses are an important determinant in outcomes for military families.  Through survey research, this study was designed to determine which coping mechanisms military spouses perceive to be the most useful through the different stages of deployment.
Deployments in the 21st Century
            Deployments have become much more common and recurrent for military families across branches since September 11, 2001.  One example of this trend is the large number of National Guardsmen and reservists who have deployed both to Iraq and Afghanistan.  In 2006 over 98,000 guardsmen and reservists were deployed. 19 In all, there were over 220,000 troops deployed at the end of 2008 in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.20 This number does not include troops deployed to other parts of the world which are still separated from their families.  To emphasize the magnitude of affected spouses, there are over 200,000 wives of United States military men left behind to cope with the deployment of their husbands to war at a given time.
             The temporary absence may be the least of the hardships that a military wife has to cope with.  Over 5,200 United States military men and women have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts 21and well over 30,000 are estimated to have been wounded in action.22These estimates do not include the countless number of military members who have incurred mental injury due to war (which also has a huge impact on the family) or those who have been injured during training missions or in support roles leading up to or in conjunction with deployments.  Even though most wives and children left behind do not have to confront the death or physical injury of their husband and father, they may live in constant fear of the possibility of both happening to their loved one who is deployed.  And, although their military husband may return home unharmed in the physical sense, PSTD is becoming more commonly diagnosed.  Some estimates suggest that 35 percent of military members returning from Iraq suffer from PTSD.23 As American presence in Afghanistan continues and grows as troops remain in Iraq, these numbers will likely remain steady or rise.

Coping with Deployment
            Deployment is a challenging time for military families.  The challenge is particularly acute now in that military families faced with multiple deployments requiring the relentless  renegotiation of roles throughout the entire deployment process. 24 Uncertainty is "the only certainty" in deployment.[xxv] 25While the wife is confronting the common daily uncertainty of the whereabouts and well-being of her deployed husband, he is adjusting to a new life which is often in a dangerous war zone.  This can be a confusing and stressful time for military families.  Recently, Orthner and Rose 26 found that wives whose husbands' jobs separated them for longer periods of time demonstrated more negative psychological well-being symptoms than those who were separated for shorter periods. Protective factors (such as husband's supportive work environment) were noted to have positive effects.  Applying these findings to a military setting, it becomes likely that military wives can suffer psychologically in the absence of their husband, especially considering the added stresses that a combat deployment can produce in addition to their separation.  Nonetheless, other social factors (i.e. support from the husband's unit) are plausible sources of solace during the deployment period.
             Throughout the process of deployment, spouses and other family members experience an array of emotions, ranging from guilt to pride as they adjust to separation. 27Although these challenges have been noted, little research has focused on exactly how military wives cope and which strategies families perceive to have the most positive personal and marital outcomes.  One exception is a qualitative study by Faber, et al. which examined various family members of reserve military personnel who had deployed.  Findings indicated that getting information and participation in a family support group were helpful in coping with deployments.28Additionally, Finley, et al. 29 indentified successful coping strategies for couples in the post-deployment stage dealing with injury of a service member. However, there has been no research of which we are aware that identifies the stages of deployment military wives find most difficult based on challenges they experience.

Stages of Deployment
             Three stages of deployments are pre deployment, deployment, and post deployment.  It is important to keep in mind that the term "deployment" to a military family does not necessarily mean just the amount of time the military member is away.  A deployment begins months before the military member actually boards the plane to leave his or her family.  Months of preparation (physically, mentally, and tactically) take place before a military member goes on the actual deployment.  Before the deployment, the military member may be physically absent for long periods of time for training.  Pre-deployment training is common in the months leading up to the separation of a deployment.  He or she may work long hours and often bring work home which interferes with family time.  After the deployment, families are required to readjust and reintegrate at a time when members have been physically absent from each other and, in the case of combat deployments, the husband may have been psychologically changed by the event of war.  Faber et al. and Finley et al.30acknowledged stages of deployment as related to the effects of deployment on military families, but no researchers have targeted specific coping strategies of military wives.  The current  study focused on coping strategies considered successful and commonly used by over 200 military spouses from different branches of the military service  though the various stages of deployment.
            Humana Military Healthcare Services, the standard military healthcare provider for United States service members and their families, provides information on the needs that may arise and considerations to take during each stage of deployment.  In the pre-deployment phase, families have differing approaches to dealing with the upcoming deployment, for example spouses tend to anticipate or deny the deployment.  In addition, couples may argue due to frustrated emotions as they mix arguments with closeness during the pre-deployment phase. 31 These couples are faced with the inevitable separation of the upcoming deployment, which has the potential to produce a variety of stresses and emotions that can cause tension within a marriage.  These feelings can be unsettling and confusing as they challenge to change traditional family roles and structure.  Despite this stress, couples report the desire to be close and take advantage of the time they have together before they are separated, which commonly results in conflicting and confusing emotions.
            During the deployment itself, families are faced with the difficult task of communicating over the thousands of miles which may be accompanied with limited forms of communication.  Initially, spouses commonly report feeling disoriented and overwhelmed with emotions which may manifest in sleep disturbances, frustration, and anger.  During this time, feelings of jealousy may arise as well as a loss of trust.  Each partner typically struggles to adapt to the changed circumstances in their new, temporary, separate lives.   Both the wife and deployed husband establish new routines and the initial negative reactions tend to lessen over the course of deployment.
32In regard to the post deployment stage, those outside of the military community often view this as the "honeymoon"/reunion stage of deployment wrought with joy and few complications.  On the contrary, families report this to be an extremely difficult stage of deployment.   During this time of adjustment, the couple is faced with redefining their relationship, deciding who does what in the combined household, and readjusting to being together again after such a long absence where the wife is generally expected to assume all roles of operating the household and managing the children and living without the other.  Children, especially young children, may change dramatically in only a few months.  Renegotiating parental roles both among spouses and with a child who may not even remember the deployed service member can create challenges to a family attempting to readjust after a deployment.  It is true that there may be a "honeymoon period" of overwhelming joy immediately upon the return of the husband.  However, the period readjustment soon follows. Wives who have become increasingly independent throughout the deployment can struggle with giving up some power and role space to make room for the returning military member reasserting his role within the family.  Often, there is a need for one's "own space" and routines and responsibilities to be renegotiated. 33 Clearly, each family experiences these shifts in independence and role conflict differently.

Theoretical Framework- Ambiguous Loss Theory
             Boss's theory of ambiguous loss34 provides a framework to understand the challenges of deployment. This theory suggests that when ambiguity and loss are simultaneously experienced, negative psychological symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping occur.  Drawing on Boss's theory, Huebner, et al., in researching military families and deployment, suggested that this theory also "asserts that connections between family members persist somewhat independent on whether they are present or absent" and discussed the complexity of relationships among family members. 35 The context in which military families physically exist is often out of their control, as in the case of deployment, and difficulties cannot be collectively resolved by family members.   Both spouses may feel a sense of loss and helplessness in trying to cope with this challenge as they have no control over their being physically together.  
             Building on these ideas is also the concept of boundary ambiguity, which is the difficulty in knowing who is a part of one's family.  Just because a deployed service member is not physically present, he may very much be symbolically and psychologically present 36 in the lives of his family left behind.   This ambiguity may be experienced by military wives as they reorganize their lives in reference to the absence of their deployed husbands.  Faber, et al., 37 found support for the application of boundary ambiguity among military families in the face of deployment and concluded that this ambiguity dissolved once normalcy was achieved after completion of deployment.  However, in the early weeks of post-deployment, the ambiguity can be magnified as the family works to readjust and redefine their roles within the family.
            In regard to the ambiguous loss, Boss noted "of all the losses experienced in personal relationships, ambiguous loss is the most devastating because it remains unclear, indeterminate....The uncertainty makes ambiguous loss the most distressful of all losses..."38 This reaction is indicative of the losses experienced by military spouses with a deployed husband.  Part of this distress results from the fear that the loss may not be temporary as the military member may be killed or injured and return a physically and psychologically changed person.  Further uncertainties of the deployment can exacerbate the stress of the family members left behind.  
            The family stress perspective explores various dimensions of ambiguous loss that are particularly characteristic for military families experiencing deployment.  Boss writes,
"Ambiguous loss is the most stressful loss people can face.  Not only does it disrupt their family by diminishing the number of its functioning members and requiring someone else to pick up the slack, but more uniquely, the ambiguity and uncertainly confuse family dynamics, forcing people to question their family and the role they play in it."39 Additionally, Boss (1999) explores assumptions necessary in order to deal with ambiguous loss from the family stress perspective in a therapeutic manner.  Three of the four assumptions are particularly relevant for military families experiencing deployment and will be used to guide the findings of this research using this theory.  These assumptions follow:
1.      Stress is caused by change or the threat of change in family composition.
2.     Persistent stress is not good but it can be managed.
3.     The experience of ambiguous loss can be traumatizing.[xl]40 In the context of this study and military deployments in general, we apply each of these facets to the experience of military wives.  For example, all stages of deployment produce at the least a threat of change in family composition.  A member of the family is physically absent for an extended period of time and may be emotionally absent for longer.  Additionally, the fear of injury or death of the military member during the deployment is often constant during a combat deployment.  Again drawing on the Thomas Theorem, merely the perception of danger of a loved one can produce concrete consequences for a military wife.  If those fears become reality, family composition is changed dramatically causing stress in addition to the injury or loss of a loved one.  This stress (from perceived or actual danger) can be persistent.
             A deployment generally lasts at least six months and, at times, over a year.  This time varies based on factors related to branch of service and military occupational specialty.  Marines are deployed for a minimum of six months in most circumstances whereas soldiers can be deployed for over a year.41Airmen can be deployed for as little as three months to over a year and sailors often deploy for six months at a time.  When including the other stages of deployment, this stress can persist for years.  If military wives are experiencing ambiguous loss due to the nature of deployments, according to the theory of ambiguous loss, the entire experience is potentially traumatizing.  Based on such possibilities, further exploration of the effects of deployment and the experience of ambiguous loss is required.
            Using the concepts of ambiguous loss, particularly boundary ambiguity and the family stress perspective, this research is based on the assumptions that military wives must find ways to cope with the extended absences of their spouses.  Fundamental to these coping strategies is success in maintaining a relationship with their deployed husbands during the time they are working at carrying out day-to-day activities without their partners present.  The uncertainty that goes with the experience of ambiguous loss can leave individuals physically and emotionally exhausted 42 making it necessary for military spouses to find specific, successful ways to cope with their unique family situation during a deployment.  Finley et al.[xliii]43have contributed to the application to ambiguous loss theory as well as successful coping strategies of families experiencing deployment and have noted, based on others' 44 work, that the adaptations military families make during the service members deployment make it difficult to reassess boundaries and responsibilities within the family in the post-deployment phase.  Regardless, this renegotiation is imperative for family functioning.
Critique of Literature and Project Focus
            Previous research identifies the uniqueness and challenges of military families, but little has been documented on how military wives successfully cope with deployment, particularly in their own words.  A major limitation of previous research is no exploration of what military wives feel during which stages of deployment.  Additionally, coping mechanisms are an understudied area in military family sociology.  In order to better explore and explain outcomes for military families experiencing deployment and better tailor programs for military families, we provide a comprehensive description of the experiences of those left behind.  Also, each stage of deployment is examined separately to determine what military spouses are experiencing throughout the entire deployment process, not only the separation.  Findings are then examined in the context of Ambiguous Loss Theory to determine its relevance to military families experiencing deployment.

Research Questions
            The research questions driving this research include:    (1) Which stage of deployment (pre deployment, deployment, post deployment) do military wives consider most difficult?  (2) What feelings do military wives experience during the various stages of deployment?  (3) Which coping mechanisms do military wives use during deployments?  (4) In spite of the challenges of deployment, how happy are military wives with themselves and their marriage?  (5) Is there  empirical evidence to support the experience of ambiguous loss by military wives based on Boss's framework?
            Based on the ambiguous loss theory, it is hypothesized that deployment will be the most difficult stage of deployment with feelings of fear and sadness as most prevalent.  It is further hypothesized that military wives will utilize various social networks (particularly family and friends) to cope with the difficulties of deployment.

Sample and Analytic Strategy

            The non-random, confidential sample consisted of 259 wives of current or former military men in any branch of service who had experienced at least one deployment as a couple.  The study was limited to women married to military men as they are the largest group of spouses in any military community- only 14% of military members (inclusive of all branches of service) are women. 45 The 71 item survey was distributed using a snowball sampling method to military wives via email (through researchers' personal acquaintances and through personal affiliation with formal military wife networks supported by the Navy and Marine Corps) and Internet groups for military spouses from August to November 2008.  (Institutional Review Board exemption was granted in June 2008 from East Carolina University.)  A Google search was performed to search for military wife support groups open to all branches of service.  The first author contacted moderators for these groups with information on this study; moderators shared the survey link and survey description at their discretion.  Questions were both quantitative and qualitative to gain information on demographic characteristics as well as multiple facets of the deployment experience.  This analysis expands the current body of literature by providing more specific information on how military wives experience the deployment of their husbands.
            Methodologically, military spouses are a difficult population to reach.  Many of the surveys targeting military spouses are government surveys and independent researchers cannot readily access such data.  Additionally, available research does not adequately address the deeper issues revolving around deployment, prompting this specific survey.46 Any military wife who had experienced a deployment during their marriage was invited to participate in this study.  All branches of the service were invited for participation.  The purpose of this study is to look at deployment in general.  Thus, military wives are considered as a single group not defined by the branch of service of their husband, reserve or active duty status, or their age.  Deployments affect all sub-groups in relatively the same manner-they all experience all three stages of deployment.  With the lack of current information on this topic, this survey was designed to gain a broad, general description of the experiences of deployment for military spouses as a preliminary step in expanding the knowledge base of the deployment experience and overall uniqueness of life experiences for military couples.
            As this study was designed to be exploratory in nature, the quantitative analytic strategy is focused around description.  Thus, the analysis utilizes descriptive statistics generated through SPSS to gain insight into which coping strategies were perceived by respondents to have been helpful through the various stages of deployment.  These findings were used as a preliminary basis for qualitative analysis.  After thorough examination of open-ended responses, we were able to identify multiple, recurrent themes stemming from the personal responses of military wives participating in the study.  Responses were then grouped by these common themes and explored in the context of the literature, quantitative findings, and implications.
Quantitative Variables and Qualitative Opportunities
             A variety of variables were explored in this study including wives' perceptions of challenges to military life in general, challenges during deployments, and successful coping strategies through the three stages of deployment.  Wives were also asked which stage of deployment they felt was the most difficult, with response categories for all are equally difficult and none are difficult.  Demographic information (age, years married, years husband in military, deployment during marriage, children, combat deployment status, husband's rank, branch of service, education level, and race) and information on personal and marital happiness were also collected.
             Respondents were asked to indicate (on a 4-point scale from not difficult to extremely difficult) their difficulties in the transition to military life.  They were then asked to indicate during which stages of deployment they experienced a variety of feelings, emotions, and challenges (i.e. fear, loneliness, joy, untrue rumors, parenting difficulties).  A section on coping mechanisms asked respondents to rank how helpful (on a 4-point scale ranging from not at all helpful to extremely helpful) they perceived given coping strategies to be in dealing with the challenges of deployment during any stage.  Coping strategies included employment, talking with friends, talking with family, talking with military wives, shopping, keeping a journal, living with a family, participation in base activities, counseling, volunteering, exercising, drinking alcohol, taking medications, and having an affair.  This list was compiled based on available previous research on military families, informal discussions with military spouses on their deployment experiences, and referencing the 2003 Air Force Community Assessment.  Measures accounting for individual happiness and marital happiness were constructed by responses from a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being extremely unhappy and 10 being extremely happy.  These scales were also based on questions included in the 2003 Air Force Community Assessment 47 and had been validated by its creators prior to its utilization in this study.
             Each section in the online survey also included open-ended questions inviting respondents to elaborate on their answers and include additional comments not specifically addressed in the quantitative questions.  For example, at the end of the section discussing challenges, respondents were asked to elaborate on any of the challenges mentioned that they faced and/or to add additional challenges faced that were not included in the survey.  Similar questions were included at the end of each sub-section of the survey (challenges in transitioning to military life, feelings/emotions through the stages of deployment, challenges through the stages of deployment, and coping mechanisms through deployment).  Further, a statement at the end of the survey invited respondents to "elaborate on anything mentioned in this survey or anything pertaining to yourself, your military experience or your experiences during deployment that you would like to share.  These sections were utilized for qualitative analysis to add to the raw numbers of the descriptive quantitative variables.  This allowed insight into explanation of and elaboration on the successes of coping strategies as well as opened up opportunities for respondents to add information on coping strategies not included in the quantitative section.

Quantitative Analyses

             The military wives surveyed had been married for an average of 7.08 years and their husbands had been in the military for an average of 9.88 years.  Approximately 68% of the wives sampled were married to enlisted men during their most recent deployment.  Over 80% of respondents were white.  Nearly half of the respondents' husbands were in the Marine Corps and about 1/3 were in the Army (including the National Guard) with the remaining respondents having husbands in the Air Force (11%) or Navy (7.5%); these figures include reserve components as the experience of deployment is the same for all military members.  Reservists are not considered "reservists" when deployed, they are active duty prior to, during, and post-deployment.  Over 60% of respondents were between the ages of 19 and 30, but ages ranged from under 18 to over 51.  On average, wives had experienced about two deployments with the vast majority of respondents' husbands having been deployed to a combat zone.  Over 70% of the respondents had one or more children.  Over 40% were employed at the time of the survey with slightly over 37% employed at the time of the last deployment.  Education levels varied with the highest percentages of women having some college with no degree or a bachelor's degree (22.8% each).
             For stages of deployment, the following categories were used: "pre-deployment" was 3 months preceding a deployment, "deployment" was from the day the military member left until his return, and "post-deployment" was the 3 months following the deployment.  Over half (50.7 percent) of respondents felt that the actual deployment period was the most difficult stage of deployment and nearly 28% felt that all stages were equally difficult.  The latter finding suggests a need for some sort of coping strategy for wives throughout the deployment process independent of the length of time the husband was physically deployed.
            Experiences of a military wife during all stages of deployments of her husband can be much different than when her husband is at home.  The most common problem experienced by over 33 % of respondents during pre-deployment was untrue rumors; these are often rumors about military men (including aspects of the upcoming deployment) or other wives.  For example, it is not uncommon for rumors about deployment dates or location to make their way around units, even though this information is often kept confidential until the last minute.  Rumors about other wives vary, including infidelity, mental health status, parenting problems, relationship trouble, etc.  Rumors continued to be a challenge for nearly half of respondents during deployment.  Additionally, over 1/3 of the wives reported experiencing difficulties in communicating with their husbands, parenting difficulties, taking care of oneself, and asking for help during the deployment.  The most common problem experienced after deployment (but only about 18% of respondents indicated this was a challenge) was financial difficulties.  Table 1 details these findings.


Table 1





During what stage(s) of deployment did you experience challenges of the following situations?















Untrue rumors





Discrimination based on husband's rank





Difficulty maintaining friendships





Difficulty in communicating with your husband





Parenting difficulties





Trouble with your job/schooling





Financial problems





Taking care of yourself/meeting your personal needs





Asking for help when you needed it










Trust problems





            To meet the challenges discussed above, wives used a variety of coping mechanisms.  The most helpful coping strategies (mean of greater than  3 on a 4 point scale with 4 being the most helpful) were talking with friends, talking with other military wives (highest mean), and exercising.  Table 2 details findings on coping mechanisms perceived to be helpful during deployment by respondents.  Wives, on average, reported relatively high levels of happiness with self (mean of 7.26 on a scale of 1-10), marriage (mean of 8.31 on a scale of 1-10), and had high positive self concepts (mean of 1.93 on a scale of 1-5 with 1 being strongest agreement of statement regarding having a positive self-concept).


Table 2





Please indicate how helpful each of the following coping mechanisms/skills were to you at ANY stage of deployment.







N/A answers*

Mean (a)

Std. Deviation






Talking with friends





Talking with family





Talking with military wives










Keeping a journal





Going home to live with family





Participating in base activities








































(a) scale of 1 (not helpful at all) to 4 (extremely helpful)





(b) min/max for all values was 1/4 except for Affair which was 1/3





*N/A answers were marked as "missing" and not included in "N"





            When wives were asked about the emotions they experienced during their husbands' deployment, they reported both positive and negative emotions during the various stages of deployment.  During the pre-deployment phase, more than 50 percent of the wives reported fear, sadness, and nervousness.  During the actual deployment, more than 50% of the wives experienced loneliness, fear, sadness, going crazy, and nervousness, as well as feelings of independence and strength in the absence of their husbands.  During post-deployment, more than three-quarters of respondents felt joy.  Table 3 details results for emotions felt during the stages of deployment by respondents.



Table 3





During which stage(s) of deployment did you experience the following feelings/emotions?








































Going crazy

























Qualitative Analyses
            Open ended questions were included in the survey regarding general transition to military life, emotions/feelings during the different stages of deployment, challenges of deployment, and coping strategies for challenges of deployment to address specific research questions.  Below, findings are discussed in the following categories based on these open-ended questions: transition, perceptions of deployment stages, feelings, challenges, and coping.

            Respondents focused on two major theses as difficulties in transitioning to military life: lack understanding by civilian friends and family and maintain a career.  This section was included in the survey to assist in gaining a broader understanding of the overall challenges of military life, which includes the experience of deployment.  Extended separations and parenting alone were commonly discussed in these contexts.  The uniqueness of military life (i.e. extended separations, foreign residence, frequent relocations) can be misunderstood by those outside of the military community.  Respondents indicated frustration with those outside of the military community not being able to understand their situations or trivializing experiences that respondents considered to be extremely difficult and unique to military life.  These responses mirrored findings that communication with military wives helped to cope with deployments, as members of this community have a relative understanding of these experiences.  Discussing their anger with the lack of understanding of those outside of the military community, wives commented:

"I get angry when people who are not military make flip or rude comments when they hear that my spouse is deployed, like well what did you expect when you married him. He is in the military. No one knows what it is going to be like enduring a 15 month separation."

"Getting family/friends to understand what Marines do... and that time apart is different than the business trip separations that they encounter."

             These quotes illustrate the larger theme of frustration with those who do not experience the challenges of military family life first hand.  Respondents repeatedly referenced civilian acquaintances who compared deployment to short business trips.  Additionally, respondents commonly noted negative perceptions of individuals who they felt trivialized the challenging experience of military life, particularly deployments.  Deployment in general was also highlighted as a major difficulty in the transition to military life, evident in the previous quotes.
Moving, especially with children, was also repeatedly noted as a difficult part of the transition.  Deployments were frequently mentioned as the most difficult part of military life, especially not being able to see one's husband and having to parent alone.  For example, one respondent shared,

"Deployments are the worst him being away 15 months at a time; we are on number three now and it is just hard being married to a man that is  half way across the world with very little contact at all. I feel as though at times I am a single parent."

             Maintaining a career was also highlighted as a challenge in transitioning to military life, in general.  Easterling explored disadvantages military spouses face in finding and maintaining employment, even when they were more highly educated or more highly qualified.  Covert discrimination of military wives appears to occur (at least as perceived by military wives) in military areas as employers are reluctant to hire women with the added responsibilities of parenting in the absence of a military spouse and/or women who are likely to only be in the area temporarily. 48 Below are some quotes from wives emphasizing difficulties regarding their work life in the transition to military life:

"Keeping my career [was the most difficult part of the transition]."

"It is difficult, expensive, and time consuming to switch professional certifications from state to state. I am a teacher, a profession that does not pay very well, but does require state certification."

"The hardest part of the transition for me was leaving a great career behind. I was doing something I loved, but in a field that is only in a few areas of the country making it difficult to continue in that [capacity] when we have moved."


Perceptions of Stages of Deployment
           Some wives reflected on the differences between the stages of deployment.  Their statements are indicative of being able to look back with a new vision of the entire deployment experience with a "big picture" of the process and emotions and challenges they go through.  These personal responses added support to the finding that many wives consider all stages of deployment difficult.

"In retrospect, one of the most difficult parts of deployment for us was the post-deployment. We had a baby right before my husband left, and by the time he came home, things were dramatically different in our home."

"Pre-deployment is [the most difficult since you are] trying since you are waiting for the time to come that your husband leaves, you are worried about what could happen to him while he is gone. During the deployment you miss your spouse and worry for their safety."

"As the wife and mom of your family, you have to be very independent and strong for yourself and your family ALL the time, independent in the sense that you can handle the house, the finances, your job, the kids, and all other family matters by yourself."

"The most difficult emotion during deployment is the inability to relax completely.  You are 100% responsible for 100% of the family (families if you run an FRG) left at home.  There is a constant underlying current of stress." [FRG is an acronym for Family Readiness Group, which is a group to aid military families in terms of social support and finding resources, especially during deployments.]

            Respondents reported a range of feelings including fear, anger, uncertainty, feeling unsettled, and these feelings could vary in intensity and stage of deployment.  Many wives expressed the feeling of being on an "emotional rollercoaster" and even not fully understanding their feelings during their husbands' deployments.

"Before, during, and after a deployment you are on an emotional rollercoaster. During the pre-deployment stage you feel anger because you are mad that your loved one has to leave."

"My emotions during deployment are all over the place. Some days I feel sad, some days I feel like super Mom and so independent and some days I feel mad.  The mad emotion always gets me because how can you be mad at someone at war?  Well, I can!"

Responses reflect a certain level of hostility with the misunderstanding of others, especially when others compare their situations to that of the respondent.  These responses were consistent with those addressing difficulties in the initial transition to military life.

"My husband was injured on 2 separate tours in Iraq, every phone call was scary. People who are not military do not understand and I resent when they say they do. My husband being deployed and your boyfriend going on vacation ARE NOT the same."

"It is a very lonely and difficult time. No one that has not experienced it can understand."

"I felt jealous when the other husbands were coming home and mine was still deployed."

             Husbands' feelings were also of concern to the wives during the various stages of deployment.  Those noting the injury of a husband expressed difficulties similar to those highlighted in Finley, et al.  In the face of constant training beforehand and issues such as PTSD or difficulties in readjusting, the military member may seem distant even if he is physically present.  One respondent captured this recurrent theme in commenting,

"Before the deployment we had problems when he would disappear without calling and would randomly turn up with friends. He was distant and nervous."

Challenges of Deployment
             Two major themes were highlighted by respondents discussing challenges of deployment:  rumors and taking care of oneself.  Respondents noted a fair amount of challenges in dealing with untrue rumors.  During deployments, it is common for rumors of all types to spread quickly.  For example, rumors about other spouses' personal can be spread around units.  Additionally, rumors about dates of deployment can begin prior to deployment.  During deployments, rumors commonly spread involving the deployed service members' units, such as location, injury, and sensitive information about location and mission. Especially closer to homecoming, rumors circulate about when units are coming home.

"Many military wives have a tendency to gossip.  I've been married to the military for over 13 years.  Way back when we first entered the military it was mandatory for wives to go through training that is to 'prevent' pertinent information being given out."

"Since it's the military, there are always untrue rumors: when they're coming home, when they're leaving again, what actual day they will leave, or get back.  Communicating is sometimes difficult especially during the deployment."

             Another recurring theme of a difficulty during deployment was taking care of oneself.  With the added responsibilities of taking care of children and the household alone (discussed above), it is difficult for wives to find time to do things for themselves.  Asking for help can be difficult, especially when separated from family and close friends.

"The most difficult challenge in this area was being able to meet my own needs - rest and a break from the 24/7 responsibility."

"During deployments being a single parent is very hard. Not getting any breaks or having someone else to help out at home is very tiring. I find it hard to ask for help from friends and not being near family is difficult too."

            The three most common coping mechanisms cited as successful by respondents were support from other military wives, work, and religion.  Additionally, some respondents noted that being part of a military family growing up aided in dealing with the unique aspects of military life because the military lifestyle was "normal" to them.  Religion was not included in the quantitative section but emerged as an important coping mechanism in the open response section.  Though some noted that they stayed away from military wives because of the rumor issues, it was the most common response in the qualitative responses for the best way to cope with deployment, mostly because respondents felt a bond with other military wives and felt that they understood what they were going through.

"I think just having a great support network of other military spouses is the best!  They truly understand you and what you are going through.  I think this is priceless! Just getting together for dinner was great."

"I couldn't have gotten through the deployment without military wives who were also amazing friends. Many of them had husbands who were also deployed and the strength of the bond that was formed between myself and these other women is difficult to describe."

"Other military wives were the key stone for me...talking to them and just keeping each other sane was a great help."

              The lack of support from the military community was noted as a disadvantage in trying to successfully cope by respondents who were not close to a military instillation.  (This is often the case for National Guardsmen and reservists.)  This is another side of the finding that support from other military spouses is a useful coping mechanism during deployments.  One respondent noted,

"We do not live near a base as we are on independent duty. We do not have the activities and opportunities that families living near a base have during a deployment, therefore making the deployment even more difficult."

             Having had parents in the military was beneficial in transitioning to military life as well as coping with deployments.   These women noted that they knew what to expect, which helped the transition.  For example, one respondent commented "I grew up a 'military brat' so the transition was not difficult at all."  Another wrote "I was already used to the lingo, the ranks, on-base 'culture', and PCSing."  [PCS is a military acronym for Permanent Change of Station.]  Being a part of a military community also had its advantages. One respondent noted "military wives have an 'instant community' to be introduced to and a friend at one station always knows somebody at your next station to introduce you to."

             This study focused on the emotions and coping strategies used by military wives during various phases of the deployment of their husbands.  The first research question addressed wives perceptions of the difficulty of the various stages of deployment.  Though the majority of respondents indicated that deployment was the most difficult stage of deployment, over one-fourth of respondents felt that all stages of deployment were equally difficult.  This finding challenges the notion that deployment needs only be addressed during the separation; families need support and face challenges months before and after the actual deployment begins and ends.  In retrospect, the qualitative section also supported the notion that all three stages of deployment are challenging to military spouses.
             Despite the challenges of deployment, wives in this study overwhelmingly reported success in maintaining both individual and marital happiness; they also experienced the positive emotions of strength and independence even in the face war. This finding addressed the fourth research question.  These positive findings are in light of the literature that outlines the possibilities for negative effects of military life and deployment.49 Further, military wives in this survey reported a variety of positive emotions throughout deployment highlighting feelings of personal strength, independence, and joy.  Findings from this study parallel and add support for findings such as those of Finley et al. 50 who identify potentials for positive outcomes for military families with the utilization of various coping mechanisms even in the face of separation and war.
Throughout the stages of deployment, the most commonly felt emotions by respondents were loneliness, fear, sadness and independence providing evidence of both negative challenges and positive outcomes throughout deployments.  These findings address the second research question while adding to the existing body of literature on the challenges military families face through deployments.  It also helps support the family stress perspective within the ambiguous loss framework (discussed below).  Even before the experience of deployment, wives report feelings of frustration with various challenges (such as maintaining employment) from the initial transition to military life.  With deployment comes the added challenges of parenting alone and taking care of personal needs, commonly without the support of family.
             The third research question explored which coping mechanisms were considered useful throughout deployment.  To deal with the challenges of deployment, the most helpful coping strategy reported was talking with other military wives.  This quantitative finding was supported in qualitative analysis of the open responses from respondents.  Also considered helpful coping mechanisms were talking to friends and exercise.  Religion emerged in the open ended questions as a common coping strategy as well.  The variety of coping mechanisms considered successful points to the possibilities of successfully overcoming the challenges of deployment.
            Qualitative data obtained through open-ended questions helped to support and give a personal voice to the quantitative findings.  Paramount among these statements was the recurring theme that having the support of the military community was particularly important, especially when "civilian friends and family" often do not understand what a military wife goes through.  Another recurring issue was the problem of rumors and the difficulties in getting along with and trusting other military wives.  The dichotomy of fellow military wives being both a source of solace and sadness is an interesting area for future research, as is the successfulness of working as a coping mechanism while military wives experience large barriers to obtaining employment in military communities.  Cheating and coping with an injured spouse were also identified as challenges in the qualitative data and warrant further study beyond the scope of data from this survey.

Value of Ambiguous Loss Theory
              The final research question addressed the value of ambiguous loss theory in helping to understand the deployment experience of military wives.  Based on the three assumptions presented as part of the family stress perspective (change or threat of change in family composition, manageability of persistent stress, and the experience of ambiguous loss as traumatizing), findings are consistent with the experience of ambiguous loss for military families as well as possibilities for overcoming the challenges of ambiguous loss within the family stress perspective.  Findings support the notion that military wives commonly experience ambiguous loss in the face of deployment, the first assumption we presented in the family stress perspective.  Both quantitative and qualitative analyses reflect concrete changes in family structure alongside the threat of changes.  In addition, the stress is persistent yet manageable as the second assumption in the family stress perspective states.  Military wives in this study did note that the stress, though difficult, was manageable through various coping mechanisms, particularly working, support from other military wives, and religion.
             Finally, through an examination of the words of these respondents, we  conclude that the process of deployment through its stages has stressful results consistent with ambiguous loss.  Though results from this survey cannot definitively include "trauma" (which is the third component mentioned for purposes of this study in family stress perspective), it can be determined that there are negative stresses that impact military spouses throughout the deployment stages.  Ambiguous loss produces extreme stress.  Findings indicate that experiences of picking up the slack in the absence of the service member and confusion of family dynamics alongside of the questioning of roles for military spouses.  All of these elements, evident in results from this survey, are consistent with the experience of ambiguous loss.
             The ambiguity of the "loss" of a service member to his spouse during the stages of deployment coupled with varying degrees of perceived danger and fear appear to commonly result in stress for military spouses.  The unique life circumstances of military spouses (including separation from family members, uncertainty of multiple details regarding deployments, and parenting alone) can exacerbate these stresses.  However, according to responses from this survey, these stresses can be successfully managed and, in some cases, overcome with the use of what are considered to successful coping mechanisms.  Ambiguous loss theory also notes that, with the proper skills, the stresses of ambiguous loss can be overcome and dealt with in a successful manner.
            The self-proclaimed "emotional roller coasters" and the questioning of one's own emotions along with her spouses are indicative of an ambiguity in the sense of loss felt throughout the stages of deployment.  The misunderstanding, uncertainty, changes in and redefining of one's relationship, and the constant worry that often accompany deployments are indicative of an ambiguous loss, and the stress that can result.  Findings from the open response sections of the survey give a personal voice to the emotional toll that deployment can take on a military wife.  From uncertainty about length of deployment and whereabouts of their husbands to dealing with daily activities such as parenting alone with little support, the ambiguity of deployment situations emerges.  Paramount in the ambiguous loss framework and family stress perspective are the elements of confusing family dynamics, change or threat of change in family composition, and persistent stress.  The responses of military wives through this survey validate the plausibility that each of these elements are commonly experienced throughout the stages of deployment.  Also consistent with the family stress perspective is the notion that this negative stress is manageable.
            These data reflect that military wives use successful coping mechanisms to manage the stresses brought about by deployment.  Family and individual therapists and service practitioners should take note of the challenges faced by military wives alongside of their stresses and strengths and how they cope with deployment in an ambiguous loss framework to better understand and serve these families.
            Building on these findings is the notion of two types of ambiguous loss that can be experienced.  The first is when the family member is physically absent but perceived as psychologically present.  The second type is when the family member is physically present but perceived to be psychologically absent. 51 Findings suggest that military wives can experience both types of ambiguous loss.  The first type is experienced during a deployment as the military member is not present in the everyday life of the family, but could be perceived as psychologically present, depending on the individual family situation.  Additionally, some families may also experience a feeling of psychological absence, compounding the effects of ambiguous loss.  The second type of ambiguous loss can be experienced both before and after a deployment when the military member may seem to be "somewhere else" even though he is physically present.  Respondents noted these types of experiences before and after deployments.  When experiencing cases of injury, either physical or emotional (i.e. in the case of PTSD), military wives may likely continue to feel the second type of ambiguous loss for an extended period of time.  This is another area that begs for further examination.

Limitations of the Study and Suggestions for further research
             The data for this study were from a non-random sample of military wives (hence no husbands of military women) whose spouses were deployed.   In addition, wives of Marines were overrepresented.  Because of the nature of this survey and the sampling method used, respondents were limited to English-speaking, computer savvy military wives.  Minorities were grossly underrepresented in this sample, a major limitation.  Despite limitations, this study brings to light some important issues and should be utilized as a beginning point and a place to begin further exploration of this important but understudied topic.
             Subsequent research would benefit from nationally representative random samples as well as spouses of both sexes from all branches of the military. As mentioned, obtaining these types of samples is extremely difficult, especially without financial support and access to military families from governmental agencies.  Also, the motives of such data should be suspect as those developing and distributing the surveys may have limited knowledge (or no first-hand knowledge) of the realities that military families face.
             Military wives often feel that they, too, are called to duty and serve with few benefits or recognition.  This leaves many spouses of military personnel with a feeling of powerlessness and a sense of disconnection with the branch for which their husband serves. 52Recognizing the struggles and successes of military families is a first step in reaching out and improving outcomes for them.  Future research should focus on the needs of military families both in times of deployment and in times when the spouse is at home.  The question of how military families adjust between deployments (which is often only a matter of a few months) is an area that warrants exploration in this context within an ambiguous loss framework.
             Future research might also explore sources of tension for military wives revealed in this study.  For example, military wives are both a source of support and stress for each other during deployments.  Additionally, paid work is noted as a successful coping mechanism, yet it is noted as a major challenge to military life in general, especially with higher levels of education.  These paradoxes should be examined closely and policies and programs developed to aid military families. 
             Special caution should also be taken to note the positive experiences of military spouses (including independence and strength) during deployments and to look for possible protective factors to help assist military wives experiencing difficult situations.  Social service providers (especially those in our military sectors) as well as the government might use the findings of this study and consider establishing more successful programs and services for military families.  The emergence of the high levels of marital and individual happiness and common feelings of independence and strength identified in this study could be offered as pillars on which to build programs and services, versus the focus on the negative aspects of deployment.  Similarly, policies that assist in providing job opportunities for military spouses should be expanded while legislation to prevent discrimination in employment for military spouses should be strengthened as employment appears to be a major source of help for military spouses during deployment but maintaining a career continues to be difficult for military spouses.
             Building bonds between military spouses and their families to support each other during times of deployment and beyond should continue to be facilitated by all branches and individual units.  Finally, service providers should look to ambiguous loss and family stress perspective in offering services to military families as findings support the experience of ambiguous loss as well as possibilities for therapeutic assistance through techniques outlined in the family stress perspective.




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  7. 7. i.e. Westhuis et al., "Does Ethnicity Affect the Cooping of Military Spouses?" (2006).
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  10. 10. See Pauline Boss, Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live With Unresolved Grief (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).
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  12. 12. Beth Easterling, "The Invisible Side of Military Careers" 2005.
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  15. 15. Judy Harrison and Kimberly J. Vannest, "Educators Supporting Families in Times of Crisis:  Military Reserve Deployments,"  Preventing School Failure, 52, 4: 17-23.

  16. 16. i.e. Jennifer H. Lundquist, "A Comparison of Civilian and Enlisted Divorce Rates during the Early All-Volunteer Force Era (2007).
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  20. 20. Department of Defense,  "Active Duty Military Personnel Strengths by Regional Area and by Country (309A), September 30, 2008,"  http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/2008/hst0809.pdf.
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  27. 27. Amanda Huebner et al., "Parental Deployment in Military Families" 2007.
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  36. 36. Huebner et al., "Parental Deployment and Youth in Military Families" 2007.
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  39. 39. Pauline Boss, Ambiguous Loss, 1999, 20.
  40. 40. Pauline Boss, Ambiguous Loss, 1999, 21-23.
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  45. 45. US Census Bureau, "Facts for Features: Women's History Month," January 5, 2009, http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/releases/archives/facts_for_features_special_editions/013129.html (accessed  October 6, 2009).

  46. 46. Multiple respondents contacted the authors (contact information was included on the survey) to express appreciation for developing this survey in a manner consistent with the realities of their experiences.  Many noted that this was the first survey they had participated in that asked questions they felt were relevant and expressed frustration with grand misunderstandings of military life and deployment by the general public and researchers.

  47. 47. J. A. Martin and G. L. Bowen.  2003 Air Force Community Assessment Reference Matrix, 2003, June.

  48. 48. Beth Easterling, The Invisible Side of Military Careers, 2005.

  49. 49. i.e. Kelly C. McLeland, Geoffrey W. Sutton, and Walter R. Schumm, "Marital Satisfaction before and after Deployments Associated with the Global war on Terror," Psychological Reports, 103, (2008).

  50. 50. "Talking, Love, Time," 2010.
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