One of the biggest challenges to deployment is the way it affects your relationship and your ability to communicate with your spouse. Sometimes deployment communication problems can be anticipated, like when the service member knows they won’t have internet.
But other problems can creep up on you unexpectedly, like when your service member is acting more distant than usual, or when you find yourselves constantly fighting during video calls.
As a military spouse who has been through a lot of deployments, I constantly get questions from other military spouses and significant others on this topic.
Sometimes they want to know if their service member’s behavior is normal. Others want to know if communication problems mean that the relationship is doomed.
And some military wives or girlfriends just find themselves confused when the loved one who used to text them every day is now content with a weekly email and a monthly video chat.
It seems spouses and significant others struggle to talk about deployment communication issues for a few reasons. First, it’s personal. No one else knows the details of your relationship, right?
So how can they tell you what is going on inside your loved one’s mind?
Secondly, military spouses are often willing to make sacrifices for the good of deployment. When things are going badly, they shrug it off as a deployment problem and hope it will work itself out after Homecoming.
And finally, it’s scary.
When someone you love and have known for years is suddenly on the other side of the world and acting disinterested, you don’t know what to think or how to respond.
So let’s put all of those concerns aside.
Let’s break the silence and dive into what causes communication problems during deployment. We want you to know what to expect, how to handle it, and most importantly—what communication behaviors are not okay.
What to expect about deployment communication changes.
Communication problems often begin before the deployment. In fact, the pre-deployment stage can be one of the most challenging and frustrating parts of the deployment.
Starting a month or so before the service member leaves, most military couples report increased stress, tension, arguments, and frustration. Unfortunately, this is a normal part of the deployment cycle and it’s difficult to avoid.
When preparing for deployment, the service member is focused on their mission. They are packing and organizing themselves to do what they have been trained to do. Meanwhile, the spouse at home is dreading the deployment.
They may waver between wanting to hold onto every moment together, while simultaneously wishing that time would speed up so the deployment could get started and over with, already! It’s common to experience a rollercoaster of emotions.
Remember that the service member has mixed feelings too.
Instead of being angry with each other, try to focus on supporting each other, and preparing for each of your “missions.”
During deployment, most couples struggle with time zone differences and limited communication. The time difference can be exhausting if it feels like you are never both awake at the same time. Try to discuss and agree on a time that works for each of you, even if one gets up a little early or the other goes to bed a little late.
Do not spend every night waiting until 3 AM for a phone call, because that will wear you out and make it impossible for you to handle deployment life.
Even if the service member has internet, it may go out unexpectedly, or they may go into the field without comms for a week or so. It’s normal for units to sometimes shut down all communication when doing a training mission. This is called ‘River City.’ Although this is disturbing, it does not usually mean anything is wrong. Try not to worry when you don’t hear from your service member! If something serious went wrong, you would hear about it. This is why we have the expression, “no news is good news.”
After deployment, some couples find the Reintegration phase can be awkward and frustrating. Both people have changed during the deployment, and it can be difficult to come back together as a couple and adjust to living in the same house again.
The more you can communicate and describe your schedule during deployment, the easier Reintegration will be. Try to alert your spouse to new hobbies, friends, diets, or schedule changes so they won’t feel blindsided.
Normal deployment communication problems, and how to handle them
1. Not enough communication.
If your service member is only checking in occasionally, it may be because that’s the only time and technology access they have. Or it could also be because every time they call home they feel homesick afterwards. If you want to hear from them more often, ask them if more communication is possible.
Explain why it is important to you. Then be realistic in your expectations if they explain that they simply don’t have much time or access. A former service member shares her deployment communication tips here.
2. Too much communication.
Now that some deployed locations have regular internet access, it’s possible for some deployed troops to do video calls every day. Of course this can be exciting, but it also has a negative side. Many couples struggle to find something new to talk about each day.
They want to spend time together, but the constant video calls can interfere with work or other activities. Service members and spouses both report less satisfaction after extended calls. There are more ideas for handling “the Skype letdown” here.
3. Comparing hardships.
Don’t fall into the dangerous trap of comparing deployment challenges. Sometimes the service member has an exhausting and deprived schedule where they can get jealous of seeing their spouse enjoying time with friends.
On the other hand, a young mom juggling multiple children at home may feel frustrated when the service member says he is “bored and tired of eating at Subway.”
Don’t just dump your negative struggles on each other. Try to find good and exciting things to share with each other. Even if it seems tiny and insignificant, “hunting the good stuff” can put a positive spin on your communication.
4. Constant fighting.
Many couples complain that their deployment conversations deteriorate into drama, arguments, or nit-picking over trivial things. These problems are usually caused by stress happening elsewhere in life.
Each person is bringing that stress into the relationship and unloading it on their loved one. When this happens, it can be good to give each other space or take a break for a few days.
Don’t pout or give the silent treatment. Just express that you know you both care about each other, and maybe you need to catch up on sleep before you check in with each other again. We like these tips from Semi-Delicate Balance for dealing with it.
Red flags: When deployment communication is NOT OKAY
Not that you know what deployment communication problems are normal, we also need to discuss which situations cross the line. It’s normal to experience frustration and the occasional fight during a deployment.
It is not normal to experience abusive behavior or threats. If the service member or spouse is experiencing any of these situations, they should talk to a family member, trusted friend, or a professional therapist for additional support. (This is a good list of free counseling resources for service members and spouses.)
1. Verbal abuse.
Neither party should ever put the other down by using derogatory terms, hate speech, or language that is constantly demeaning. Even during an argument, it’s better to focus on how you feel than on placing blame and making someone miserable.
2. Silent treatment.
Being out of communication temporarily is different from intentionally ignoring someone. Neither party should regularly ignore phone calls, messages, or emails. If it isn’t a good time to respond, let them know you are unavailable. But ignoring messages leads to escalated problems.
Sometimes important decisions need to be made during deployment. Find a way to negotiate and compromise that does not threaten the other person. It is not okay to threaten to make changes out of spite or in an attempt to assert control. This includes threatening behavior about the house, selling belongings, making dramatic changes to your body, and using children as leverage in an argument.
Deployment communication is a tricky subject.
Almost everyone has a negative story of something they could have handled differently. But the good news is that deployment communication is a learning experience. It can test your relationship to the limits, but it can also make it stronger.