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U of I study identifies factors that predict post-deployment reunion difficulties for military couples

11/18/2013  8:00 am

Military families have endured a great deal of stress during the post-September 11 wartime deployments that have lasted up to a year or more. As America’s military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan declines, tens of thousands of military personnel and their families are readjusting to their lives together.

A new University of Illinois research study illuminates the challenges military couples face as a spouse returns from war. The study was led by Leanne Knobloch, an associate professor in the Department of Communication. Collaborators included Aaron Ebata and Brian Ogolsky, faculty members in Human & Community Development, and Patricia McGlaughlin, extension specialist at the U of I. Their findings were reported in the October 2013 issue of Health Communication.

The study was unique because it examined mental health and relationship dynamics together, as opposed to looking at one factor in isolation.

“Documenting the interplay between those two forces is an important contribution of our findings,” said Knobloch, who used her relational turbulence model to guide the research. “Mental health is essential and it justifiably has gotten a lot of attention, but healthy marriages can protect people against the outcomes of poor mental health because spouses are instrumental in supporting each other and getting each other treatment. Family relationships really matter in reintegration.”

In the study, Knobloch’s team followed 118 couples during a three-month period after the service member returned home from deployment. In almost all cases, the service member was male and the at-home spouse was female. Both spouses completed online questionnaires once per month; all of the couples had at least one child at home.

The U of I researchers discovered that military couples had a harder time during reintegration when individuals experienced symptoms of depression, when they were unsure about their marriage, and when their spouse interfered with their everyday goals. “Our findings supported our predictions,” said Knobloch.

Another key finding was that a partner’s experiences predicted whether the individual had difficulty adjusting to life back together. “This finding indicates that people’s problems during reintegration are tied to more than just their own experiences in isolation,” explained Knobloch, noting that the military quite reasonably devotes most of its assistance programs to helping service members cope with homecoming. “The resources the military provides for reintegration are extensive, but you also have to consider what the at-home spouse is going through.”

Knobloch hopes her team’s findings will spur more targeted services to support military marriages. “We found that wives experienced the most difficulty during the first month that their husbands were home,” said Knobloch, noting wives reported disruptions to daily routines, decision-making, and household chores. “Our study implies that targeted interventions should take a couples approach, recognizing that partners are a team.”

This study was funded by a seed grant from the U of I Family Resiliency Center, which conducts transdisciplinary research to advance knowledge and practices that strengthen families' abilities to meet life's challenges and thrive.

Recently, Knobloch and researchers at Northwestern University and UCLA received a $640,000 grant from the Department of Defense to begin a new study of military families over a six-month period. This next project will focus on other issues important to military families such as communication and emotions.

Photo courtesy of Mike Lynaugh Photography copyright 2009