Overseas deployments are a fact of life for many American military families. These life-altering experiences—during which service members must leave home for an average of six to 12 months as part of their service in the armed forces—can bring about wide-ranging emotions and reactions, not only for those being deployed, but also for their families on the home front.
Christina M. Marini ’11, PhD, assistant professor in the Adelphi University Gordon F. Derner School of Psychology, was studying the experiences of National Guard families preparing for deployment when an unexpected twist led to her exploration of a previously under-researched topic: A significant number of service members learned that their deployments had been canceled. The resulting study, “Military couples’ experiences in the aftermath of a cancelled deployment,” was published in the journal Family Process.
“We decided to keep the families whose deployments were canceled in the study as a comparison group, but eventually learned through our discussions that the cancellation itself was a stressful transition for some,” said Dr. Marini. “Our interest in this particular topic really emerged from the participants’ experiences.”
“This was the first time I was involved in research where the topic really ‘came from the people,’ and it felt really important to me to help tell their story.”
According to Dr. Marini, very little research currently exists on anticipatory stress, or how people cope with stress relating to things that have not yet happened. She and her research team, which included colleagues from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the University of Missouri and Purdue University, turned to theoretical models of anticipatory stress to better understand the experiences of service members and their partners who were planning for an impending deployment that was subsequently canceled.
To determine how people experienced their deployment cancellation, the team looked at factors such as whether the individuals saw the deployment as a threat (risk of loss or harm) or a challenge (potential opportunity), how certain they had been that the deployment would take place and how they attempted to manage it (plans they made, support they sought, resources they built).
Risk vs. Opportunity
The majority of those with negative perceptions of the cancellation perceived that deployment was a career or financial opportunity, a chance to use skills obtained during their training or an advantageous cultural experience. For these individuals, the potential opportunities presented by deployment weighed more heavily than any risk they might face during deployment.
Among the group studied, results were somewhat evenly split between their canceled deployment being a negative or positive event, with some also indicating ambivalence. Most who responded negatively were the service members themselves, as opposed to their partners who more commonly welcomed the cancellation. Those with a positive reaction viewed deployment as a stressor that represented lost time and experiences with family, and expressed relief that their service member would remain at home.
Service members and their partners who showed ambivalence were more likely to be conflicted about their feelings, calling the cancellation of their deployment a “win-lose.”
Effect of Uncertainty
Feelings of uncertainty ahead of their planned deployment were common across all groups, no matter their response to the cancellation. It was especially challenging to cope with cancellations that occurred closer to the date of departure, and all groups cited the difficulty of this “rollercoaster” experience, particularly for children. Dr. Marini and her co-authors point to this shared experience as a sign that pre-deployment education programming is needed to help couples cope with uncertainty that may stem from a lack of information ahead of a planned deployment.
Notably, those who responded positively or ambivalently to the cancellation recognized that some degree of uncertainty was to be expected due to shifting priorities and changes in military missions and logistics.
Impact of Planning
Planning for a deployment—especially a National Guard deployment, which impacts both civilian and military aspects of military families’ lives—can involve changes to civilian employment, living arrangements and setting up military health insurance, joint bank accounts and wills. Beyond more formal arrangements, Dr. Marini’s study cites emotional preparations, such as celebrating holidays that will be missed in advance, establishing new family roles and even emotionally withdrawing or detaching from the family.
The number of and extent of changes made in preparing for a deployment appeared to have an impact on the experience of navigating its later cancellation. Those with negative reactions to the cancellation had undertaken the largest number of preparations, and focused on the additional expense they incurred in doing so—without reaping the financial benefits that would have come with deployment. While positive responders said they prepared emotionally, they made very few changes to their lives in advance of deployment and felt they might even benefit from the preparations they had undertaken, regardless of its cancellation.
“This study illuminated the different ways people prepared and how those preparations mapped onto their appraisals of deployment and emotional experience of the cancellation,” said Dr. Marini. “Future research would be needed to figure out why people prepared the way that they did—it could be that people prepare as a means of coping with uncertainty.”
Agreement Between Partners
When both partners—the service member and their significant other—felt negatively about the cancellation of a deployment, the reason was often financial in nature. They anticipated deployment to be a financial or career opportunity that was now lost. Conversely, when both partners felt positively about the cancellation, they shared that the benefit of being together outweighed any financial losses.
“Many couples with both partners upset about the cancellation appeared to really be counting on the deployment as an important financial opportunity for their family,” said Dr. Marini. “This highlighted how, especially for National Guard families, deployment might represent a positive event in their lives. It’s an important takeaway, because we often assume that deployment is mainly a negative or stressful event for families without acknowledging the potential benefits that they might be looking forward to, or even counting on.”
When couples were discordant on their feelings, typically with the service member feeling disappointed and the spouse relieved, most shared that they understood their partner’s feelings. Dr. Marini surmised that this could be a signal of other positive aspects of their relationships, such as understanding, empathy and open communication.
“Being ‘in tune’ with their partner’s feelings, even when they differ from their own, may also help spouses support one another as they cope with the unexpected transition of not experiencing deployment, even though they had prepared for it,” she said.
Understanding Military Families, and Ourselves
Reflecting on this study, Dr. Marini said that findings highlighted the importance of taking appraisals into account—whether individuals see something as a good thing, a bad thing or a neutral thing—and thinking about how these appraisals might color a broader reaction to a stressor and their coping behavior.
“It was eye-opening to see how much variability there was in people’s reactions to the deployment cancellation,” Dr. Marini said. “There wasn’t a uniform way of reacting to the change in plans—some were truly relieved, others were disappointed and, in some cases, pretty frustrated, while others were mixed in their feelings. For me, this highlighted how important it is not to assume that everyone experiences things the same way.”