In her last days with her husband Tom before his deployment, Sarah was so overcome with anger that she could not wait for him to leave. They fought, a lot, and often over small insignificant matters.
He was busy getting his gear together. Eventually, she says, he became emotionally unapproachable.
“I threatened to drop his butt off at the ship [early] so I wouldn’t have to look at his face anymore,” she says. “What a horrible thing for me to say, but at that moment, I meant it.”
Many military wives and girlfriends say that in the days before their men leave for deployment, the amount of arguing increases with each passing moment. Experts say, it’s not you, it’s not him. Instead, the bickering is turned on automatically inside many of us as a way of letting go.
“It’s a defense mechanism to subconsciously detach from everything they care about,” says psychologist Dr. Terry Lyles (www.terrylyles.com), who specializes in stress management and who has worked with military members returning from war and rescue workers after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the 2004 Asian tsunami. “[Soldiers are] trained to suck it up and feel pain later, which includes emotional pain. They don’t want to go anymore than you don’t want them to go.”
Lyles says oftentimes spouses heading overseas become robotic, deflecting emotions with an imaginary, and unintentional, force field.
“Communication basically gets destroyed,” he says. “Everything you fight about is immaterial.”
Tiffany says she and her husband argued everyday until he left, “over stupid things.” And for her, withdrawing emotionally was just as effective at handling the separation as it was for her husband.
“It seemed to be easier to watch him walk out the door if I was mad at him,” she says.
Like many other military wives, Christy bickered with her husband (her boyfriend at the time) before he left for Iraq. She says she was upset by his detached behavior and wanted him to spend all of his spare time with her.
Christy says she wanted him to show emotions, to almost prove that he would miss her. She wanted affection. She wanted to be comforted.
He shut down. He pushed her away. He even admitted late at night that he knew he would regret the way he was acting toward her once he arrived overseas.
Christy, who was new to military life, said she didn’t understand what was happening. She feared that joining the Army had changed him into an emotionless droid.
“I was scared that this new behavior would last forever,” she says.
Lyles says it won’t.
“You have to be able to go to them and say, ‘I understand what’s going on, and I’m here to support you, and everything is going to be fine,’ ” Lyles says. “Believe it or not, they need emotional support.”
Lyles also stresses that while spouses should give emotional support before a deployment, they should also give their husbands space. Trying to talk it out won’t necessarily help.
“Men are wired differently than women,” he says. “They don’t want to talk about it. Don’t seek an explanation for their detaching. Just know the explanation is they are trying to go to war. Don’t take it personally.
“Know that it’s not you and it’s not them,” Lyles says. “It’s just them trying to transition to go to battle. They have to become hardened and detached to do what they do.”
Once Christy’s husband reached Iraq, their squabbling stopped, immediately. He apologized. He told Christy he was scared before he left.
“I think I was a safe person to take his fear out on, because he knew I would always love him, and he also knew I was trying my hardest to be there for him,” she says.
Lyles says not all couples will be able to, or even should, talk about the subject once the soldier is deployed.
“You may have to table the issue once they are there. It’s not going to help to talk about it,” he says.
Instead, keep conversations, “in the now.” Support them, let them know you care about them, tell them about life back home without burdening them with little problems of such day-to-day grind as the kids bickering.
“He doesn’t need to hear that,” Lyle says. “What’s going to happen is he’s going to start to worry about you and the kids, and if he’s worried about you, he’s going to take his eye off the ball, and that’s not good for anyone. That could be a life or death situation.”
He says spouses should rely on each other during this time of transition during deployments.
“You have to come together and vent and share and detox to protect spaces,” he says. “The more you can empower other spouses and help them understand what’s happening, the easier it is to get through. Your spouses are doing it in the field. They’re venting and supporting each other. It’s part of what keeps them alive.”