Emotional expression can be harmful for some military couples after active duty

Adapting to life in “normal” society following a lengthy deployment can be difficult for many service members. The challenge can be compounded in partnerships where one member has recently returned from active duty. This places the couple in a complex situation referred to as dyadic coping, where they are impacted by not only their own coping choices, but also by those of their significant other

A study by Christina Marini and her colleagues examines these circumstances more closely by focusing on two common coping mechanisms: avoidance and emotional expression. The article was published online prior to print by the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

Coping strategies can be either helpful or maladaptive, depending on the circumstances. In one case, avoiding a problem may actually have better outcomes than facing it directly, while other times it is best to deal with issues head on. The same is true for emotional expression. Unsurprisingly, coping by using avoidance tends to be inversely related to the expression of emotions. Marini’s experiment examined these characteristics in 175 military couples (comprised of a male service member and civilian woman) during the first 18 months after a member returned from at least one full year of active duty. This time frame is also referred to as the reintegration period.

Data was recorded with repeated questionnaires that the participants accessed online. Questions were designed to assess a variety of descriptive factors, in addition to the link between one’s psychological well-being and the use of targeted coping strategies. The presence of a dyadic coping system called for the examination of potential interactions between each partner’s coping choices and the other’s overall mental health. Another variable of particular interest to the researchers was the amount of combat exposure experienced by the returning partner, and how it would impact the other factors being measured.

Several significant results were evident after analysis. Service member mental health was positively correlated with their own expression of emotion and negatively with the use of avoidance. The same results were found for their partners. Perhaps most interestingly, the lone interaction of significance was a negative correlation between service member mental health and their partner’s expression of emotion, but this was only true for those with a high level of exposure to combat conditions. It is theorized that the result is due to an overload of stressors, which is precipitated by their duty experiences and triggered by stress caused by the emotional expression of a partner who is also going through a difficult period of time.