New research shines a light on the turbulence and instability that military members can sometimes experience in their romantic relationships as a result of deployment. The study was recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

“The majority of military families are adjusting well to a variety of transitions — they are what we consider ‘resilient’, but a proportion struggle,” explained study author Kale Monk, an assistant professor and State Specialist for Extension at the University of Missouri.

“All the changes associated with military life, especially deployment can be incredibly stressful. We wanted to know more about how individuals in military couples describe experiences of psychological distress and relational turbulence from their own words. This is important because psychological and relational turmoil are common presenting issues in therapy, making them critical points of intervention.”

“There is some great research about the association between relationships and mental health, but we wanted to capture descriptions of naturally occurring experiences – responses from participants that were not prompted by researcher’s questions, for example. In other words, how do people in the military context describe their experiences in everyday life?”

For their study, the researchers collected 5,925 pages data from 37 public online forums related to military life and deployment. This data was then systematically coded and analyzed.

“Military families are using technology as a means to stay connected and find support. Increasingly, people coping with stress are using online resources and it is important to note that this sample is unique because it consisted of individuals seeking support in the midst of a life stressor,” Monk told PsyPost.

“Stigma about mental health and relationship concerns are reasons military community members may not engage in research or therapy, which means online forums may be perceived as a comfortable alternative where individuals can vent their frustrations among people going through similar experiences.”

Several themes emerged from the analysis of the online comments. Many service members and their romantic partners used words like “rollercoaster” to characterize their relationships, which tended to become tumultuous after infidelity was suspected or one person felt the other hand changed significantly.

“When analyzing the narratives of individuals in these forums, we found that psychological distress and relational turbulence were tightly interconnected, but what was most interesting to us was the tension people felt that kept them in their relationships,” Monk explained.

The researchers described this situation as a “cycle of turmoil,” which consisted of prolonged appraisals of relational turbulence, experiences of psychological distress, fighting, and feeling conflicted.

“On one hand, posters expressed benevolent feelings for their partners, which pulled them toward the relationship. On the other hand, they also felt stressed, hurt, angry, or uncertain due to suspected deception, changes, and turmoil, which pushed them away from the relationship,” Monk told PsyPost.

“For example, individuals described being hurt by the behaviors of a partner (e.g., perceiving a reduction in communication or an increase in irritability exhibited by a partner), but also loving their partner and feeling that some of these stressors were circumstantial — often being attributed to the demands of deployment (e.g., feeling the service member can’t communicate much while deployed due to operational security, or that it was a combat trauma that is the reason for changes in personality following deployment).”

While scraping online forums for data provides some benefits, it also comes with a few caveats.

“Our results should be interpreted in the context of several important limitations. First, like the self-selection concerns of those who choose to participate in research compared to those who do not, people who post in online forums may differ from those who do not or from those who are altogether unaware of online forums,” Monk explained.

“Additionally, posters in the forums we analyzed may have had uniquely traumatic experiences, prompting them to reach out to find similar others. Although anonymity provides advantages such as it allowing posters to ‘freely’ describe experiences that they may be more reluctant to disclose in-person, it also precludes the collection of important information such as demographic characteristics or follow-up clarification.”

“We were unable to offer conversation prompts, assess relational variables, or follow up to probe for more information. Although the fact that these narratives were naturally occurring was a strength that drew us to these data, it is important to continue this line of research to determine whether the experiences of those in the forums are representative of others in similar life circumstances – however, that was not the goal of this current study,” Monk said.

Though the study was focused on relationship turbulence, the researchers also uncovered some comments suggesting that deployment ended up strengthening the relationship.

“We are a stronger couple now than we ever were before […] I can hear how he is changing and it’s all for the better. I am growing up myself so we are both changing for the better,” one person wrote.

“He has been gone for a month and my love for him has grown even stronger. I appreciate him more than ever even though he’s not here,” wrote another.

The study, “Relational turbulence and psychological distress in romantic relationships in the military“, was authored by Kale Monk, Erin D. Basinger, and Bryan Abendschein.