By Noel Meador and Rachel Harris
The long awaited moment had finally arrived.
With long strides, Rick Guzman sped through the airport toward normalcy. He was finally home. He would smell the fresh Pacific Northwest air, sleep in his own bed and, most important of all, be with his wife Tiffaney.
She saw Rick and clasped her hand to her mouth as tears filled her eyes. Finally, he was home.
The relief of that first embrace was short-lived, however.
Tiffaney’s waning trust quickly deteriorated, and questions turned into accusations. Their marriage—already battling the effects of Rick’s deployment—reached a critical low.
“Things continued to spiral downward,” Rick said. “We were unhappy with each other. We criticized each other about everything.”
The stress mounted when Tiffaney discovered she was pregnant.
“I felt like I was going crazy,” she said. “I felt like there was no point to being pregnant with his child. I thought for sure I was going to be a single mom.”
The couple knew they needed immediate help. Rick agreed to participate in a marriage seminar Tiffaney had heard about, Oxygen for Your Relationships.
The Oxygen seminar is hosted by the Washington-based nonprofit Stronger Families, and aims to help couples work through common issues in relationships. For military couples, relationship problems are often intensified.
In 2011, retired Army Major General Ken Farmer introduced Oxygen to the USO, which believed the program could have a positive impact on the lives of wounded, ill and injured service members and their significant others.
The following year, USO partnered with Stronger Families to host 10 Oxygen seminars and two facilitator training events. The feedback was so positive that USO expanded its partnership with Stronger Families to include the general active-duty population in 2013, totaling close to 50 seminars. This year, military relationships will be strengthened during 75 seminars across the country and overseas.
The Oxygen seminar is designed to cover hot relationship topics in a fun, non-threatening way, while offering practical tools to strengthen marital relationships.
Here are three ways to prepare for obstacles and strengthen your relationship before, during and after deployment.
Learn how your significant other communicates
Being married with one or both parties in the military means communication will be extremely important, especially if children are involved. During periods of deployment and reintegration, strong couples share their expectations and create a sense of purpose. They talk about how family roles will change when the couple is apart and how they will handle adjusting to life together again. In order for such communication to happen smoothly, understanding each other’s communication style is crucial.
The way each person communicates depends on his or her personality, learned patterns and past experiences. Take time to evaluate which characteristics, habits and experiences have shaped the way you communicate. Are you direct and to the point? Do you spend time reflecting before speaking and choose your words carefully? Or do you think aloud and say whatever comes to mind?
Then, share your communication preferences and discuss your differences and similarities.
Part of communicating is listening and translating what the other person is saying. Strong couples empathize with one another. In other words, they seek to understand their significant other. They give each other undivided attention with the simple goal of making the other person feel heard. While listening, try not to offer solutions to problems unless asked.
A good habit to form while communicating is “mirroring.” This simple practice begins with one person sharing an issue in a simple and direct manner using statements beginning with “I,” not “You.”
For example, “I feel hurt that you didn’t make my mom’s birthday party a priority last weekend,” instead of, “You hurt me by being three hours late to my mom’s birthday party last weekend.” After the person is finished speaking, the other clarifies what has been said. “What I heard you say is…” and “Am I mirroring you accurately?”
The next step is validating the person’s feelings. For example, “I can understand how you would think that …,”: “I see why that bothers you …,” or “Wow, you are really upset about what happened today …”
Finally, the listener seeks to connect with the other on a feeling level. He or she might say, “I can imagine you might be feeling/might have felt …” or “It sounds as if you feel …”
Truly understanding one another creates the framework for greater healing and intimacy as a couple. Remember, communication is an ongoing process. Never stop seeking to understand your significant other.
Communicate through conflict
Conflict is unavoidable and often unpleasant, but it is not as bad if couples learn to manage it. Handling conflict in a healthy way can create greater intimacy, connection and commitment in relationships. But, like fire, if not contained, it can spread.
When you feel the conversation getting too heated, agree to take some time to calm down and remember what’s important. You and your significant other are a team, and the only winning solution is one that both of you feel good about.
Just like fire, conflict has igniters and fuel. Igniters can be split into two categories—heavy-handed tactics and passive-aggressive tactics. Criticizing, mocking, lying, interrupting, blaming, name-calling, bringing up more than one issue at a time and using “cold logic” to hide from emotional reality are examples of heavy-handed tactics.
Consequently, complaining, self-pity, playing the victim, the silent treatment, exaggeration, making excuses and keeping score are passive-aggressive behaviors.
The common response to these behaviors is anger. Anger fuels the fire of conflict. When a spark meets fuel, fire erupts. Evaluate your igniting tendencies and share them with your significant other. Commit to addressing problems without these tactics. Also, remember that anger is a secondary emotion. We often default to anger because we are unable or unwilling to deal with the primary emotion we are feeling—fear, frustration, hurt or injustice.
Forgiveness not only enables intimacy and love to flourish in relationships, but it also has many health benefits. According to D. Katherine Piederman, of the Mayo Clinic, choosing to forgive provides greater spiritual and psychological well-being, less stress and hostility, lower blood pressure, fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety and chronic pain and lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse.
In a New York Times commentary, Heather Sweeney, spouse of an active-duty service member wrote about seeking marital help.
“It’s a sign that we’re strong enough to admit there’s a problem,” she said. “We’re strong enough to ask for help. We’re strong enough to lay it all on the table and work toward a solution. We’re strong enough to fight for our spouse, for our marriage, for our family.”
Working towards a healthy marriage is a long process. It requires patience and sacrifice, but the rewards far surpass the pain.
The Guzmans found the strength to fight for their marriage. They now have two children and are actively working on their marriage.
“I feel dramatically different,” Tiffaney said. “I feel like there’s hope now. I have faith that things will continue getting better.”
– Noel Meador is the executive director of Stronger Families and lead author of Oxygen for Your Relationships. Rachel Harris is a Stronger Families communication associate.
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