A deployment can be a pretty emotional experience for those left behind. But understanding the different stages of emotion and that those feelings are perfectly normal can make it a lot easier for everyone.
“I am tired of being compared to Mr. and Mrs. Jack Smith of Paducah, Kentucky, married 23 years, local carpenter, who have never been away from each other more than four days, that being when their last child was born 11 years ago!" This comment by Navy Chaplain Nathan Ware reflects the frustration many Navy families feel in trying to understand and explain the emotional demands associated with Navy life.
The Emotional Cycle of Deployment (ECOD) model describes changes in Navy wives' behavior and emotions during deployments of three months or more. Although it was initially developed for wives, the model has been useful in working with husbands and children as well.
The Navy has its own culture and traditions, and it is not helpful to compare military families to the civilian community. Most Navy wives, for example, have heard from a civilian friend or relative the comment, "You're so strong, I could never do it!" It makes them sound weird, like superwomen, when they are just doing the best they can under the circumstances. The ECOD presents a general picture. The cycle appears to be true for most women most of the time, but each person is unique—so obviously there will be exceptions.
Some people have expressed concern that there seems to be too much emphasis on "negative" feelings. First, feelings are neither good nor bad , they simply exist. Only actions can be negative. For example, there is nothing inherently wrong with feeling angry; ways of coping with that feeling, however, can vary from abusing a child (negative) to discussing solutions to the problem (positive). Some feelings—like loneliness, resentment, depression, anger, and anxiety—are harder to identify and share. But they are a part of Navy life, too, and will not go away simply because people try to ignore them. Acknowledging the whole range of feelings is the first step toward dealing with them in a healthy manner. Just because Navy couples live under abnormal circumstances does not mean they have to have sick marriages. In fact, experience supports the case that there is no stronger marriage than a good Navy marriage.
Getting ready for a deployment starts long before the husbands actually walk out the door. For a period of time, the women tend to ignore the deployment, fantasizing that somehow it will not happen: "Surely the ship will sink or he'll get orders to shore duty." Eventually, something happens to trigger recognition of the reality of departure, perhaps a flip of the calendar so that "The Date" is visible. At this point, the Emotional Cycle of Deployment begins.
Stage One—Anticipation of Loss: This stage occursfour to six weeks before deployment. During this time it is hard for a woman to accept the fact that her husband is going to leave her. She may find herself crying unexpectedly at songs, TV shows, and other such "silly things" that would not normally affect her. These incidents allow her to release some of her pent-up emotions. There is a lot of tension during this period as both husband and wife try to cram in a multitude of projects and activities: There are bikes and cars to fix, roofs to repair, deadbolts to install, garages to clean, family to visit, neighbors and friends to invite over, etc.
The wife will have some unexpressed anger, and the couple may bicker even though they usually do not. This can be upsetting if it is viewed out of context. Although unenjoyable, these arguments can be functional: They provide one way for the couple to put some emotional distance between themselves in their preparation for living apart. It is hard for a wife to feel warm and loving toward her husband when she is mad at him and, as one woman said, "It's easier to let him go." Other frequent symptoms of this stage include restlessness (productive), depression, and irritability. While women feel angry or resentful ("He's really going to leave me alone with all this"), men tend to feel guilty ("There's no way I can get everything done that I should before I leave").
Stage Two—Detachment and Withdrawal: In many ways, this is the most difficult stage. It occurs sometime in the final days before departure. Such statements as, "I know I should be enjoying these last few days together but all I want to do is cry" indicate a sense of despair or hopelessness. The marriage is out of the couple's control. Although they push ahead trying to complete the list that never gets any shorter, the wife often feels a lack of energy and is fatigued. Making decisions becomes increasingly difficult.
During this time, the wife may experience some ambivalence about sexual relations. The brain says, "We've got to have sex; this is it for six months" while the heart may rebel, "But I don't want to be that close." Intercourse represents the ultimate intimacy in marriage, yet it is hard to be intimate when husband and wife are separating from each other emotionally. This can be especially difficult if it is seen as rejection rather than as a reaction to trying circumstances. The couple may find, too, that they stop sharing their thoughts and feelings with each other. This stage is most evident when departure is delayed for some reason. When asked if they enjoyed the extra time together wives invariably respond, "It was awful!" The detachment and withdrawal stage is an uncomfortable time: Though both spouses are physically in the same house, emotionally they have separated. Wives think, "If you have to go, go," and husbands think, "Let's get on with it!"
Stage Three—Emotional Disorganization: No matterhow prepared Navy wives think they are, the actual deployment still comes as a shock. An initial sense of relief that the pain of saying good-bye is over may be followed by guilt. They worry, "If I really love him, why am I relieved that he's gone?" They may feel numb, aimless, and without purpose. Old routines have been disrupted and new ones not yet established. Many women are de pressed and withdraw from friends and neighbors, especially if the neighbors' husbands are home. They often feel overwhelmed as they face total responsibility for family affairs. Many women have difficulty sleeping, suddenly aware that they are the "security officer"; others sleep excessively. A wife may feel some anger at her husband because he did not, say, provide for her physical security by installing deadbolts.
Wives often report feeling restless (though not productive), confused, disorganized, indecisive, and irritable. The unspoken question is, "What am I going to do with this 'hole' in my life?" Whereas wives experience a sense of being overwhelmed, husbands report feeling "lonely and frustrated." Unfortunately, a few women get stuck at this stage, either unable or unwilling to move on emotionally; they will both have and cause problems throughout the cruise.
Stage Four—Recovery and Stabilization: At somepoint, wives may realize, "Hey, I'm doing OK!" They have established new family patterns and settled into a routine. They have begun to feel more comfortable with the reorganization of roles and responsibilities. Broken arms have been tended, mowers fixed, cars tuned up, and washing machines bought. Each successful experience adds to their self confidence. The wives have cultivated new sources of support through friends, church, work, wives' groups, etc. They have often given up real cooking for "cruise food"; they may run up higher long-distance phone bills and contact old friends.
Dr. Alice Snyder of Family Services Center, Norfolk, calls the women "single wives" as they experience both worlds. Being alone brings freedom as well as responsibility. They often unconsciously find themselves referring to, "My house, my car, my kids." As a group, they are more mature, and they are more outwardly independent. This stage is one of the benefits of being a Navy wife: Each woman has the opportunity to initiate new activities, accept more responsibilities, and stretch herself and her abilities—all while secure in being married.
Nevertheless, all the responsibility can be stressful, and wives may find that they are sick more frequently. Many women continue to feel mildly depressed and anxious. Isolation from both their husbands and their own families can leave them feeling vulnerable. There is not much contact with men—by choice or design—and women may begin to feel asexual. On the whole, though, most women have a new sense of independence and freedom and take pride in their ability to cope alone.
Stage Five—Anticipation of Homecoming: Approximatelyfour to six weeks before the ship is due back, wives often find themselves saying, "Ohmigosh, he's coming home and I'm not ready!" That long list of "things to do while he's gone" is still unfinished. The pace picks up. There is a feeling of joy and excitement in anticipation of living together again. Feelings of apprehension surface as well, although they are usually left unexpressed.
This is a time to reevaluate the marriage. That "hole" that existed when their husbands left did get filled—with tennis classes, church, a job, new friends, school—and now they instinctively know that they must "clean house" in their lives in order to make room for the men. Most experience an unconscious process of evaluating, "I want him back, but what am I going to have to give up?" Therefore, they may feel nervous, tense, and apprehensive.
The wives are concerned about the effect the husband's return will have on their lives and their children's: "Will he understand and accept the changes that have occurred in us? Will he approve of the decisions I made? Will he adjust to the fact that I can't go back to being dependent?" The husbands are anxious, too, wondering, "How have we changed? How will I be accepted? Will the kids know me? Does my family still need me?"
Most women bury these concerns in busywork. Once more, there is a sense of restlessness (but productive) and confusion. Decisions become harder to make and may be postponed until the homecoming. Women become irritable again and may experience changes in appetite. At some point, a psychological decision is made. For most women, it is, "Do I want him back? You bet! I can't wait to see him!"
Stage Six—Renegotiation of the Marriage Contract: This stage, too, is one in which the husband and wife are together physically but not necessarily emotionally. They will have to have some time together and share experiences and feelings before they feel like a couple again. They both need to be aware of the necessity to refocus on the marriage. For instance: After one of the wives' husband had been home for a few days, she became aggravated with him when he would telephone his shipboard roommate every time something of importance came up within the family-finally declaring, "I'm your wife. Talk to me!" During this stage, the task is to stop being "single" spouses and start being married again.
Most women sense a loss of freedom and independence while a minority is content to become dependent once more. Routines established during the cruise are disrupted: "I have to cook a real dinner every night!?" This causes the wives to feel disorganized and out of control.
Although most couples never write it down, there is a "contract" in every marriage—a set of assumptions and expectations on which they base their actions. During this stage, the couple has to make major adjustments in roles and responsibilities; before that can happen, they must undertake an extensive renegotiation of that unwritten contract. The marriage cannot and will not be exactly the same as before the cruise: both spouses have had varied experiences and have grown in different ways, and these changes must be accommodated.
Too much togetherness initially can cause friction after so many months of living apart. More than one wife has had to cope with the fleeting shock of wondering, "Who's that man in my bedroom!" Some resent their husbands "making decisions that should be mine." Still others question, "My husband wants me to give up all my activities while he's home. Should I?" On the other hand, the husband may wonder, "Why do I feel like a stranger in my own home?" All of these concerns and pressures require that husband and wife communicate with each other.
Assumptions will not work. Some find that "talking as we go along" works best, while others keep silent until, "We had our first good fight, cleared the air, and everything's OK now." Sexual relations, ardently desired before the return, may initially seem frightening. Couples need sufficient time together to become reacquainted bee fore they can expect true intimacy.
This stage can be difficult as well as joyful. But it does provide an opportunity offered to few civilian couples: the chance to evaluate what changes have occurred within themselves, to determine what direction they want their growth to take, and to meld all this into a renewed and refreshed relationship.
Stage Seven—Reintegration and Stabilization: Sometimewithin the four to six weeks after the homecoming, wives notice that they have stopped referring to "my car, my house, my bedroom" using instead "our" or "we." New routines have been established for the family, and the wives feel relaxed and comfortable with their husbands. There is a sense of being a couple and a family. They are back on the same track emotionally and can enjoy the warmth and closeness of being married.
Variations on the Cycle: Once the basic ECOD model or cycle is understood, we can examine the effects of other kinds of deployments. It takes time to work through each stage; people's emotions cannot be forced to fit ships' schedules. Blue and Gold submarine crew families, for instance, may never have the opportunity to experience Recovery and Stabilization or Reintegration and Stabilization with their constant "three months gone, three months home" routine.
Short cruises can be disruptive as there is not enough time to get used to the men being gone or home. Certain turnarounds can be especially difficult. For example: after being gone for two months, the USS Midway (CV-41) returned to her home port in Yokosuka, Japan, for two weeks in December, after which she deployed to the Indian Ocean for five months. It was a very stressful time as families attempted to say, "Hello, good-bye, and Merry Christmas" all at the same time. Extension of a deployment during Anticipation of Homecoming, as recently happened to the USS Coral Sea (CV-43) battle group off Libya, is more disruptive to the families than if the extension were announced while they were still in Recovery and Stabilization.
Implications for Future Use: ECOD's primary usefulness appears to be in the area of prevention: Many problems in Navy families could be avoided or minimized simply by understanding the process of adjustment. For example, lack of sexual intimacy just before deployment could be accepted as a natural reaction to difficult circumstances rather than being viewed as personal rejection. Arguing during that time may be tolerated instead of perceived as evidence of a deteriorating marriage. It also helps to know that it is perfectly normal to feel somewhat strange with each other when the husband first comes home. Almost everyone feels reassured just knowing that their range and fluctuation of emotions are normal.
Another use of the model is in the area of prediction. Key personnel (e.g., commanding officers and executive officers and their wives, ombudsmen, Family Services Center and Family Advocacy counselors, and chaplains) could use the model to be alerted to potential problems at stages or to distinguish between transient situational problems and those requiring more in-depth attention.
In working with wives, someone invariably says, "I wish my husband could hear this, too!" More presentations or workshops involving both the husband and the wife would be very productive.
Further Research: The conclusions reached in this study are important to our understanding of the Navy wife and the manner in which she copes with her husband's deployments. However, many questions remain for further research.
The original thesis which developed the ECOD model was based on previous research and clinical observations. Only one symptom—depression—was tested by using a cross-section of Navy wives. The findings of the study could be further validated by testing levels of depression longitudinally within each community (air, surface, submarine), i.e., by following specific groups throughout the entire deployment cycle. Other symptoms, such as physical illness, anxiety, or tension, could be tested in the same manner as depression.
The impact of other variables on the intensity of feelings at any given stage could also be explored. Such variables might include: length of marriage, perceived stability of marriage, length of deployment, anticipated danger of mission, or availability of reliable communications. In the course of the study, for example, it appeared that longer deployments with unreliable communications contributed to a relatively longer and more difficult Renegotiation of the Marriage Contract stage.
Applicability of the ECOD model to husbands and children is another possible avenue. Experience indicates that men undergo the same basic cycle, with some exceptions, but no research has been conducted to document these observations.
The stages at which spouse or child abuse is likely to occur could be identified. For instance, Anticipation of Loss, Detachment and Withdrawal, and Renegotiation of the Marriage Contract are the stages that may increase the likelihood of paternal child abuse; Emotional Disorganization and Anticipation of Homecoming, maternal child abuse; Anticipation of Loss and Renegotiation of the Marriage Contract, spouse abuse. Also, overlapping stages—leaving insufficient time to work through one stage before proceeding to the next—increases tension and confusion and the possibility of abuse. In Yokosuka, Japan, for instance, Family Advocacy dealt with one case in which the father was home for only two weeks. His wife said of their teenage daughter, "I can't handle her. Straighten her up before you go back to sea." He yielded to the pressure for a "quick fix" and physically abused the girl.
Attention also could be given to the impact of the ECOD on safety. In an article on aircraft safety in the December 1985 issue of Approach, for instance, Lieutenant Commander James DeVoll stated that "Safety planning must be based on an awareness of what periods represent increased mishap risk for the group, periods much in need of increased safety emphasis."
Although the ECOD was developed for Navy wives, it offers a framework for assessing the reactions of other family members and for researching related issues. It has use both for professionals in the prediction and prevention of problems, and for individuals in understanding that they are indeed "normal" as they deal with the emotional demands of deployments. These issues are important to the Navy as it seeks to understand how the family and the military organization can function as complementary components in carrying out the military mission.
Mrs. Logan received a bachelor of arts degree in education from the University of Michigan in 1964, a master of science degree in management from the Naval Postgraduate School in 1971, and a master of arts degree in marriage and family counseling from the United States International University in 1981. She has been an elementary school teacher, a naval officer, an organizer of and speaker at many commanding officer/executive officer's wives' seminars, a counselor for Navy Family Advocacy in Yokosuka, Japan, and a frequent speaker to Navy families on the subject of deployment. She is currently an instructor at St. Leo's College in Norfolk.