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Research on Military Families

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Research on military families is hardly new. It seems that every day, there is a new study that is being done, or a new study that was just completed. Sometimes, though, it seems as like the research just repeats itself. The negatives: deployments are hard, PTSD is bad, children struggle with moves. The positives: many families are resilient, children develop strengths and a broader world perspective, spouses provide support and a foundation for the family. 

As someone who has devoted the past 10 years to researching the effects of combat-related PTSD on couples, I am no stranger to these results. I can point to the academic nuances in the different studies, how the findings from each one are just a little different from those of another, and help move us a little bit forward in terms of understanding how best to help families who struggle. At the same time, I sometimes find myself frustrated with my own research, wanting to do more, learn more … and at the end of the day, help more. 

It is true that we’ve learned a lot over the past few decades. For instance, although combat deployments are highly stressful, problems in families are more related to symptoms of PTSD, alcohol use, and other problems that develop after those deployments. Also, angry outbursts and irritability are extremely taxing on spouses and children – but the emotional “numbing” that comes with PTSD seems to be even worse. Some level of open communication about things that happened during deployment seems to be associated with better overall family relationships – although we don’t know how much that is (it probably differs for every individual and family). And we know that the return home from a deployment is not all “sunshine and roses” – reintegration is a process that is often tricky and difficult to navigate. 

Although this information has been helpful, we clearly have a lot left to learn. Two things stand out to me as some of the biggest holes in the research. First, many of us who are doing research with military families have never been in the military! We do this research because we want to find a way to use our own skills to give back to those who sacrifice so much – but our lack of experience can limit what we learn. When someone does research, they can only learn about what they choose to ask about. If we don’t know what topics to ask about, we won’t get the answers we need. 

Second, almost all of the family research has focused on male service members and female civilian spouses. The gender roles that often play out in relationships and marriages mean that the effects of a female service member deploying or experiencing post-deployment problems may be quite different from the effects on families of male service members. What’s more, half of our service members are not married. How do parents, siblings, and other relatives of service members manage when those service members experience problems? 

It was these issues that motivated us to design a different study – yes, it’s yet another research study, but this one is designed expressly to learn from you, the military family. It’s also designed to learn not only from female partners/spouses of male service members, but also from male partners/spouses of female service members and parents of single service members. The study uses open-ended interviews to learn from all types of relatives of service members who are struggling with problems like PTSD and depression. The goal is to learn what the challenges, struggles, resources, and successes are across these families, so we can start to learn more about what seems to work well and what seems to lead to problems. We want to use that information to design new interventions to help families, and also to communicate to the DoD what they need to be doing for their families (the study is funded by the Army, but they do not have access to any individual information – they only get a summary from us that includes no names or identifying information). 

To participate in the study, service members and their partner or relative have to complete some brief questions to ensure they are eligible. Partners/family members who are eligible are then contacted to set up a time for a phone interview. The interview takes about 1 hour, and it just consists of open-ended questions about your experiences, challenges, struggles, resources, and successes. Family members who complete the interview also get a $50 gift card in return for their participation. 

If you think you might be interested, please visit the following link to learn more about the study. If you choose to, you can then complete the eligibility questions. You can also email ([email protected]) or call (703-993-5662) our research team with any questions (the email and phone/voice mail are confidential).  

We hope that our work can, in some way, honor the sacrifices you and your loved ones make every day. We are incredibly grateful for your service!