Earlier this month, at an annual conference sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, in Washington, D.C., I had the privilege of sharing lessons learned from the frontlines of the battle to help America’s returning warriors succeed in the mission to preserve and protect their marriages and families after combat deployment.
The men and women who have served America as soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, guard, and reserve in Afghanistan and Iraq face unique challenges reintegrating into their marriages, families and communities. Along with levels of posttraumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury that are uniquely high among soldiers returning from deployment to these violent combat zones, few arrive home without memories that may have forever altered their lives. In many cases, the training drilled into them to prepare for deployment is the opposite of what’s needed to reconnect with loved ones who anxiously awaited their safe return.
Very few could survive – physically, emotionally or spiritually — the trauma of combat experience without being impacted by the loss of friends, taking the lives of others, and witnessing the level of human and physical destruction that has been commonplace in both theatres of operation.
While spouses and children struggled and stressed at home during separations that frequently lasted a year or more, these brave men and women faced horrors that even the most effective training would not allow them to leave behind as they returned to American soil and the comfort of family.
Safely reunited in familiar settings, many turn to their military discipline, struggling to compartmentalize painful traumatic experiences to shield beloved spouses, lovers, and children from sounds, images and events from which there is no safe harbor.
The cost of the invisible emotional armor into which many silently and desperately surrender too often becomes the foundation of despair, loneliness and isolation – depriving our servicemen and women – and those who count on them for love, intimacy and connection – of the answers to thousands of prayers whispered during the long period of pained separation.
Best Practice in Marriage Enrichment
PAIRS educational approach has shown much promise both for those who have emerged as veterans and those seeking respite between deployments to distant lands. In 2009, our collaboration with the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center was recognized by the Veterans Administration as the nation’s Best Practice in Marriage Enrichment.
In working with men and women still on active duty, the challenge is to inspire them to recognize that the skills that protect them on the battlefield are almost entirely different from what’s needed in their missions as husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers.
Confiding is the lifeblood of intimacy. Yet what instructions prepare an adult – young or old – to confide experiences so often beyond the pale of human description?
Hope and Healing for Invisible Wounds of War
As those with visible wounds seek rehabilitation, PAIRS training for couples impacted by the invisible wounds of combat deployment, generally offered over an intense weekend in a retreat setting, offers skills and experiences to help them profoundly reconnect with each other.
From embracing the combination of emotional openness and physical closeness as a roadmap for connection, to gentle steps towards each other that enhance both the ability to confide and listen with empathy, to the opportunity within their closest relationship to safely release the energy of anger, fear and sadness as the gateway to relief, comfort, and love, to discovering effective processes for navigating conflict and differences, to the recognition of our responsibility not to hand the bill for the pain caused by others to those who are more than innocent, and finally to embracing the gift of life and love each day, knowing that for all of us, our days, months and years are a temporary treasure – this approach has brought immense healing, peace, joy, and new opportunities to those who offered their lives to protect our own.
As an educational approach, PAIRS is built upon a paradigm very different than traditional counseling, therapy, or psychology. The goal is to empower each couple with skills to restore and sustain intimacy through a process in which they embrace the opportunity to become each other’s healers.
A Roadmap and Passage Home
As I’ve faced those who serve and have served our nation, each time I’ve said that it cannot be their spouses, children, and families that pay the ultimate price for their service to our own.
Our experience shows that even for those who have experienced profound trauma, the skills in PAIRS can effectively deliver a roadmap and passage home.