There is an old saying that if the military wanted you to have a wife, they would have issued you one.

Fortunately today, the U.S. Armed Forces are beginning to recognize the direct correlation between a soldier’s home life and job performance. They are learning that the emotional well-being of the family — especially the spouse — affects the service member both on and off duty. Knowing that, every branch of the U.S. military now provides some type of family support services. Those services may not be enough, however, when a loved one is called to war. That’s when the strength of the military family unit is brutally tested.

American Counseling Association member Eileen Rakowitz has developed an existential group therapy model specifically for military wives — the women who say goodbye to their uniformed husbands and are left to wonder and worry if they will ever be together again. Rakowitz, a senior at Saint Louis University, hopes that counselors who work with the military population will try her model and find success in alleviating some of the anxiety and fears of these “waiting wives.”

Her interest in counseling military wives grew out of a project for a group therapy class. Rakowitz began researching the subject in early 2005 but, to her surprise, found mostly outdated materials and a large gap in the literature. What little she did find was reflective of the times in which it was written, focusing only on “waiting wives.” There was no mention of the possibility of “waiting husbands.”

“As a student, you rarely find big gaps in research, but this was a big gap,” Rakowitz says. “When I looked at the current literature, there was very little on this — nothing very specific, nothing that had a theory tied in or structure. It was mostly about support groups. Since there is little research on the effects of the war in Iraq on spouses and families at home, we can look to the impact previous wars have had on military spouses in order to build a bridge from the past to our current situation. I wanted to raise awareness that this is something we should really look at, especially in our current situation. We are at war. There are a lot of people over (seas), and there are people here who are going through this anxiety.” In an effort to draw the attention of more counselors to this topic, Rakowitz presented a poster session on her proposed therapy model at the ACA Convention in Montréal earlier this year.

Rakowitz notes a stereotype persists that these wives need to be strong for their husbands who are at war. In other words, she’s supposed to be the rock for him. But in reality, Rakowitz says, these wives are facing tremendous anxiety, and with that anxiety comes fear, sadness and loneliness. “These things need to be talked about while the husband is deployed so the wives can be strong for them,” she says.

Existential therapy focuses on the development of a client’s self-awareness by delving into issues of aloneness, meaninglessness and mortality, all of which military wives struggle with when their husbands deploy to a combat zone. Rakowitz’s proposed model examines the anxiety these women are experiencing through existential themes in an attempt to help them find support, hope and meaning in their lives. When their husbands deploy, military wives are left with bigger boots to fill because they are expected to take on new roles and responsibilities. At the same time, they often have tremendous influence on their husbands’ performance overseas. Rakowitz notes that coping with the absence of a loved one can stir up a multitude of questions, emotional and somatic responses, and problems at home.

“The themes of existential therapy are questioning responsibility, life and death — those themes that can be very abstract but in this population seem so concrete because those are exactly the things that they are dealing with,” she says. “Having a group that is more cognitive or solution-focused won’t work because there is no solution. This approach may help them to embrace those themes that they are going through.”

Common issues and stages

  • When their husbands deploy, wives face several common issues. They may:
  • Experience anxiety, sadness, fear, loneliness and resentment
  • Struggle with new roles and responsibilities
  • Find a lack of therapeutic resources available to them
  • Fail to properly support themselves, their families or their spouses fighting abroad

Rakowitz notes that many military wives have difficulty remaining optimistic and maintaining family integrity. Their self-esteem falters and they feel powerless. These wives often go through three stages:

  • Protesting (crying, searching for meaning and answers, resisting)
  • Feeling despair (loss of hope, apathy, withdrawal)
  • Detaching (superficial sociability)

“Although those are stages, it’s more circular,” Rakowitz says. “It’s more like a pattern within a cycle.”

To be resilient and supportive of her spouse overseas, a wife must first receive the necessary emotional, spiritual, physical and social support. “The stages are typical responses to anxiety,” Rakowitz says. “That’s why I think a group setting makes more sense than individual therapy because they will find universality and normalcy with other women going through the same emotions.” The common bond that develops between the group participants offers a sense of altruism, emotional catharsis and hope, she says. Rakowitz acknowledges that many of the ideas in her model are derived from group therapy legends Irvin Yalom and former ACA President Samuel Gladding.

Existential therapy is said to be an optimistic approach in that it embraces human potential, while remaining a realistic approach through recognition of human limitation. While the therapy examines people’s awareness of themselves and their human existence, it also recognizes that people do not exist in isolation from one another. It considers the need to be connected as natural but says people must ultimately come to realize that they cannot depend on others for validation and happiness. Rakowitz believes this presents an applicable theory for helping this population of women to learn about themselves through shared life experiences while also finding strength in socialization.

Group structure and logistics

According to the guidelines provided by Rakowitz, groups should be open-ended, meet weekly and contain no more than eight participants to allow for individual attention and interaction. Wives would be allowed to both voluntarily join and leave the group, with no restrictions related to rank or military grade. Preferably, the group would meet in a safe, private location, possibly including on the base or installation. Rakowitz says group membership should be limited to those who currently have deployed spouses.

She recommends recruiting group members by publicizing the group and talking with colleagues of established military organizations. Counselors can request that written announcements be posted in health service offices, childcare or nursery facilities, libraries and/or recreation centers on base. The announcement should have a positive tone, she says, and describe the group as a form of support for wives who are facing anxiety due to the deployment of their spouses. Information can also be made available through organizations that provide referrals to support groups for military personnel, including the United Services Organization, Army Community Services, Navy and Marine Corps Family Services and Air Force Family Support Services. Since this is an existential group, Rakowitz says some of the themes should be mentioned to help potential group members understand the theoretical framework the therapist will be using. Counselors should have additional resources available if a member needs supplementary support.

The goals of the group are to provide a comfortable setting for emotional release and to instill hope, love and other therapeutic factors that may provide military wives with the necessary support to become healthier, happier individuals. Rakowitz reasons that if the wives are able to find meaning in their experiences, they can be a healthier support for their husbands stationed overseas and for their families at home.

“Living authentically is a long-term goal that is overarching all the specific goals,” she says. “It will help them have more meaning in their day-to-day life even after their spouse returns.” Living an authentic life is about learning how to find meaning in every event — hardships as well as good times, she explains. “It’s embracing those events, good and bad, and living life to the fullest,” she says.

“Something important to consider in this particular group is to talk about what will happen when the husband returns or if the husband is killed at war,” Rakowitz says. “If a husband returns from deployment, the wife can experience distress due to re-establishing roles in the household, changing ways of communication and dealing with possible physical abuse if the husband is struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Since there are also difficulties associated with the husband’s return, the therapist should have resources available for these wives or couples.”

Waiting husbands?

Because of the limited information available, Rakowitz chose to frame her model around women, but she is optimistic that “waiting husbands” can also benefit from an existential group therapy model. “Most of the information that I did find was on military wives, but it’s obvious that we need to look at the husbands, too,” she says. “I’m sure there is a difference between the sexes, so it’s something that we as a profession need to examine.”

There is much encouragement for women to get help and a variety of services offered on base so that they can meet other “waiting wives,” Rakowitz says. But she adds that civilian husbands married to women in the military don’t usually seek help. They are usually struggling in silence at home.

“I’m hoping that this model will encourage others to look into this,” Rakowitz says. “We need to figure out what works for both genders because there aren’t a lot of professional articles out there to help counselors with this situation. We are currently in the midst of a war that has no definite end or outcome, so it is crucial that we begin to provide the proper therapy for spouses who are struggling to emotionally and financially support themselves, their loved ones overseas and their families.”