David Fenell has been on both sides of the fence. As a retired colonel and behavioral sciences officer with the U.S. Army and Army Reserve, he has counseled many soldiers returning from deployments on how to fit back in with their families at home. He would advise them to take it slow and to prepare themselves to find that their spouses had changed in some way. “Recognize and value the things he or she has done to keep the home fires burning while you’ve been gone,” he would tell soldiers.

Fenell, who retired in 2009 after 26 years of service, including tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, found it necessary to heed that advice himself when, following a deployment of his own, the transition back home ended up feeling a little less than seamless. While Fenell was deployed, his wife had enrolled in graduate school for counseling. He returned to find that she had turned their house into a quasi-library, with each room serving as a study zone for a particular area of counseling. “I came back home, and the house was completely changed,” says Fenell, interim dean and professor of counselor education in the College of Education at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Fenell, a member of the American Counseling Association, made a conscious decision to take it slow, respecting what his wife had accomplished while he was gone. But roughly three weeks after his return, nothing had changed, so he broached the subject with his wife. “I don’t feel like there’s really anyplace for me in the house right now,” he told her. “Every room is dedicated to a counseling subject, and it doesn’t feel like home anymore.” His wife quickly moved things around and, before long, Fenell felt like he had a place in the home again.

Fenell’s bumpy transition isn’t unique among those serving in the military, but he was lucky enough to have a counseling background that enabled him to remedy the situation. Those aren’t skills that the average returning soldier possesses. With increased deployments during the past decade, more soldiers are in need of counseling support, Fenell says, and because there aren’t enough military providers to handle the need, referrals to civilian counselors are on the rise.

Lynn Hall, dean of the College of Social Sciences at the University of Phoenix, echoes Fenell, saying that because of today’s extended conflicts, military members are often experiencing multiple deployments. The stress on the family and the couple is greatly enhanced each time a service member is deployed, says Hall, an ACA member who worked for about 10 years as a school counselor in Department of Defense schools in Germany.

The makeup of the military has changed through the years, Hall notes, with more of its members married now than in the past, meaning multiple lives are affected by frequent military moves and deployments. After the change to an all-volunteer military in the 1970s, the military began promising to support military families, Hall says, making it easier for service members to choose the military as a career while still maintaining a family.

In general, according to Hall, military couples marry and have children earlier than civilian couples. Although service members receive the housing, salary and benefits to support a family, the military life often necessitates that these young families move away from extended family, leaving them with less familial support, Hall says. With more military members deploying and leaving their families behind, the need for counseling, including couples and family counseling, is on the rise, says Hall, who wrote Counseling Military Families: What Mental Health Professionals Need to Know, published by Routledge in 2008.

Like Fenell, Hall says more civilian counselors are needed to help military families. The military is stretched too thin to meet the current demand, she says, in part because the military is deploying more mental health workers overseas to be with the troops. In addition, more members of the National Guard and Reserves are deploying. When those individuals return to their civilian lives, they will be more likely to need civilian counselors, Hall says, especially if they don’t have the ongoing support of military resources.

Hall recommends that counselors who want to get connected with military clients contact the family support centers or military mental health providers on local military installations and ask to be added to their referral lists. Counselors can also check with local National Guard or Reserve offices to inquire whether they have referral systems in place. Another option Hall mentions is Give an Hour (giveanhour.org), a program for which counselors can sign up to volunteer their time to work with military families. The program “would be a great way to get in the door,” Hall says.

Fenell also offers ideas for counselors who want to work with military personnel and their families, including reaching out to military chaplains and requesting consideration as a referral source, placing ads in military installation newspapers and informing local Veterans Affairs hospitals and service facilities about their qualifications as counselors.

The significance of couples counseling with military couples shouldn’t be lost on counselors, Fenell says. “It is always a plus for the warrior when he or she is in a stable, loving marriage. It enhances performance in combat or any other military situation. On the other hand, a highly stressful marriage can take the warrior’s focus away from the mission and can lead to problems for the military unit in life-threatening combat situations.”

Culture shock

“There’s a much greater demand for civilian providers, and it’s especially important that they have familiarity with military culture and the things that military couples go through,” Fenell says. Understanding the culture of your client is integral to being an effective multicultural counselor, and the military is most definitely a distinct culture, he emphasizes. Counselors need to connect with clients in ways that validate their culture, their ethnicity and their perspective. In counseling service members and their families, that means letting the clients inform you about their lifestyle, Fenell says.

There seems to be a mentality among service members that civilians don’t understand the military, Hall says. “It could be something as simple as [the counselor] calling an officer by his first name,” she says. “And then the officer says, ‘The counselor doesn’t get it. I don’t want to be here.'” Not understanding the differences between being an officer and being enlisted, not being familiar with military acronyms or not being aware that service members don’t have the power to decide when they’re going to move are common examples of mistakes counselors can make that will turn military clients off from the start, Hall says.

It’s also crucial for counselors to understand and respect the authoritarian structure of the military, Hall says. “As counselors, we’re trained in an egalitarian mentality that everybody in a family should have their rights and everyone should be open to listening and being respectful,” she says. “In a military authoritarian structure, civilian counselors have to put their own values on the shelf and realize that the military has to be the way it is in order to survive, and the couples need to realize that is the culture they live in. They don’t get to make decisions about when they’re going to move or where they’ll live. Their life is regimented.” Within the individual household, a couple can respect each other and care about feelings, Hall says, but it’s important for counselors to understand that the couple’s larger community might not share those same values.

If the nonmilitary spouse is feeling stress from the regimented structure, the counselor can help that spouse express how difficult it is to his or her partner, help the couple respect each other’s feelings and help the struggling spouse to meet his or her own needs within the existing military structure, Hall says.

Fenell concurs that counselors must understand that service members have many of their decisions made for them. Certain decisions are ultimately beyond their control. “There’s a strict protocol in terms of following orders and doing your duty,” he says, “and counselors are more inclined to want to help people find their own solutions and seek the best course of action for themselves. Sometimes, those two dimensions can come into conflict.” Although military values and strict obedience to orders might clash with the values counselors normally support and encourage in their clients, Fenell says it’s necessary for counselors to understand the context of a military couple’s problems in terms of the values they work under.

A certain set of “givens” exists in the military culture, Fenell says, including anything having to do with following direct orders, such as when and where to deploy. “You don’t really have a choice to say, ‘I don’t want to go this time and I think I’ll leave the military now,'” Fenell says. “The goal for the counselor is to help the military member make the best of those givens, finding areas that are not amenable to change and those that are.”

Ever-changing family dynamics

As Fenell experienced firsthand, one of the biggest hurdles for military couples is the change that occurs when a spouse deploys. “I always tell my couples change is ubiquitous,” Fenell says. When spouses deploy, they tend to think their family will remain exactly as it was before they left, he says. “When [the service member] returns, he or she has freeze-framed what it was like prior to the separation, expecting to step into a family dynamic that is unchanged. But it has changed.” If the couple has children, they have grown. The spouse who remained behind has shouldered additional responsibilities and has likely grown into a more autonomous and independent person as well, Fenell says.

He recommends that counselors encourage the couple to identify the changes that have taken place. It’s often the case that both spouses have changed, Fenell points outs, even though each partner is more likely to notice only the changes in the other person. It helps to have the couple discuss how things played out during the deployment, how responsibilities shifted and how they can renegotiate the division of labor, he says. One area in which problems can arise is when one spouse has grown more autonomous and the other feels threatened by that development. When this happens, Fenell says the counselor should help the threatened spouse recognize that the relationship is evolving, becoming more healthy and less dependent. Having a service member return and automatically expect the spouse to give up all the duties he or she was shouldering, essentially relegating the person to a subservient role in the relationship, is not ideal, Fenell says. “Giving up autonomy is not a recipe for a good marriage.”

The transitioning of one spouse out of and then back into the household can be extremely stressful, Hall says. When one spouse leaves, the remaining spouse and their children learn to function as a single-parent household. But when the soldier returns, all roles and responsibilities must be shifted again. In some cases, the returning spouse expects to take over right away. “Family members think, ‘Hey, wait a minute. I did this job for nine months. Why are you now telling me what to do?'” Hall says. In other cases, service members are unable to help pick up the slack at home because they are still overwhelmed by what they experienced during their deployment. This can also heighten tension in the home.

Part of the solution is for counselors to help each person understand the other person’s perspective, Hall says. The spouse who remained behind might think he or she has done a great job running certain aspects of the household and could be reluctant to surrender those duties now that the service member is home. On the other hand, Hall says, the service member needs to feel that he or she can contribute to the household again. “Get both people to hear the other person’s side,” she says, “and then start making some reasonable accommodations to get the service member back involved in the household without the spouse feeling like she’s giving up everything.”

There are also instances in which the spouse who stayed behind makes it known that she or he can’t take another deployment, Fenell says. If the service member doesn’t want to consider giving up a military career, the circumstances can turn into a major roadblock for the couple. “One of the things you try to discover in working with the couple is whether it’s more than ‘I just can’t do it anymore,'” Fenell says. For example, he says, the spouse might feel overwhelmed by the prospect of handling the kids again solo while the military member is deployed. In that case, he says, helping the spouse determine ways to secure more support in caring for the children during the next deployment might offer a possible solution. “But if it’s pure ‘I can’t do it again, and I won’t,’ and the warrior won’t leave the military, then you can help them disengage in ways that are least damaging to themselves and to the kids. Make [the split] as amicable as possible.”

In many cases, Fenell points out, when the nondeployed spouse is doing well during the deployment, the kids are also managing well. But when the spouse is feeling stressed out and overwhelmed, the kids pick up on that and might start struggling, too. The family’s anxiety can transfer to the deployed service member as well, Fenell says, creating extra difficulty in the combat situation. He believes the best-case scenario is to encourage the nondeployed spouse and children to seek counseling during the service member’s deployment. This offers them a sense of stability, an outlet where their concerns can be heard and a place to receive concrete suggestions for overcoming life’s challenges as well as assistance in finding additional support systems.

On a different front, combat stress is something that can and often does return home with soldiers, Fenell says. But in his opinion, post-traumatic stress disorder is being overdiagnosed among returning military members. “Many returning veterans do have some symptoms. However, most are having normal reactions to very abnormal circumstances,” he says.

If everyone, from society at large down to the service members’ military units and families, treats them as if they are “damaged goods,” then the service members are going to have a more difficult time recovering, Fenell says. But if the culture, the military and the service members’ families come to perceive these symptoms as a normal reaction to the stressors of combat, “they’re creating a context for healing rather than a culture that pathologizes,” he explains. Counselors with expertise in trauma therapy might be especially well equipped to help military couples navigate this healing process, he says.

Beyond deployments, Hall says the repeated transitions military families must face in getting reassigned and moving every few years can place a strain on them and make them feel as though they don’t fit in with the way the rest of the world works. When people don’t possess a feeling of belonging, Hall says, they often end up feeling ” less than.” Her recommendation to counselors is to assist these families in acknowledging some of the positive aspects of being involved in the military as well as ways the experience has made them stronger.

At the same time, Hall says, it’s equally important to address the grief that accompanies a life of constant transition, which includes saying goodbye to friends, family members and even pets. “The military mentality is that you move on and you don’t worry about it,” Hall says. “You’re not allowed to grieve.” But working with military families means allowing them — giving them — that space to acknowledge what they are leaving behind and what they will miss. That is an important piece in helping these families make healthy transitions, Hall says.

The right approach

When working with military couples, Fenell says basic counseling techniques such as establishing a healthy relationship based on trust and reflecting each person’s perspective can go a long way. “A skillful therapist can connect with both partners in each person’s own way without feeling more of an inclination [that] one person is right and one is wrong,” he says. “Once they see you’re going to be objective, they’ll trust you more.”

Family therapy can be helpful in letting the counselor experience firsthand how the family interacts and attempts to solve its own issues, Fenell says. This approach also allows the counselor an opportunity to normalize the reconnecting process in situations in which a spouse is returning from a deployment and trying to bond with the children.

In terms of specific counseling techniques, both Hall and Fenell agree that going straight for the couple’s feelings isn’t the best approach. “Military men are trained right from the beginning that they’re not supposed to acknowledge their feelings,” Hall says. “If we go there first, we’re basically going to lose them.”

“We want to get in touch with thinking in the realms of ‘What do you believe about this? What do you believe that relationships should look like? Where did you learn that? What do you think you could change that might make a difference?’ If we’re lucky,” Hall continues, “we’ll be with them long enough that we’ll get to the emotional piece. But first, focus on what the military focuses on: ‘What are the goals? What do I have to change about my thinking or attitude? And how do I change my behavior in order to reach my goals?'”

A cognitive behavioral approach works well with military clients, Hall says, as does solution-focused therapy and Adlerian techniques. With this particular population, Hall is a proponent of reducing the chaos and finding ways to get problems resolved in a timely manner. “We need to get in and help them make a change quickly. If we do, then they’ll probably come back,” she says. Hall adds that because of the ongoing cycle of relocations and deployments, the “next session” is never a guarantee with military clients. For that reason, counselors should focus on being goal oriented in each session, she says.

Fenell agrees that a cognitive behavioral approach is a good starting point with military families. As the counseling relationship grows and the couple learns to trust the counselor more, he says the counselor might move into more affective approaches. When appropriate, Fenell recommends emotionally focused couples therapy because it is grounded in a systemic viewpoint, recognizes healthy dependence as a strength and helps couples affectively tap into feelings present in the relationship. Structural family therapy is another technique to which a military mind-set might more readily relate, Fenell says.

Guiding a struggling military couple to retrace why they selected each other as mates can also prove fruitful, Fenell says. The counselor can help the couple review what attracted them to each other, what values they had in common and why they bonded, with the goal of enabling them to build on that foundation moving forward.

Hall says that when she worked in the overseas schools, military families often came to her looking for concrete answers and solutions to their problems. Befitting the authoritarian structure of the military, these families pledged that if she simply would tell them what to do, they would do it. “If we as counselors buy into that and it doesn’t work, then we’re the bad guys,” she warns. Instead, Hall recommends turning the situation around and helping these clients explore for themselves what solutions might work within the military structure in which they operate as well as within their own families. “We can give them some things to consider or help them look for the consequences of each one of their actions,” she says, “but we’re probably not doing anyone a favor by saying, ‘Here’s the answer.'”

Beyond the counseling sessions, Hall advises that counselors stay on top of other resources in the community and promote their availability to military clients. Many military installations have family support centers, support mechanisms for families going through a deployment and even career counselors, but military members aren’t always aware of these tools, she says.

Civilian counselors should understand ahead of time that military couples are unlikely to look like or interact like civilian couples, Hall says, regardless of the specific problem that has brought them to counseling. “We’re not trying to take them to a place where they can sit down and make decisions about whether they’re going to move to a new community or not,” she says. “Hopefully we can get them to make decisions as to how they raise their kids or spend their money, but you always have to help them understand that it’s within the military structure.”

Lynne Shallcross is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lshallcross@counseling.org.

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