Marriage as a casualty of war

Even the most well-adjusted couples struggle through the ups and downs of marriage. If you don't constantly pay attention, then petty arguments, bad habits and annoying quirks can eat away a relationship's foundation.

Now add to that an 18-month deployment in a war zone, and keeping a marriage together may seem impossible.

"As in any marriage, whether one is a soldier or not, there are always issues between a husband and wife. They become more acute when a soldier gets orders that he or she is getting deployed. Whatever problem exists is now exacerbated," said Father John Vigilanti, a colonel and chaplain for the U.S. Army Reserves who previously spent 22 years as a New York Army National Guard chaplain.

"The divorce rate in the U.S. Army between 2001 and 2004 among active-duty soldiers doubled," said Father Vigilanti, who also has worked for the metropolitan marriage tribunal of the New York archdiocese for more than 20 years. "That's a sign of the strain that is placed on marriage when someone is placed in combat areas."

According to Defense Manpower Data Center, the Pentagon's statistic-gathering division, Army officers had a 6 percent divorce rate in 2004, 3.5 percent for enlisted soldiers. For the Marines, the numbers were 1.8 percent for officers and 3.5 percent for enlisted. For the Air Force, 1.5 percent of officers and 3.8 percent of enlisted airmen divorced. For the Navy, the divorce rate was 2.5 percent for officers and 3.9 percent for enlisted sailors. Only the Army saw a spike in divorce rates between 2001 and 2004.

Support for spouses

In an effort to help couples strengthen their marriages and avoid divorce, the U.S. Army has stepped up services for its couples. It now offers a support group for spouses of deployed soldiers.

Deployment forces a soldier to consider serious issues he or she may typically try to avoid -- writing a will, settling legal and financial concerns. The strain of deployment is even greater on reservists and National Guard personnel who are not living on military bases with support services and a network of military families.

Forty percent of the troops serving in Iraq are National Guard and Army Reserve. "This does not bode well for these marriages," Father Vigilanti told OSV, adding that many spouses who are left at home are doing "double duty" in terms of running their households, paying bills, caring for children and holding down jobs. When soldiers return home, there can be resentment over someone walking back in and trying to pick up where he or she left off.

Daily frustrations

Although cell phones and e-mail have made it easier for deployed spouses to communicate with their loved ones back home, there can be a downside to that daily contact. Spouses often will share the frustrations they are experiencing keeping the household running. It may not be anything major, but it can be just enough to get the soldier worrying.

"You're saying something to a spouse in a combat zone and you're giving it a level of importance that it may not normally have, and what that ends up doing is the person in the combat zone has to start thinking about what's going on back home. That kind of a distraction can be detrimental," said Father Vigilanti. "When you're in a place like Iraq, where on any street corner a bomb can explode in a car, you have to be absolutely focused on your surroundings. ... Any kind of distraction can be deadly."

It's hard to prepare for the kind of separation that the military men and women will have to endure. "As much as we try to do in preparing couples to think about certain issues, I'm not sure it's sufficient," he said.

Spouse's assignment

Kristen Hanifin's husband, Chris, an Army Reservist, was deployed to Afghanistan in January. For her, these last few months have been a 24/7 assignment that includes caring for their two young children, maintaining their home in Delmar, N.Y., managing the household bills for the first time and dealing with the day-to-day details of life on her own. She talks to her husband every day and e-mails often.

"I can see how marriages break up. It's all about good communication and knowing what's going on on the other side," she told OSV. "This experience has brought us closer together."

Hanifin said that before her husband was deployed the two of them were caught up in their day-to-day lives and had forgotten their "coupleness."

"I think this has made both of us more aware of our relationship, and it's a good thing. We are still a couple. We are not just somebody's parents or somebody's boss," she said.

"We are lucky because Chris is not in Iraq. He's in a war zone, but he's not doing raids in the middle of the night...but the bottom line is, anything can happen. I try not to think about it too much. That's how I get through my day."

The hardest part of her husband's deployment, she said, is the fact that there is never a break from her daily responsibilities, and she does not have family living close by to help with baby-sitting or other needs.

She's gotten through so far, she explained, by having a sense of humor and relying on a couple of close friends who have been willing to "pinch hit" when she needed someone to stay with her children.

Now she and her husband are focused on late summer, when she and the children hope to join her husband at his next assignment, either in Germany or Italy. "We are looking forward to the next phase -- having fun and going on date nights," she said.

Forming solid bonds

Not every couple can fall back on the solid foundation that the Hanifins have built over the course of their marriage. Father Vigilanti said that because many young soldiers marry just before shipping out, they do not have time to form solid bonds with their spouses. As a result, their marriages often lack the "substantive quality" needed to get through traumatic times.

"They don't have a common foundation to work on when issues do develop," he said. "This is a very, very difficult area. I believe we are going to see as these soldiers come back - and we are seeing it - a higher rate of divorce."

Returning soldiers also have to be prepared for possible conflicts with their children, especially if a child was born in their absence.

Father Vigilanti recalled one couple he counseled while serving at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu. The woman gave birth to the couple's second child while her husband was in Afghanistan. When he returned because of an injury, he and his wife came to Father Vigilanti for counseling.

"One of the things he said that absolutely astounded me was that he didn't consider this child his own, that he had absolutely no feeling toward the child, no emotional connection to the child whatsoever," he explained. "That kind of adjustment demands a great deal of patience and understanding on the part of the returning soldier that you have to slowly ease your way back into a family environment again. For some that's not easy, and for some it's impossible."

Mary DeTurris Poust is a contributing editor for OSV.