The Unique Loneliness of the Military Family

…. and the isolation of returning vets
Loneliness & disconnection that can overtake entire families

© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
adding to the Loneliness Series

“We have gone forth from our shores repeatedly over the last hundred years and we’ve done this as recently as the last year in Afghanistan – [putting] wonderful young men and women at risk, many of whom have lost their lives — and we have asked for nothing except enough ground to bury them in, and otherwise we have returned home to seek our own lives in peace.”
~ Colin Powell – 65th U.S. Secretary of State

It was difficult to decide on a title for this particular article in the Loneliness and Isolation Series, since I hope to explore more than a few of the challenges of the particular feelings of alienation faced by servicemen and women and their families – only some of which will apply to other readers.

In answer to a comment on her comprehensive Military Wife and Mom blog, Lauren Tamm speaks to only one of the many challenges: “Anytime your spouse is gone away for work, it’s tough. Military or non-military, parenting alone presents many challenges.” 

While she certainly makes a valid point, many challenges are compounded when frequent moves are “business as usual,” deployment is actual or looming and, for a variety of reasons, returning spouses may well be substantially different than they were before.

How do you reach out for authentic connection when friends and family may not really understand your struggles?

How do you explain to others what you are struggling to understand yourself?

Related Post: What 9/11 means to a veteran’s family –
about being married to a veteran

When few can really understand

To restate something I wrote in Sliding into Loneliness, an earlier article on this topic, loneliness is more than the feeling of wanting company or wanting to do something with another person. It’s not merely a feeling of sadness at finding oneself alone.

Frequently considered the feeling of being alienated or disconnected, loneliness is also described as a subjective sense of feelings of profound separation from the rest of the people in your world.

Loneliness is a longing for KIND, not company.
~ Original Source Unknown

A search of the internet for any permutation of “military family,” “challenges” and “loneliness” will return many pages of titles addressing one or the other of the many issues faced by Service personnel and their families.  I won’t even try to pretend that a single article here can do more than introduce some of their unique challenges, along with providing a few links to articles that cover them in more depth.

Yet any Series about isolation and loneliness would be incomplete without including the particular flavor tasted by the brave men and women who step up to keep us safe at home – and the strain their service puts on their friendships, families, partners and children.

Don’t forget that you can always check out the sidebar
for a reminder of how links work on this site, they’re subtle ==>

Welcome Home?

There is probably very little lonelier than feeling disconnected from a spouse or family member whom you only recently welcomed home with jubilation and relief — unless, of course, it is the feeling of being disconnected from even yourself.

While many of the suggestions from the previous article will apply [When You’re Longing for Connection], the task of re-engagement for military personnel, returning veterans, and their families adds many additional twists to the problem.

Related Post: The Real Reason Being a Military Wife is So Hard

Taking a look at only a few of those “additional twists”

Young children may not really remember a returning Daddy or Mommy, and slightly older children may be fearful of the unfamiliar look of a parent returning with missing limbs or other visible war wounds. They may not warm up and be willing to re-engage for some time – no matter how well both parents understand their reticence or what either one does in an attempt to hasten the process.

As a result of having to be hypervigilant about the needs of a parent, the children of military families frequently suffer from what is referred to as “secondary PTSD,” robbed of what once might have been described as a “normal” childhood.

Related post: When veterans return, their children also deal with the invisible wounds of war

Family Disconnection

Disconnection from extended family members can show up in unusual ways.  While you might expect their understanding and support to be first-rate, some are surprisingly unhelpful.

Their comments can range anywhere from a cousin saying, “I warned you,” or similar “You made your bed . . .” sentiments from other family members with little to no connection with the realities of military life, to comments that might as well be, “You knew what you were getting into, suck it up and get on with it!” from older members of extended military families, because that was how it was handled in their day.

Any reactions or suggestions that don’t seem totally supportive can add to the sense of isolation of someone struggling to cope with a difficult situation that many people rarely ever consider having to overcome. Fortunately, many family members do understand and empathize, offering advice that makes things seem easier, if not exactly easy!

Related Post: The Best Advice I’ve Ever Received

Professional Help?

Locating effective professional help can be unexpectedly difficult. It is surprising but true that far too many therapists (and coaches) remain unaware of the unique problems that military families must cope with and overcome, qualitatively different from the struggles of civilians.

Not only are many of the “civilian” protocols and suggestions frustrating and not particularly helpful, they can actually increase their military client’s feelings of loneliness and isolation — adding to their fears that there is nobody who can really relate to their challenges.

Along with the author of the post linked immediately below, I am among those who strongly believe that the need has never been greater for PTSD/TBI specialists and military-savvy therapists and coaches, especially with the additional stress of repeated deployment.

Related post: Advice to therapists working with military families

Commissary kids*

Even when both parents are on board and able to be supportive, what about the family roller-coaster resulting from the loneliness of dependant children?

What happens to the fabric of the family when the kids resent being moved away from their extended family, their schools, and all their friends — especially when assignments lead to off-base living, where the other kids all seem to have a wide network of friendship, love and support?
* For non-military readers who may not know the term, a commissary is an on-base facility that sells food and basic household supplies at a military discount, available to anyone with a valid military ID.

Related Post: Revolving Doors: The Impact of Multiple School Transitions on Military Children

Executive Functioning Issues

On top of that, the incidence of ADD/EFD has been found to be high in military families, which brings all of the usual challenges of diagnosis and management in bubble-under-plastic environments where much needed structure, support and understanding is frequently interrupted or missing altogether.

Related Post: 5 Tips for MilFams Living With ADHD

Roles & Responsibilities

Spouses who have finally made friends with the difficulties of running a household and keeping the home fires burning – alone or as a single parent – may not be so eager to relinquish the reins, even when the returning spouse is eager to slide right back into the responsibilities of his or her former role.

In other cases, a resulting mental or physical inability to step back in may foster resentment (and guilt) on the part of one or both partners, as well as some or all of the older children.

Related Post: Issues of military families prior to deployment and after return

Forsaking all others?

Repeated and protracted separations bring the challenges of resisting the temptations of (and greater opportunities for) falling into the arms of somebody who happens to be around when a partner is not – coupled with the unusually high degree of trust and communication required for couples to be able to continue to stick it out together.

Times when trust and communication seem to have broken down can be a very isolating period. And what about the loneliness and isolation of partners who separate or divorce as a direct result of the unique struggles of military life?

Related Posts: Jealousy, Faithfulness & Distance
Infidelity in the Military

The loneliness of the unthinkable

And then there is always the awareness of the shadow of possibly being forced to accept and attempt to recover from the worst loneliness of all: that of those who remain to mourn the absence of partners and family members who did not return at all – especially when they have been reported as POWs or MIAs.

Few of us can imagine the shock of that official knock at the door, informing those waiting that a loved one will never really come home again – and there are too many military families who don’t have to imagine it.

Related Posts: When daddy doesn’t come marching home
Honoring Memorial Day

And THEN there are the struggles of the ones who do return

Much has been written about the percentage of the veteran population living on the street, so I’m not going to explore it in this particular article.  I put a human face on the problem in my previous post, a brief article entitled, “Rarely Proud to be an American Anymore – How did our country become so selfish?”

The initial post in the Loneliness Series, The Importance of Community to Health, explored some of the research on the dangers to emotional and physical health of a lack of connection and community.

But when one is struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, there is still not a great deal of targeted information to be found that is truly helpful.  Nor are there a great many programs designed to help when the challenges of PTSD/TBI force one into the box of isolation.

Frequently resulting [untreated] depression makes it unlikely that one will particularly care about issues of health when he or she is struggling with issues of life itself, considering death as a realistic solution to end chronic physical and/or emotional pain.

A statistic that you will see frequently is that suicide kills 22 soldiers returning from recent wars A DAY  – even though there are also reports that assert that those statistics are widely misunderstood and misreported as a result.

RELATED: While the suicide rate among veterans from operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom is still too high, it’s not 22 a day.

Whatever the number, and whatever veteran population you sample to gather the metrics, it is tragic – and far too high – indicating a problem that has been underestimated and inadequately unaddressed.

To reframe my conclusion to Part I of the previous 3-part article:

What makes a difference to our health (and what we are missing, whether we are aware of it consciously or not) is the type of in-person, back and forth, shared-communication peer connection that is totally unavailable to soldiers who would rather bury their memories of the horrors of war than risk reliving them as they share them.

And who could blame them?

The fact remains, however, that research has indicated that until we have at least a few regularly recurring meaningful interactions of significance, sharing our struggles with current life and remembered experiences, we remain essentially unhealed – and continue to be lonely in the ways that matter for glowing health and immune system resilience.

One extremely helpful resource: The Coming Home Project

Counteracting a destructive spiral with social support

The common advice to counteract the depression of social withdrawal is to gradually reach out to friends and family.

Helping professionals (and others who are NOT suffering from PTSD/TBI and don’t really understand the problem) frequently advise something that they think is simple, like “make a list of the people in your life you want to reconnect with and start by scheduling an activity with them.”

As I said before: It’s simply not that simple for anyone already on the isolation water-slide, about to get drenched.

The Challenges of Reaching Out

Learning to cope with changes in life patterns and personal realities is essential, if we ever hope to overcome the extreme loneliness of isolation. However, as my former article suggests, it takes more than a personal effort of reaching out.

We need to reach out to fully-informed people and communities who reach back – with patience and acceptance – and it will always disturb me that so few are willing or able to dedicate the time and effort to be able to do so.

What steps can military families take to lead them out of emotional black and white thinking to develop effective coping behaviors that will allow them to satisfactorily engage with others, after their own lives have changed significantly and many of their former community members seem to have disappeared?

What can they DO to accept the necessity of modulating expressions of despair, and developing the ability to restrain explosions of anger and frustration that only the most patient of friends and family will endure for very long before backing off out of frustrations of their own?

But most important — How will they be able to reach the point of positive acceptance, where despair and anger glimmer faintly in the distance and don’t have to be restrained?

In the previous loneliness article, there are some suggestions that might help somewhat, but I’m sorry I can’t say that I have answers for the particular questions associated with military service and PTSD.

What I DO have is a rudimentary understanding of and empathy for the unique challenges of PTSD and TBI, along with a willingness to help bring the issues out of the shadows and into the light.

We desperately need to WAKE UP societyespecially our politicians, who seem to be able to allocate funding for foreign wars and yet not nearly enough money to honor and support the brave men and woman who dedicate their lives to fighting them – along with their families, who also serve.

Thank you to ALL of you for your service.

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With Support and Help for Veterans

With Understanding and Support for Families

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About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

24 Responses to The Unique Loneliness of the Military Family

  1. Pingback: PTSD Awareness Post 2017 – Part II | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  2. Pingback: A Fathers Day Reblog | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  3. Pingback: April 2017: Mental Health Awareness | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  4. swamiyesudas says:

    Very Sensitive of You, and Very Well written, my Dear Madelyn. Kudos and Love. 🙂


  5. Pingback: Complex PTSD Awareness | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  6. Pingback: #GoSilent on Memorial Day 2016 | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  7. PorterGirl says:

    God bless those brave men and women, and their families. xx

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Very insightful and informative. As a military spouse, I readily recognized some of the points in the post.
    Thanks Maddie


    • Uh-Oh! I haven’t been good friends with cute nicknames since I was 3 years old.

      But, since we’re blog buddies (and you liked my article – and have TERRIFIC Italian recipes as a sideline on your blog that I’ll hope you’ll keep coming) I’ll pretend I didn’t see it. 🙂

      Glad to see your name on a comment. I’ll be over to see what you’ve written in a day or two (sorry, I’ve been crazier than usual).

      I don’t think I knew that your spouse was/is in the military. I come from a l-o-n-g line of Army and (later) Air Force officers myself. I have pictures on my walls of relatives in uniform all the way back to the Civil War.

      As a military brat, I have always felt that, no matter how anyone feels about war, or ANY war in particular, there is something seriously wrong if they can’t support the troops who fight them. My Memorial Day post, “Go Silent” (later this week) is a a sort-of extension to this thought.



  9. Pingback: Sliding into Loneliness | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  10. Pingback: When You’re Longing for Connection | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  11. Pingback: Rarely Proud to be an American Anymore | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

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