#GotMySix: Stand up to fear and support your partner through deployments

November 28, 2018

By Holli M. Kelly

"Named must be your fear before banish it you can.” –Yoda

Fear can be a powerful force in people’s lives and interactions with others. After all, intimacy is where you’re the most vulnerable regarding being hurt, abandoned, and rejected. This can be particularly challenging when events such as deployment occur. Deployment in and of itself is a stressful process. To be separated from loved ones, enter the unknown, and prepare oneself for potential life-and-death situations can leave the strongest warriors feeling unsettled and anxious in foreign emotional territory.

In my work with military couples, I focus on their relationships. And I help them to be mindful, intentional, and creative in learning how to stand up together against fear, use their individual and shared strengths, and create a common vision of where and how they want to move forward in the most authentic state possible. This requires vulnerability and courage through introspection of what’s going on inside each partner as well as personal accountability and responsibility of how they’re engaging each other.

There are 3 areas military couples would benefit from paying attention to and nurturing, thus enhancing both self-care and connection with each other. These areas are your head, heart, and body. Fear presents itself in a variety of ways through each of them. In your head, there tends to be the inner critic who is judgmental or negative about who you are or the people you love. Common phrases are, “I suck,” or “He doesn’t really love me.” Fear can often lead to being irrational or creating drama or stories that might not be accurate, yet they produce the very real feelings of defensiveness, withdrawal, or combativeness. In your heart, fear presents itself through numbing your feelings or shutting down to your partner. In your body, you feel fear through tensing up, shallow breathing, and increased heart rate.

So how do you combat fear for the betterment of your relationship, particularly during a deployment?

The main key is awareness. To know how fear shows up in you and how it impacts your relationship is important. Everyone feels fear as it’s a common and lifesaving emotion. But when you’re entertaining fear instead of turning towards love and intimacy, it can be destructive and detrimental. You can engage in the following techniques to stand up to fear—both personally and in your relationships—and work through it in productive and compassionate ways.

Stand up to fear with your head

Be aware of what you’re telling yourself. Are the messages positive, or are they critical and judgmental? Are they balanced, which means you can see all sides of the situation instead of just the negative, including the deployment? How do you speak to yourself? How do you think about your partner and your relationship? Are you hard on yourself, and in what ways? Do you give yourself permission to embrace your humanness, which includes making mistakes, not being perfect, and understanding this doesn’t make you any less of a partner, parent, Warfighter, or friend?

Try journaling your answers to the above questions, so they don’t continue to clutter your mind. Then examine them objectively and ask yourself if they’re true. Are there other possible explanations for these ideas you might have?

For example, if you call home during a deployment and your partner doesn’t answer the phone, you might jump to thinking he or she’s having an affair. Yet this might be fear talking as fear is often irrational with little factual basis. Consider other possible explanations such as she might be running errands or working late. Write these down as options to open your mind and reduce stress. Then imagine having the conversation with your partner, which might look like this: “Honey, I was really worried when I called earlier today and you didn’t answer. It’s hard for me to be here—and you there—and not knowing if you’re okay. In the future, if we plan to talk at a certain time, please let me know if you need to reschedule or if something comes up—as that would be really helpful to me.” Allow your partner the chance to have this conversation with you and come up with ideas on how to improve your relationship going forward, trusting you have each other’s backs.

Stand up to fear with your heart

Since fear is often deemed an uncomfortable feeling, one way of managing it is to shut it down completely. You might do this by disconnecting from your emotions by either not acknowledging them or numbing them in some way such as with addictions. When you abandon your heart, you also tend to disconnect from the positive feelings as well. In addition, your emotions are still a part of you—whether you engage them or not. So, if you continuously try to ignore or numb them, your feelings might come out in other ways such as explosive anger, depression, or physical ailments such as stomach aches, fatigue, and migraines. Your emotions help guide and inform you, so embracing them adds value and insight to your life.

A way to reconnect to your feelings is to simply feel them. Journaling can be helpful here too. However, when compared to asking yourself specific questions, more freestyle writing is useful. To be curious about what you’re feeling—instead of judging or ignoring it—can help reduce its intensity. To name the feeling and speak it out loud also can release the emotion. It can be empowering to say, “I’m feeling really angry right now and not sure what’s causing it, but it might be related to…,” and then explore where the feeling might be coming from. Also, to recognize that feeling something doesn’t necessarily mean you have to react to it. For instance, you might be upset that you’re missing your son’s birthday party at home, but this doesn’t mean you have to tell your partner you’re feeling fine about it. To express feelings in a healthy way unchains you from the pain of holding them in. You might say, “I’m really happy that Tommy had a great birthday party, and it means a lot to me that you made sure the kids had a good time. I’m also sad I couldn’t be there, and my deployment during these times is harder than I thought it would be.” This is a brave act of openness and honesty, and it gives your partner the chance to provide comfort and support, which might be a welcoming experience for her or him. Finally, practice gratitude! Every day, write down 3–5 things you’re grateful for to help keep things positive. Share these joys with your partner too.

Stand up to fear with your body

You can learn valuable information when you pay attention to your body. If your jaw is tense, your back hurts, your fists are clenched, or you feel flushed, you can do a body scan to see what’s causing your symptoms. Close your eyes and imagine a light passing over you, starting at the top of your head and slowly moving its way down your body. Where in your body are you feeling “off”? This often happens when your head is off-line or your heart is off-center. Patterned breathing—that is, inhaling deeply, holding your breath, and then exhaling on counts of 5—can reduce tension in your body. You also can enhance relaxation by squeezing and releasing all the muscles in your body, starting with your toes and working your way up. Your partner can perform these practices too. It can be helpful to use deep breathing as a way to calm your body when you’re feeling angry. You also might tell your partner, “I’m feeling really overwhelmed right now. I need to take a break for a few minutes, so I can take some deep breaths and calm down.” Another idea is to gently tap your chest while saying something positive to yourself such as, “I’m okay. I got this.”

Exercise, yoga, and other meditative practices can help you and your partner re-center yourselves, and they can be shared experiences. There are many apps with ideas and reminders on how to relax and meditate too. I had one couple who meditated together via Skype for 5 minutes twice a week and another couple who worked out on the same days of the week, even though she was deployed. This was something they felt connected with. And it improved their overall health, despite the 8,000 miles that separated them.

It’s a lifelong process to overcome fear and choose healthier ways of being. However, when you create a more holistic sense of self by embracing these 3 areas—head, heart, and body—it likely leads to a more endurable deployment and a more meaningful connection with your partner during this experience.

During CHAMP’s 2018 #GotMySix campaign, show support for your partner on social media. And remember to tag @HPRConline and include #GotMySix in your posts.

Holli M. Kelly, PhD, LMFT, has practiced clinically for almost 20 years. She currently works with Veterans and their families around trauma and readjustment issues at the Marietta Vet Center. Dr. Kelly is also the Executive Director of the Georgia Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (GAMFT) and an adjunct faculty member in the Marriage and Family Therapy Department at Northcentral University.

* The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences or the United States Department of Defense.

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