Coping Behaviors of Spouses of Deployed Military Personnel -- What Works?

Laurie Scudder, DNP, NP


December 11, 2012

Coping Behaviors Used by Army Wives During Deployment Separation and Their Perceived Effectiveness

Blank C, Adams LA, Kittelson B, Connors RA, Padden DL
J Am Acad Nurse Pract. 2012;24:660-668

Deployment and Military Spouses

Long-term deployments by military personnel pose unique challenges for spouses and families. The physical and psychological complaints that often affect spouses can have spillover negative implications for their children. Few studies have examined the coping mechanisms used by military spouses during deployment, and none have studied the effectiveness of these strategies as perceived by the spouses themselves. The purpose of this study was to identify strategies used by wives of active-duty Army personnel, the spouses' perceptions of the effectiveness of these strategies, and the correlation between coping strategy use and effectiveness.

Study Summary

This descriptive correlational study analyzed data previously collected as part of a study of coping behaviors used by military spouses during deployments lasting longer than 6 months. Spouses completed a coping scale that assessed both use and effectiveness of a range of strategies.

A convenience sample of 102 Army wives (age 19-45 years, married an average of 7 months) was recruited from a single large military base on the East Coast. The current-duty station was not the participants' home of record, and all wives anticipated a spousal deployment of at least 6 months. One third were experiencing their first long-term separation, and approximately 25% had no children. The strategies identified by Army wives were categorized into subtypes:

  • Optimistic coping behaviors (eg, thinking positively) were the most often reported strategies but were only the third most effective. One behavior in this subgroup (thinking about the good things in life) had the highest correlation between use and effectiveness.

  • Support coping strategies (prayer, talking with others in a similar situation, and seeking professional help) were the second most used strategies, although seeking professional help was infrequently used.

  • Palliative behaviors included the most used strategy -- trying to keep busy -- but also included infrequently used strategies, such as taking medication or using alcohol. Exercise, although not frequently used, was perceived as highly effective.

  • Confrontive behaviors had the highest correlation between use and effectiveness. Constructive problem-solving was reported as the second most effective strategy.

  • Emotive strategies (taking stress out on someone else) were rated as the least effective coping behaviors.

  • Fatalistic strategies were among the least used strategies and were also found to be inversely correlated with effectiveness.

  • Evasivebehaviors were infrequently used. These behaviors are independent predictors of poor mental health.[1]


This well-analyzed and interesting study offers important information for nurses and primary care nurse practitioners who practice either in military settings or the community. Civilian healthcare providers might not be aware of the unique stressors faced by military families. It is critical that all nurses who come in contact with these families understand the high rates of stress and depression experienced by spouses during deployment and the potential for negative effects on children.

Networking (sharing the experience of deployment with other spouses) is a helpful coping strategy that may not be available to all families. It is important to help families who reside off-post to find other outlets, such as professional counseling. The military provides free and comprehensive mental health services to family members of deployed servicemen and -women through Military OneSource, yet these were some of the least used coping strategies according to this study. Blank and colleagues speculate that spouses may fear that seeking mental health services will reflect negatively on their spouse's military career. Civilian healthcare providers who suggest counseling services should be aware of this potential barrier. The findings of this study should help nurses focus their guidance on strategies perceived as most effective by spouses of deployed military personnel. Equally important, they provide evidence of strategies that should be avoided.