Preliminary study by K-State professor finds war can be hard on relationships of military couples

August 31, 2005

MANHATTAN, KAN. -- Serving in combat can affect the relationship satisfaction of military couples, according to preliminary results of a study by a Kansas State University professor.

Briana Nelson Goff, associate professor of marriage and family therapy in K-State's School of Family Studies and Human Services, has conducted surveys and interviews during the last year with 47 military couples from Fort Riley and Fort Leavenworth. The majority of the participating couples are married, while the others have been dating for at least a year. In each case, the male member of the couple has served in the war in Iraq or in Afghanistan.

Nelson Goff said her research is the first comprehensive study to compare the similarities between couples who are dealing with the aftereffects of war and those who deal with other similar types of traumatic experiences. Her survey was designed to find and gauge the level of individual trauma symptoms related to the war experience and if they are affecting the couples' relationship.

All of the men reported war trauma and other traumatic experiences, Nelson Goff said. "The wives didn't have direct war-related trauma but some have had other traumatic experiences from their past such as childhood abuse, rape or domestic violence, and many reported their husband's deployment as traumatic to them," she said.

"What we're finding is that the individual symptoms of the soldiers and their partners are negatively affecting their relationship satisfaction. The more individual symptoms they are reporting, the less satisfied they are with their relationship," Nelson Goff said.

The most common individual symptoms of the study's participants are depression and anxiety, as well as dissociation and re-experiencing the traumatic events.

"It's actually symptoms of anxiety in the soldiers and their spouses that are most affecting their relationships," she said. "These aren't just general symptoms of anxiety; they are specific to the traumatic experiences members of each couple have had," she said.

"The feelings of anxiety and the re-experiencing of events by the soldiers are specifically related to their trauma symptoms and could be related to their deployment or to other traumatic experiences they have had," she said. "In the wives, their anxiety may be related to their experiences with the deployment, but that's not something we know for sure. We will have to get into our interview data to determine this more specifically."

A large majority of the soldiers identified their deployment as their most traumatic event, Nelson Goff said.

"We found that 82 percent of the soldiers reported that their deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan or an experience related to their deployment was the most traumatic experience they have had," she said. "Related to that, 24 percent of the wives said that their husband's deployment has been their most traumatic experience. I think it is quite interesting that nearly one in four of the wives also identified the deployment as their most traumatic experience."

Her findings about deployment run counter to a 2003 military study taken to assess the mental health of soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. "That study found soldiers were reporting very low stress related to their deployment," she said.

Her survey data also suggest that a spouse's individual symptoms can affect their partner's symptoms, which is known as secondary trauma.

"The spouses, particularly the husbands' individual symptoms, are affecting the wives," Nelson Goff said. "In addition, a spouse's individual trauma symptoms can predict the other spouse's individual symptoms. So, one partner's depression and anxiety can be related to the other partner's symptoms of depression or anxiety or individual stress symptoms."

Data from the interview component of her study will be assessed next and should help to enhance her study's findings, Nelson Goff said. The study has been conducted with some support from the University Small Research Grant program and from the College of Human Ecology.

Nelson Goff, a licensed clinical marriage and family therapist, has dedicated her research to examining post-traumatic stress disorder and the effects of traumatic stress on couple and family systems. A K-State faculty member since 1998, she has spent time in Bosnia-Herzegovina researching how war affects children. She also spent time there working in children's homes and has sent graduate students from K-State to aid orphans as well. At the state level, she is project coordinator for the Kansas All-Hazards Behavioral Health Program and is in charge of developing and coordinating a state plan for disaster mental health.

Kansas State University

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