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Kill It With Connection

Carrie Livengood has been married to the military for 11 years, stationed at four different bases, gone through two deployments and is prior service. You could call her a ‘seasoned military spouse.’ But she still battles loneliness during deployment.

Jeni Zherebnenko, a SpouseBUZZ.com reader, has been an Oklahoma National Guard spouse for five years, is prior service, has several family members in the service and is about to face her second deployment. She says feelings of being alone are one of her greatest challenges.

Zherebnenko and Livengood are not the only ones. In our recent poll 26.8 percent of you said loneliness is the greatest deployment stressor on you and your marriage.

Whether National Guard, Reserve or Active Duty, a missing spouse can leave a gapping emotional hole  — and can lead to major emotional and mental stress, military support experts say. We all know that’s true.

But how do you fix it before you go crazy?

The experts say “connect.”  Spouses who link-up with support groups are much more likely to avoid extreme mental stress, says a 2009 study out of the University of North Carolina (UNC). The challenge — and where the military should, but doesn’t always, give its greatest help — is in making that connection.

“There’s a lot of evidence that the better the relationships are … the better (spouses) do,” said Dennis Orthner, who conducted the UNC study. “The more we can do to strengthen those relationships the better … outcomes we get.”

But isn’t that more easily said than done? Military spouses know that finding a supportive group of women who share your interests and don’t cause more drama than they’re worth can be an overwhelming challenge. How many Family Readiness Group horror stories do we know?

The military does offers a variety of counseling programs to make sure spouses have someone with whom to talk, such as the Family Life Consultant service, which has 1,100 consultants available nationwide, and Military One Source, a dial-in help line.

“I think one of the most important things to do first of all is to help spouses understand what they’re going through is normal and they are not alone,” said Mike Hoskins, a Pentagon official who oversees the military and family life consultant program.

But after voting in our poll, many of you said that loneliness isn’t just about pining for lost companionship. It includes, you said, that terrible, overwhelmed feeling that comes from tackling everything — childcare, housework, bills — without your helpmate.

That’s where the power of a support group comes in, said Denise Fettig-Loftesness, a Family Readiness Group official with the Marine Corps in Japan. Counseling can be great, but there’s something particularly powerful about being in a group of people going through the same thing you are. She founded a spouse support group in Japan for III Marine Amphibious Force (MAF) for that very reason.

“When it’s a bunch of women just having coffee it’s not hard to start a conversation,” she said. “We talk about ways we communicate … the spouses have an opportunity to understand what they’re going through better together.”

Charlene Lewis, a chaplain’s spouse at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) in Wash., started a Bible study for the spouses in her battalion during their Afghanistan deployment last year. Meeting weekly for a faith based activity, she said, helped them deal with the large number of casualties within their unit.

“It was a beautiful time where we were all knitted so closely together,” she said. “Everyone had someone that they could call up, we all prayed together we all received notifications together. We were able to pick up each other. … I knew that deployment was trying, but I was really blessed that we were able to journey and track together.”

Of course knowing that these groups can help isn’t rocket science  — it’s making the effort to find the right group for you that can be tricky. It’s like Livengood, who was a part of the JBLM Bible study, said:

“I definitely could’ve found something else, but it wouldn’t have had that camaraderie and understanding. It definitely would’ve had a little more feeling of ‘well you just don’t get it.’”

But stress, military support experts say, can even cripple a person’s motivation to look for connection. Often those who need the most help, Orthner said, are those who are the most difficult to reach.

That is where other military spouses come in. If you are reading this blog you at least have a desire to reach out to others, if only from the comfort of your couch (and who are we kidding — I wrote much of this while wearing my pajamas). It is people like you that can motivate the most lonely and stressed into action. Tell us — what are some of the best ways you have found to fend off the Lonely Monster?

About Amy Bushatz

Amy is the managing editor of Military.com’s spouse and family blog SpouseBuzz.com. A journalist by trade, Amy also covers spouse and family news for Military.com where she is an Associate Editor. An Army wife and mother of two, Amy has been featured as a subject matter expert on NPR and in the New York Times. Follow her on twitter @amybushatz.

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