Monday, December 28, 2009

DEPLOYMENT & SEXUAL INTIMACY: How to Maintain a Healthy Marital Relationship During Separation

Many military couples face the difficult challenge of keeping a marriage intact during training or deployment. Sadly, many couples do not survive these times of separation and hardship. The Chicago Sun Times reported that during the year 2009, there were an estimated 27,312 divorces among roughly 765,000 married members of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. (Sept. 2009) This pamphlet is written as an attempt to help couples stay strong during times of separation, particularly in relation to sexual intimacy. It will address how to avoid the dangers that can destroy relationships, especially the dangers of pornography and masturbation. It will also help set up the appropriate parameters that will help couples stay strong as they face these times of separation.

Some of the hardships of separation were appropriately expressed by a deployed soldier from Afghanistan who spoke of his experience. He stated, “It is very difficult for anyone to come home clean from a war zone. Even though a soldier is far away from the fighting, there is a morality battle going on 24/7. I live with a bunch of officers so it's not nearly as bad but in some housing units, there are literally dozens of posters with scantily clad women. Thankfully, pornography is banned for soldiers in Afghanistan. However, it definitely still exists. I was copying a couple episodes of “The Office” off of someone's external hard-drive and I noticed it had quite a bit of pornography. It would have been all too easy to just copy that as well. Nobody would have known. I think that's why people struggle so much with pornography because it is so anonymous and easy to justify. “It doesn't hurt anyone else", "nobody will know", "everybody's watching this stuff" are words that justify it and it can be very easy to get. The stuff just gets passed around. I think young men are particularly vulnerable because we're out here, away from home, working long hours, lonely and looking for an escape. When morale is low, that is when people are most vulnerable-- when they think nobody cares about them at work, or at home and when they feel alone.”

This is just one example of the forces that work against those who are trying to maintain healthy marriages while being apart.

Although sexual intimacy is a part of every healthy marriage, intimacy must be put on hold during separation. Couples must learn to live without it for a time, shifting the focus on other ways of feeling close. There are common misconceptions about maintaining sexual intimacy while apart that can and have literally destroyed many marriages, sometimes leading those separated into addictions, dissatisfaction with a spouse or even looking to others to fulfill physical needs outside of the marriage relationship. There exists the misconception that things such as phone sex with a spouse, using the web cam or emails for sending sexually explicit messages or sending other suggestive pictures, even if it is of a partner, will help maintain the closeness of physical intimacy and keep each other satisfied. However, this has proven wrong and has resulted in countless casualties. When either spouse is not actually physically present during times of intimacy, any act outside of this can lead couples to feeling unsatisfied, empty and unfulfilled, often destroying marriages and relationships completely.

One army wife told of what happened when she sent provocative pictures of herself with her husband when he went on deployment. She stated, “When my husband and I were first married, I let my husband take pictures of me in lingerie, feeling comfortable with idea knowing they would stay between him and me and keep us close as a couple. He took these pictures with him on deployment but the more he looked at them, wanting to feel closer to me sexually, the more lust began to grow inside him. Masturbation and pornography followed as he was not able to feel satisfied with these pictures alone. The devastation I felt after I discovered this was hard to overcome and caused serious strains on our marriage and in our relationship. I would tell any others facing deployment to find other ways of maintaining intimacy rather than using pictures or other things. Those didn’t help but actually hindered our relationship.”

Another army wife shared the fact that she noticed the more she and her husband talked online or on the phone about missing each other physically during separation, the more they would think about it and the harder it was to control thoughts—for both of them. As a couple, they ultimately decided to focus on emotional intimacy instead, keeping that part of their relationship alive.

Maintaining marital closeness during deployment can be extremely difficult. Though these times of challenge will test loyalties and commitments, many couples can and do put marital partners first in their lives. The following are some suggestions on how to stay strong independently—emotionally, physically, mentally and socially—so relationships can thrive despite the distance:

1) Emotional – Keep a journal to vent feelings, temptations, accomplishments, goals, hopes, challenges, frustrations, etc. Set and achieve wholesome goals and serve others, especially those that may be struggling.
2) Physical – Exercise daily, develop a consistent sleep routine if possible and eat healthy foods.
3) Mental – Learn something challenging and stimulating. STAY BUSY! Develop hobbies, order books, learn a musical instrument, learn a language, take online classes, etc.
4) Social - Make friends, keep in constant touch with friends and family and try not to be alone.

Others feel that spiritual well-being is crucial and this would include things such as prayer, meditation, reading inspirational literature, attending church, talking with religious leaders, etc.

Often those deployed or separated from their families develop addictions. Addictions are sedatives that allow people to escape realities temporarily. However, studies have shown that sexual addictions such as pornography and masturbation literally destroy marriages and healthy physical intimacy. It is important to recognize these dangers and avoid them whenever possible, particularly when there is distance and separation.

It has been shown that pornography is more addictive than drugs or alcohol. In The Drug of the New Millenium, Mark B. Kastleman stated, “Through pornography, a person self-medicates, releasing different chemicals into their bodies. They feel aroused and excited and are able to relax when life presents stress and challenges. Though this can be a wonderful stress-reliever with a spouse, it becomes an unsatisfying process when [something or someone else] is involved, [leaving participants] never feeling quite fulfilled.” (p.50) Laurie Hall, whose ex-husband had been addicted to pornography, said in relation to this, “Make no mistake – porn kills love. It poisons the heart. It destroys the mind. It deadens the conscience. It literally changes the neural pathways in the brain. It conditions the body to equate sexual arousal with anxiety. It destroys value systems. It destroys respect. It makes you a lousy lover. It is more addictive than cocaine, and it’s harder to break than any other addiction. There is no known detox for porn. Unlike alcohol or drugs which will eventually be processed out of the body, once the images of porn are burned into the brain through the potent chemicals that are released when you look at it (especially when masturbation accompanies looking at it), there is no known way to get rid of the images. They keep coming back over and over.” (An Affair of the Mind, p.248-249)

Masturbation, whether or not it is accompanied by pornography, is just as destructive to a relationship, even if a person rationalizes it by thinking of a partner when he or she does it. As Laurie Hall stated, “Sex was created to send us outward. The word intercourse means ‘communication, a connection between people.’ When we choose to make it on our own, we are saying we don’t want to be bothered with the hard work of communication; we’re not interested in connecting with anyone but ourselves. We are the center of our own universe. Being both the star and the director of our own sexual production reduces sex to a mere physical hunger. Sex becomes a one-man show rather than an opportunity to relate intimately with another.” (An Affair of the Mind, p.105)

Some who are deployed believe that once they engage in pornography or masturbation, they will cease these practices once they return to their marriage partners. However, any addictive sexual behavior becomes the preferred norm and will take precedence over actual physical intimacy with a spouse. That is why it is essential to avoid both of these during separation or the marriage will inevitably suffer.

Lies and Rationalizations that Accompany Pornography and Masturbation:
It is easy to fall into the trap of justifying or rationalizing the use of pornography or masturbation. Some of these lies and rationalizations are as follows:

1) “Participating in pornography won’t affect me.”
It is a common misconception that pornography is harmless but even one participation can stimulate physical reactions and emotions that engender addiction and can become a raging wildfire that burns completely out of control. Pornography of itself will never completely satisfy but will ALWAYS leave someone wanting more. Because of this, a marital partner will never be enough to bring satisfaction afterwards. Many who participate in pornography often tell themselves, “I just need this satisfaction right now and then I’ll be fine after I get my temporary high.” However, as Mark Chamberlain once stated, “People who flood their pleasure systems with intense stimulation essentially overload the circuits, spoiling to some extent their future capacity to enjoy the more natural doses that result from what once were enjoyable activities.” (Wanting More in the Age of Addiction, p. 23) It is best not to participate in pornography in any degree.

2) “Participation in pornography won’t hurt anyone but me.”
Everyone around an addict is affected by an addiction. Men in general have compartmentalized minds, being able to separate different aspects of their lives. Many men begin to believe that they can separate lust (i.e., engaging in pornography, masturbation or other sexual practices) from other aspects of their lives, indulging in it apart from a spouse without having it affect a marriage relationship. However, physical intimacy in a marriage will unavoidably be damaged. One wife explained it this way. She said, “Infidelity becomes a very personal attack against a spouse. As a wife, it is my role to fulfill my husband’s sexual needs – with both sexual stimulation and ejaculation. I have shared my body with him, which is very personal and sacred to me. When he turns to the whores of the earth and himself for those things, it compromises my self-worth and my role as his wife. I don’t feel like I am enough for him. I felt like he had chosen the whores over our marriage. It was bad enough to get involved in sexual sin, but then lying about it for a year and a half just made it so much worse. The trust in our marriage has been completely destroyed.” All marriages will suffer in a similar way whenever pornography is present.

3) “If it involves my wife then it must be okay.”
It is easy to believe that if both spouses are involved, whether through pictures or phone sex, then sexual stimulation is okay. The truth is that anything other than intimacy with a spouse being physically present can quickly turn to uncontrollable lust and lead to addictions or other practices that will hurt or destroy a marriage. When a spouse is not directly involved in sexual intimacy, any other practice can leave partners feeling unfulfilled, dissatisfied and empty—and often looking elsewhere for the fulfillment. No marriage has ever been enhanced by the use of these practices but many have been destroyed by it.

4) “At least I’m not looking at the hard-core stuff.”
People may believe that looking at soft porn isn’t bad because it seems realistic and isn’t the fantasy, hard-core material that others have engaged in. Studies have shown, however, that “since soft-core starts out with the realm of what is possible, it causes viewers to experience a greater change in values than hard-core porn does.” (Laurie Hall, An Affair of the Mind, p. 84) Laurie Hall further stated, “`Lots of people go to R-rated movies.’ Yes, lots of people do, and that can be where it starts. A nice guy doesn’t go into XXX-movie theaters or strip shows in the beginning. They’re too far out of character for him. But let him get started with soft-core pornographic magazines and a few explicit sex scenes as seen in many R-rated movies, making sure that everything is done secretly so there’s extra denial and extra shame, and soon the line between what a nice guy finds acceptable and unacceptable are softened; until, at last, he risks the wrath of his conscience and goes where he never would have imagined himself going.” (p. 16)

5) “My spouse isn’t around to satisfy me and I deserve to be satisfied.”
Deployed couples are put in a very difficult situation. Even if they have balanced, loving relationships at home, they can’t satisfy each other physically while separated. When someone believes he or she deserves sexual stimulation, whether or not a spouse is present, and look for it outside the marriage relationship, the marriage relationship will be eroded. Mark Chamberlain said it this way: “No matter how good we have it, we can quickly adjust to the status quo. It is easy for our feelings (in a marriage) to shift from appreciation to contentment to complacency to entitlement. Then, once we reach entitlement, it’s not difficult to take that next step to actual resentment. We feel as if we don’t have enough. We want more. We deserve more. We need more, and we shouldn’t have to wait for it. These are the seductive lies appetite tells us.” (Wanting More in the Age of Addiction, p. 14) Putting sexual intimacy on hold in every aspect is the only way to keep a marital relationship alive.

6) “I am doing this to enhance mine and my spouse’s sex life.”
Pornography and masturbation are not designed for mutual sharing but turn someone inwardly to satisfy physical appetites. As has been stated, pornography is “rooted in fantasy rather than the reality of love, healthy relationships or accurate information about our bodies.” (What’s the Big Deal, p. 60) Dr. Reo Christenson stated that pornography’s basic message is “that sex is divorced from love, commitment, morality and responsibility; that it is a purely animal act, no more and no less; that it is unrelated to privacy; …that women’s importance is to be found in their genital organs which are fair game for whoever wishes to exploit them; that irresponsible sex has no consequences – no venereal disease, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, premature marriages, psychic traumas. Some message.” (A War We Must Win, p. 51) Pornography will never enhance a marital relationship but can eventually destroy it.

It may not be until the spouses are reunited that things seem to be out of place and the effects of unhealthy sexual practices are discovered. Since no one ever can see or admit to addictions in themselves, the following are some warning signs that addictions might be present:
*Loss of interest in sexual relations or insatiable sexual appetite
*Introduction of unusual sexual practices in the relationship
*Diminished emotional, physical, social, spiritual, and intellectual intimacy
*Neglect of responsibilities
*Increased isolation (such as late-night hours on the computer); withdrawal from family
*Irregular mood swings, increased irritability
*Unexplained absences
*Preference for masturbation over sexual relations with spouse
*Unexplained financial transactions
*Sexual relations that are rigid, rushed, without passion, and detached (The Drug of the New Millennium, p. 211)

For any relationship to last through deployment, couples must maintain some degree of intimacy or closeness. It is only through honesty, acceptance and a safe environment to express feelings that relationships can be fostered. Both spouses have to be willing to commit to what it takes to maintain a healthy relationship and set goals to do so.

BEFORE DEPLOYMENT: Be realistic about the hardships of deployment. Expect the highs and lows. Being deployed is like being in a completely different world with different responsibilities and different environments. It is common to experience low feelings. A person is vulnerable to making poor decisions when experiencing feelings of B.L.A.H.S.T.: Boredom, Loneliness, Anger/Arousal, Hunger, Stress, Tiredness. It is important to be aware of these feelings.

Plan on getting bored and be prepared with positive things to fill that time. Many are often exposed to filth and temptation. It is important to decide before deployment what to do when faced with it. Expect to deal with others who give into it.

Set goals as a family of how you will stay close and keep each other involved. One person stated, “A family journal helped my husband see what was going on back at home and he could see the gradual growth in our daughters. A marriage devotional each day possible is a great idea, inviting strength into a marriage. This can include a prayer, such things as scripture reading and time to talk about concerns. It is important to focus on the family, serving them in any way possible—even from a distance. As we put our attention towards others, we can become more selfless and less likely to indulge in selfish behaviors.”

It is good to establish boundaries that include interaction with the opposite sex. If one spouse doesn’t feel comfortable with something, such as meeting someone of the opposite sex for lunch or dinner, that should be honored and respected.

DURING DEPLOYMENTFocus on building the marriage in other ways, particularly focusing on emotional intimacy. Find friends with similar values and beliefs. Sharing experiences will strengthen commitment levels. Sharing temptations and experiences with someone else is emotionally healthy and will result in the ability to stay strong. Keeping a journal regularly can also be a way to “share.” As one person stated, “During deployment, I kept a family journal, recording happy moments and blessings. The more I wrote these things down and thought about them, the more I looked for them in my everyday life. I became more sensitive to these happy moments. It is easy to focus on the negative during a trial, but I found that focusing on the positive helped me stay clear of depression.”

Keep up consistent communication with a spouse, as well. One army wife shared the importance of reminiscing on past happy memories during those times. She said: “I think it's good to keep memories vibrant so that you still feel married. Sometimes you might go back into single mode when you've been apart for so long. I think you need to be a listening ear for the other person. You need to be willing to bear each other’s burdens and be completely supportive of each other. It’s important to appreciate each other’s efforts to stay close, as well. It’s also imperative to stay spiritually connected to each other.”

Another army wife gave this advice regarding communication: “Communicate about everything. Do web cam and phone and email as much as possible. Read your scriptures and then email about it and have the other person make comments about what you read. The men can send flowers. The women can send packages. Make a calendar of you and the kids so he can count down. Say prayers together over the phone. Make additional commitments before the deployment that each person will stay loyal and not put themselves in a situation that could damage the relationship. Don't make any major decisions without discussing it with the other first. Spend leave time with just your spouse and kids, no one else. Don't let extended family and friends take that time. Write each other love poems and love letters.” By doing things like this, relationships can receive the nourishment they need to survive. As both marital partners make goals to become better people, the marriage will be strengthened as a result. Using time effectively while apart will result in mutual growth that benefits both partners.

Keeping strong and healthy marriages can be one of the greatest blessings we can give ourselves and our country. As John Harmer said in his book (A War We Must Win p.121), “I believe very strongly that the greatest threat to our political freedom is the loss of moral values. To put it in a positive sense, the most vital factor in the preservation of our freedom and liberty is our people’s respect for moral values and their commitment to them. They are the vital foundation upon which rests our ability to obtain and maintain individual political freedom.

“No array of nuclear armed guided missiles, no legion of armed warriors, no tyrant or dictator, no outlandish political philosophy holds anywhere near the capacity to destroy our nation and our legacy of freedom that the insidious spread of pornography among the American people does. As a public official I was often accosted with the question ‘What concern is it of yours whether or not someone wants to indulge in pornography? That is their own business and should not be a matter of concern for the government.' The most direct answer to that question was given by a British jurist, Lord Patrick Devlin, who as Chairman of a Royal Commission on the issue of pornography in the United Kingdom wrote as follows: 'an established morality is as necessary as good government to the welfare of society. Societies disintegrate from within more frequently that they are broken up by external pressures. There is disintegration when no common morality is observed and history shows that the loosening of moral bonds is often the first stage of disintegration, so that society is justified in taking the same steps to preserve its moral code as it does to preserve its government and other essential institutions. The suppression of vice is as much the law’s business as the suppression of subversive activities.' (The Enforcement of Morals, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968)." 

By following the simple but effective guidelines, marriages can be strengthened instead of thwarted by the separation that comes from deployment.