Intimacy & Emotional Disconnect in Military Populations

We interviewed Dr. Sarah Nunnink to learn more about her course, Intimacy and Emotional Disconnect in Military Populations, and her thoughts on our mission. Check out the full interview below.

What inspired you to build the course?

Clinically and in my own research, I observed the profound difficulties that stem from emotional restriction/emotional numbing.  I have been continually struck by the clinical observation that unwillingness to allow inner experiences, especially emotions, is nearly a sure-fire way to ensure loss of vitality and emotional disconnect with a romantic partner.  These clinical experiences led me to publish an article on the role of emotional numbing in veterans with PTSD on their sexual functioning. 

How did your experiences working with military populations differ from working with civilian populations? 

Emotional numbing and experiential avoidance in military populations appears to be even more profound than in the civilian world.  I believe this has a lot to do with military culture, which promotes and necessitates emotional restriction as a “survival” skill in a combat zone, however, emotional restriction/numbing is nearly impossible to just “turn on” and “turn off” at will.  Although helpful for a life-or-death situation such as combat, there are significant problems when emotional restriction becomes a “mode of processing” outside of the war zone.  Such experiential disconnect can be linked to relationship problems, depression, anxiety, and other forms of psychological distress.

Why do you think it is important for civilian service providers to educate themselves on the unique challenges of military couples?

Knowing the culture and worldview of our clients is imperative to our ability as clinicians to accurately emotionally track, validate and provide coherence.  In order for our interventions to really “land” with our clients- we must be able to fully connect with the lived experience of our couples, and to some degree, “run their experience” through us.  This can really only be effectively achieved when the clinician has a “felt sense” of the couple that, to a large degree, comes from the clinician’s ability to understand the contextual factors that affect the couple.

In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge couples experience from the military lifestyle? Any tips for overcoming this?

I see really three undeniably significant challenges to military couples.  One is the emotional restriction that is inculcated into service members and is necessary for survival but toxic to love bonds.  The second is the promotion of independence which is important but again, often toxic to romantic partnerships wherein the emotional bond grows stronger through “healthy interdependence” rather than maladaptive independence, and three is the problem of long separations/physical distance and disruption to family life that comes from (multiple) deployments.  In addition to the practical concerns of such physical separations, from an attachment perspective, one needs to be able to turn toward the trusted other (partner) during times of distress for psychological comforting (healthy interdependence) and this is simply not possible for either the partner who experience the stressors in combat nor for the partner experiencing stressors back home trying to manage alone.  Tips for overcoming this would be that couples work either on their own (self-help books) or with a seasoned couples-therapist to re-establish their emotional connection as soon as possible after any disruptions due to military lifestyle. What we know from the couples literature is that it’s not the stressors that break a couple, it appears to be the ability of the couple to emotionally reconnect after disruptions, distress and relationship rupture in order to repair the emotional bond. 

 What do you want students to take away from this course?

I hope students walk away with a felt sense of the importance of the emotional bond.  It is imperative that couples therapists also are working in session to access/activate and explore the emotional bond with the couple.  It is not enough to work on problem solving and skill based issues such as communication style, what is critical is the ability of the therapist to activate and restructure/transform the emotional bond between two partners in the room and beyond the therapy walls.

When did you first become aware of the divide between civilian and military populations? What was evident to you? 

My first year working at the VA was an eye opening experience.  Up to that point I had not had much experience working with military members.  The most evident issue I noticed was this issue of emotional and experiential avoidance- how stoic and emotionally reserved so many veterans were as a group, how much that made sense given our Western Culture’s view of emotion and was further amplified by experiences with military culture that promotes stoicism, and conversely how much it was also a detriment to their vitality in their “regular” lives and relationships.  Coming from the experiential therapy traditions, my view is that in order to find meaning, feel vitality in life, connect to a sense of higher purpose -onemust be able to access/channel inner experiences (such as emotions).  Being cut off from such an integral part of being “human” has a significant impact on a life.

 Why do you think the mission of PsychArmor is important? 

Increased awareness of such issues and contextual factors for military members is absolutely imperative to working well with this population