By Karen Borta

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ARLINGTON (CBSDFW.COM) – “We met at a bar.” Melissa Ponder laughs as she tells how she and her husband Warren met. She noticed a smudge on his face and went to wipe it off. The two started talking, dating and eventually they married. But that’s where their story takes a twist.

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The couple spent most of their first year of marriage apart. That’s because Warren, an Army infantryman, was deployed to Iraq for 15 months. They communicated via letters, email and the occasional phone call. “It was terrible,” Melissa said. “The way he dealt with things was to shut down. I wouldn’t hear from him for two weeks.”

Warren explained that, for many soldiers, that’s the easiest way to deal with the separation, to just focus on the job. “For me,” he said, “when you talk to them, it reminds you of home and you’re missing stuff.”

The couple made it through. Warren Ponder saw many other military relationships founder. It got him to thinking. “I just wanted to know why we made and other people didn’t.”

Warren transitioned out of the military, and the couple settled in North Texas. He headed back to school, to the University of Texas at Arlington, to study social work. For his dissertation, he wanted to look at how couples communicate on deployment in hopes that, by improving that communication, they could help marriages and families stay together. What he found was that veterans had a tendency to cope by being avoidant, and their spouses coped by being anxious.

This played out in different ways during deployment, but one of the more interesting ways might be their preferred method of communication. Warren preferred letters — Melissa wanted more immediate interaction.

Post-deployment, that sort of behavior won’t work. If a veteran continues being avoidant, it stresses out his spouse. And if the spouse continues being anxious, it stresses out the veteran. An interesting role reversal might help. Warren’s research found that, if the spouse was avoidant, the veteran felt better in the marriage, whereas if the veteran were anxious, the spouse felt better in the marriage.

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Bottom line, said Warren: When one partner accomodates the other’s preferred method of coping, the marriage is in better shape.

Why is this so important? It might be the key to saving lives.

“We know from research that social support is a huge protective factor from suicide,” said Regina Aguirre, Warren’s colleague and an associate professor of social work at UTA. Said Aguirre, “We also know that it helps with severity of PTSD, so right there, if I can learn how to strengthen marriage and provide support to our military, that is phenomenal.”

Warren just hopes to help soldiers, during and after deployment. “If a solider is worried about what’s happening back home,” he said, “it doesn’t matter if they are a green beret, they’re going to be thinking on it.”

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