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No doubt being separated by a deployment can be stressful on a marriage, says relationship expert John Van Epp, author of “How To Avoid Marrying a Jerk.”

Experiences that are emotional, intense and not shared tend to create gaps in the feeling of knowing each other, he said.

“If you’re not prepared, it can work havoc,” he said.

But deployments also can strengthen a relationship “if you understand how to work it for good,” Van Epp said.

Van Epp, who’s headed to Europe soon to train instructors from 11 military installations, shared some ways to create meaning out of a separation, tips he developed after interviewing military couples:

Write a book together

One couple took turns writing a paragraph about their experiences. They would e-mail each back and forth. “Once they got going, it’s kind of what they lived for,” he said. At the end of the deployment, the spouse at home took the e-mails and bound them into a book to represent the couple’s year together.

Learn a language

One couple learned Spanish together online. To celebrate the end of the deployment, they were going to a Spanish-speaking country.

Link up

Deployed spouses need to realize that the way they are going to support their families is through e-mail, the phone or a Webcam. “A lot of guys use presence to support” their spouse, he said. “They don’t have that” when deployed.

Keep it up

After a deployment, keep doing what was a cherished part of your relationship during a deployment, such as sending your wife a love note. “You don’t want your relationship going stale because you’re no longer in a crisis mode,” Van Epp said.

Making separation meaningful creates a “feeling of belonging together,” Van Epp said. “ ‘I’m with you and you’re with me.’ That’s really what the heart of commitment is.”

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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