Skip to main content

Written by: Bob Bertsch

Research-based frameworks can be extremely useful in helping us understand something complex, like a change or transition. Models like the ten phases of transformative learning or the two-loop theory of organizational change identify patterns within a complex process and break that process down into relatively consistent units we can better understand. 

However, it is important to remember that, in the real world, the processes described by these frameworks do not occur in the clearly defined, chronological time periods often used in research and practice. In the real world, these time periods blur into each other, spiral together, and include periods of uncertainty that can be understood through the concept of liminality.

Liminality: The Space In-between   

The term liminality comes from the Latin limen, meaning “a threshold.” Anthropologist Victor Turner developed his theory of liminality through his study of the processes at work in initiation rituals. He observed that the rituals created a time and space separate from everyday life where the person could be stripped of their power and given special knowledge about their culture by an elder. After a period of questioning and reflection, the initiate emerges transformed (Agrawal et al., 2021).

Over the years since Turner developed his theory of liminality, he and other researchers have used it as a lens for looking at processes other than initiation rituals. Through this research, liminality has been more broadly defined as a time of transition in which people experience ambiguity and disorientation as they navigate the space between something that is ending and the emergence of something new (Long, 2022). 

“Liminal space, then, is a period in which something—social hierarchy, culture, belief, tradition, identity, etc.—has been dissolved and a new thing has not yet emerged to take its place…It’s that period of uncertainty, ambiguity, restlessness, fear, discomfort, and anguish. It’s the space between, when a trapeze artist lets go of one bar and doesn’t yet know whether they will be able to catch the other bar.” – Heather Plett, The Art of Holding Space

Liminal Space in the Deployment Cycle

Researcher Emma Long (2022) applied liminality to uncover the complexity in the deployment experiences of non-serving partners of military personnel in the U.K. Much of the recent research and practice around the deployment experience has been guided by the “emotional cycle of deployment,” a research-based framework that organizes deployment into stages: “predeployment,” “deployment,” “sustainment,” “redeployment,” and “postdeployment” (Pincus, et al., 2001). 

Like the frameworks mentioned above, the emotional cycle of deployment has been a helpful tool in understanding what service members and their families experience in the complex process of deployment. However, like other frameworks, it is simplified and doesn’t capture the uncertainty and ambiguity people experience in liminality.

Long found liminality in how military partners experienced the stages of deployment. For example, as partners in the study prepared for deployment in the pre-deployment stage, they were experiencing the deployment stage at the same time. Switching names on accounts, making childcare arrangements, and changing work schedules meant that partners were experiencing the reality of the deployment even though their service members had not yet deployed. As Long describes it, “They are in a liminal state as they anticipate, prepare for, and imagine separation from their serving partner, readying their upcoming labor.”

Similarly, partners in the study were experiencing postdeployment while still technically in the deployment stage. As they took on all of the family and household responsibilities, partners were also preparing for post-deployment by maintaining spaces for their service members to slot back into when they returned. Overall, Long found “the deployment stage itself also indicates a time that could be considered liminal, as some participants talk about “getting through it,” skipping from predeployment to postdeployment.”

Putting It Into Practice

Long’s research shows that the impacts of deployment “echo through military families as they live with the specter of deployment, anticipating future deployments/absence and look for effects of previous deployments in both themselves, their serving partner, and their family system.”

The stages in the emotional cycle of deployment help understand the deployment experience and can guide service providers in supporting families through deployment, but that support can be enhanced by keeping in mind that “time is experienced in more complex ways on the home front” (Long, 2022).

Awareness of the complexities of the deployment experience and the concepts of liminality could be helpful for families as well. Research has shown awareness of the emotional cycle of deployment can help military partners know what they might expect emotionally, adding awareness of the experience of liminality might help prepare partners for the ambiguity and disorientation that comes with the process of crossing the deployment threshold and the emergence of something new on the other side.


Agrawal, S., Kalocsai, C., Capponi, P., Kidd, S., Ringsted, C., Wiljer, D., & Soklaridis, S. (2021). “It was great to break down the walls between patient and provider”: Liminality in a co-produced advisory course for psychiatry residents. Advances in Health Sciences Education, 26(2), 385–403.

Long, E. (2022). Living Liminal Lives: Army Partners’ Spatiotemporal Experiences of Deployment. Armed Forces & Society, 48(3), 589–608.

Pincus SH, House R, Christenson J, Adler L. (2001). The Emotional Cycle of Deployment: A Military Family Perspective.

Plett, H. (2020). The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership. Page Two.

Image from Canva.