By Carole Van Holbeck, MSAN Mental Health Contributor
I live in a military town – Colorado Springs, CO. The local media is full of images of soldiers and airmen reuniting with their families. There is excitement, joy, and tears as spouses and children rush into waiting arms. But those of us who have been through it know this is the start of the “Homecoming Honeymoon.” We know how quickly the homecoming afterglow ends and what follows…and it often is not pretty or for the faint-of-heart. Erin Whitehead, a blogger for Military Spouse boldly states, “Homecoming is the hardest part of deployment.” From my own experience, I wholeheartedly agree.
My husband spent a year away in Korea in 1989. There was no e-mail, Skype, or cell phones. We got to talk twice a month and depended primarily on snail mail to keep us connected. Pregnant with our first child, Ken missed most of the pregnancy and our son’s first six months of life. As he got ready to return from Korea, I had to get us ready to PCS within a week of his arrival home. I remember the day he arrived back very well. I had spent the weekend getting everything packed and ready to move into temporary lodging so he would not have to worry about a single detail. I wanted to look pretty for him, so I spent an extra five minutes primping. I wanted our son to look adorable to meet his Daddy. I had to drive almost an hour to the Seattle-Tacoma airport from our boxed up apartment. I arrived on time and ran down to his gate. Little did I know that his flight arrived early. He got off the plane, anticipating a perfect homecoming, only to find no one there. When I did get to the gate, I didn’t even see him. He was standing off to the side of an empty jet way.
Finally, he walked over and put his arms around me. I was so excited to see him! After hugs and kisses, I told him, “Let me introduce you to your son, Joe.” I turned to my little one in the stroller, who had spit up formula all over his adorable little outfit. I took a deep breath, tried to shake off the anxiety I was feeling, and walked with my husband and son to find his bags.
It was wonderful having him home, but real life began knocking. Movers came. We were in temporary housing saying goodbye to friends and getting ready to start life in a new state. Joe was a six month-old baby who needed attention. Ken was wanting to be the center of attention and circumstances were dictating otherwise. I was trying to balance all the balls and it wasn’t working very well. Within 72 hours of his return, we had an explosive fight. Over what I can’t even remember. And in that moment, for me the homecoming honeymoon ended. The next six months were difficult and tense. What I didn’t understand then was the dynamics of reintegration. For a long time I thought it was me. No one ever told me that what we were experiencing was very normal.
So let’s have an honest discussion about reintegration.
Keep the initial homecoming simple. You can plan a big party when life settles down a bit. Encourage family members who want to be present at the initial reunion to step back and allow you, your spouse, and children time to become reacquainted. Ask the returning member ahead of time how he or she would like to spend those first few days and follow those cues.
Be realistic. It is very easy to fantasize about how things will be with your spouse when you reunite. After all, you’ve both had a lot of time to think about it. In my case, my husband had a notion about how his homecoming would be and the reality fell far short. It was nobody’s fault. Real life happens. Be prepared for delays, whiny children, and the car breaking down. Understand that you will both probably be anxious, emotionally overwhelmed, and tired. Build in some down time if possible so both of you can recharge.
You and your spouse WILL change. Both you and your spouse have been forced to tackle new challenges and situations during this time apart. You have each grown through them and potentially grown a little apart because of them. Remember that change in a relationship is inevitable and can help your relationship grow.
Anger and resentment are both normal after a deployment. I think as a military spouse, I was most surprised by this. My husband was an angry man for several months after returning from Korea, and I just didn’t understand why. I have since learned that anger is a secondary emotion felt after experiencing fear or sadness. He was sad about being away and missing out on so much of my pregnancy and our son’s first few months. He resented not knowing his son very well and having to try to connect with a baby who only seemed to want his mother. He missed family milestones, holidays, and attending the funeral of his beloved grandmother. I thought being with us would be enough. We fought. Please understand that you and your spouse may feel some anger and resentment at the deployment and each other during reintegration and unfortunately, you will direct those feelings at each other.
You will have to figure out the new normal. Don’t assume things will just fall into place. Everyone will need time to readjust. Roles have changed for you both, but especially the spouse who has stayed home. He or she has had to fill many roles while the deployed spouse is away, perhaps for the first time. There are power shifts and some spouses are reluctant to “give back” responsibilities like managing finances and parenting. Families fall into a different rhythm when Mom or Dad is gone. Perhaps family rules have become more lax or schedules like bedtime have changed. The deployed spouse may feel like he or she doesn’t fit in to the new dynamic, or he or she may simply be overwhelmed with deployment experiences and desire a break from parenting. Understand all this can cause tension in the household and allow a realistic time period for everyone to settle back down into a new routine.
Lovingly communicate with each other. It sometimes doesn’t take very long for spouses to start arguing after the homecoming. Be patient with each other, keep yelling to a minimum, and try to lovingly communicate your feelings to each other. Do not blame each other but take ownership of your feelings. A great way to do this is through the use of “I statements.” I statements create non-defensive communication and put the emphasis on the person communicating (I feel versus you are.) You can find out more information about how I statements work at http://www.compassioncoach.com/how_and_when_to_use_i_statements.
Build in time to reestablish intimacy. Intimacy is about more than sex. It is about reconnecting to the spark that brought you together in the first place. It is easy to be distracted from each other after many months apart. The children will want their time; friends, too and extended family. The demands of the job will start up almost immediately and the day-to-day activities of family life do not magically go away. Too many married couples make everything else a priority and leave little time after a deployment to reestablish intimacy. It probably sounds cliché, but set a specific night a week aside to have time alone with each other. Make it a priority to spend that time together. DO NOT talk about the kids or the job during this time. Spend it in friendship with your spouse. Go out to dinner, take a walk, or watch the sunset. If sex happens to follow, good…but don’t make that a condition of your time together.
Give it time (but don’t wait too long.) I recently communicated with a spouse who reached out to me on Facebook about her experiences. Her husband had returned from a deployment eight years ago and she said the family was still, “struggling horribly.” In our counseling practice, we often have spouses reaching out to us who are the end of their rope saying that they have tried to hold it together for a year or two years and they just can’t do it anymore. This is the most common mistake military spouses make – they wait too long to ask for help. You certainly have to give your returning spouse time to readjust, but how long is too long? If your family is having a hard time finding a healthy rhythm after six months, do not be afraid to seek counseling. If your spouse will not go, seek it for yourself.
I love the movie, “The Right Stuff” about the early space race. One of my favorite scenes is where the astronauts’ wives are commiserating with each other and one says, “Everybody’s always trying to, you know…maintain an even strength.” For years I believed that was what military spouses were supposed to do with the circumstances presented to them. Just suck it up and work through it. However, I’ve changed my tune. I now believe it is time for military spouses to start talking openly with each other and with the public about how deployments affect our military families. I wish someone had done that with me.
Carole Van Holbeck is a retired Air Force spouse, veteran (1978-1990), and former military dependent child. She is a mother of three sons, stepmother to three adult children, and grandmother to nine. A registered psychotherapist, she works as the Office Manager of Warrior Counseling & Consulting, a veteran mental health practice in Colorado Springs, Colorado started by her husband Ken in 2011. In this role, Carole engages with active duty military, veterans, and their families and understands current issues affecting this population.
Resources for You
The 5 Things No One Ever Told Me about Homecoming
Military OneSource Relationship Health – Reintegration Webinar
Here’s What You Need to Know about Reintegration
Mental Health Resources