The following months are a wonderful time full of re-connection and re-discovery, but they can also be stressful and challenging. A family member who has just spent a year in a combat zone needs time to readjust to domestic life, and people who have spent a year apart need time to learn to live together again. The military calls this process reintegration.
Here are some important things to remember to make the transition as smooth as possible.
- Talk about your expectations. Most of us in military circles are familiar with the old adage about what happens when we assume. It is a good idea to discuss reintegration before the service member deploys, throughout the deployment, and just before homecoming. Ask questions as you think of them, and if you catch yourself making an assumption, be sure to discuss it. When my husband returned from this deployment, I expected him to come home, realize what a hard time I had without him, and spend some of his block leave helping around the house and trying to re-instate our romance. He was mentally and emotionally exhausted and seemed to shut down. Conflict ensued which could have been avoided by communication. If your spouse has been through a deployment before, it is a good idea to ask how (s)he usually feels and behaves immediately afterward. Don’t be afraid to talk about anything.
- Avoid major changes. In general, deployed service members say they want to return to the same home they left, so changing it up before they arrive may be disruptive. My husband tells a story about a soldier whose wife liked to prepare for his homecoming by replacing all the household linens. She was trying to make him feel special and give him something nice to return to, which is something we all want to do for our partners; he found it disorienting and frustrating. After multiple deployments, he finally told her that all he wanted was to come back to the same home he left, towels and all. Continuity is important. Try to avoid redecorating or rearranging furniture before homecoming. After the service member comes home, it is still a good idea to avoid major changes- such as moving, getting a new pet, or changing schools or jobs- until you have both adjusted to being together and at home again.
- Respect each other’s experiences. Understand that each of you has endured a great deal during deployment, and you both have healing and recovery to do. The service member has just returned from a completely different world and may have had some very stressful or traumatic experiences; suddenly returning to a domestic setting is a positive change but may still be disorienting. The spouse has just spent a year alone, often without knowing where his/her partner is or whether (s)he is safe, and that experience can take a mental and emotional toll which is often underestimated or overshadowed by the deployment itself. You will both need some time to recover from the immediate effects of those stresses.
- Be patient with each other. You have both just had an incredibly difficult year, and you are both making some major adjustments now. You will both have changed in some ways during the past year, either because of what you have been through or because you have simply developed some new habits and quirks. It will take some time to figure out how to fit those changes into the framework of your life together, and in the meantime they may seem frustrating or even hurtful. Be patient, and communicate tactfully but openly. If you have children, be patient with them, too. It may take some time, especially for very young children, to become comfortable with an adult who has been absent for a year; remember that a year is a very long time when you are only four or five.
- Consider counseling. Seeing a counselor does not mean that your marriage is in trouble or that either of you is “crazy.” Sometimes just having an objective sounding board can help you both understand the other’s perspective, and a counselor can offer more specific advice for your family’s situation.