Return and reunion after a military deployment can be a time of tremendous happiness and relief. But the transition back to family life can also bring its share of challenges. Fortunately there are steps that both returning service members and their spouses can take to make the return to family life as joyful and stress-free as possible.
The ups and downs of reunion
Couples who have been separated by military deployment often look forward to a service member's return as a time of happiness and a chance to get back to normal life. Children look forward to having a missing parent back at home. The deployed service member looks forward to a joyful reunion and the comforts of home.
But mixed in with those feelings of excitement and anticipation are also some perfectly normal worries and resentments. Husbands and wives may worry that their spouse has changed. They may be concerned about giving up the independence that being apart has allowed them. While everyone in the family looks forward to getting back together, they may also have mixed feelings about having been separated in the first place - a feeling that children sometimes express very openly and may resemble anger.
Before the reunion
Despite the best of intentions, the returning service member or the spouse at home may be too exhausted, busy, or anxious to prepare the way they would like to for the reunion. Combined with high expectations, this can lead to stress. Here are some steps that each of you can take to keep expectations reasonable and the reunion more relaxing:
- Find out and communicate the details of the return plan. Keep everyone updated on any changes to the schedule the best you can while taking into consideration operational security.
- Make backup plans in case the flight arrives when your family can't be there.
- Plan something special for each other. The returning service member might bring gifts for those at home. The spouse at home might plan a simple welcome home meal.
- Keep your plans simple and flexible. Planning a large family gathering the day your service member is scheduled to arrive can be stressful.
- Be understanding and forgiving if the reunion doesn't match your plans and hopes.
The day of the reunion
Be prepared for exhaustion, jet lag, unpredictability, and changes in the return schedule. Be prepared for reactions to the return that aren't what either or both of you may have expected.
What the returning service member can do:
- Be patient if no one is there to meet you when you arrive. Use your backup plan to call someone or get yourself home. Don't jump to conclusions or take it personally.
- Make a conscious effort to make only positive comments about any changes you notice when you get home. Try to keep this up for at least the first two days.
- Look for positive changes. Comment on how your children have grown and matured, new skills they have learned, or household improvements your spouse has managed.
- Show your appreciation for the extra work your spouse has taken on while you were away. Many returning service members feel a little hurt at finding out how well their families have managed without them, but try to show how proud you are instead.
- Expect that your children may be shy. Very young children may be shy or even scared of you at first. Older children may be angry at you for being away, at least at first.
What the spouse at home can do:
- Do something special to welcome your returning service member home. Make a banner or prepare a meal with your service member's favorite foods. But don't be hurt if your spouse is too tired upon arrival to notice how you've prepared.
- Expect that your service member may have mixed feelings at seeing how well you've managed. Explain that while you're proud you were able to keep things going, you want to get back to sharing the responsibilities.
The first week
Husbands and wives often report feeling like strangers to each other in the first hours and days of return, especially after long deployments. Couples sometimes have problems with different expectations about how they'll spend these first few days.
What the returning service member can do:
- Make time for your family. Hold off on visits to relatives and limit time with friends until you've settled into a comfortable routine at home.
- Take time to talk with your spouse. After a long absence, you need to get to know each other again. Talking now can help you lay the foundation for a newly strengthened relationship.
- Intimacy and sexual relations may be awkward at first. Go slowly. Your time apart will require some adjustments as you reconnect.
- Take time to understand how the family has changed while you've been gone. Be observant and talk with your spouse about your expectations during reintegration with the family. Notice how your spouse is dealing with your children's discipline, for example.
- Spend time alone with each member of your family. Think of things to do with your children that you each enjoy and that give you a chance to have fun together.
- Watch your spending. It can be tempting to celebrate your return with dinners out or special gifts. Be careful and keep an eye on your finances.
What the spouse at home can do:
- Communicate how the first days after the return should look or be scheduled. The strict routine of deployment can leave service members craving free time and relief from constant responsibilities.
- Take your time when reintroducing expectations such as your spouse taking care of household chores. The long trip home leaves most service members in need of rest in order to adjust.
- Spend time talking with each other. You've both been through separate experiences during your spouse's deployment, and you've both changed in some ways as a result.
- Expect your children to test the rules now that both parents are home. Whenever there's a change in a family, children work to find out whether it might mean any loosening of limits. Together, apply rules fairly and consistently.
- Don't give up activities that you enjoy and that help you relax. If you've adopted an exercise routine, taken up a hobby you like, or joined a regular book group, don't give it up just because your spouse is home.
It may take a while to sort out the household responsibilities - who makes which decisions, and who takes care of which household tasks. One of you may want to move more quickly than the other to get back to the way you split those roles before the deployment, or to change the way those roles are divided now that you have had a chance to try a different way of splitting them. This re-sorting of responsibilities and any other small changes in routine can make one or both of you feel excited or apprehensive. Keep in mind that it's common for people in this sort of situation to need to readjust to life as a couple. This can be difficult but also rewarding as you experience growth in the relationship.
Talking through these adjustments can be hard if the service member has seen or experienced violent action during deployment. War can leave many difficult memories and experiences for the service member. The experience of war may be hard to talk about, even years later. In time, the service member may want to discuss some of these things if others are willing to listen patiently without judging.
However, if after several months the service member is still not adjusting well, it may be because of a combat stress injury. Signs include being uncharacteristically angry or depressed or having trouble sleeping. This can compound any family or relationship problems you may be experiencing. If these symptoms persist, it's important for the service member to seek professional help. You can get information and support at your local military treatment facility (MTF), through TRICARE, or through the Defense Centers of Excellence (DCoE) for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.