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Readjusting to Family Life Requires Communication

By Mary Markos
Special to American Forces Press Service

GRAFENWOEHR, Germany, Oct. 27, 2008 – All Eva Creel wanted for 12 months was for her husband to come home from Afghanistan to be by her side.

When he returned, she found she wanted nothing more than her own personal space.

Creel – like many spouses of soldiers returning from deployments – discovered firsthand that the rush of emotions after redeployment can both draw a couple together and pull them apart.

“When they’re gone, you miss them terribly, but you become very independent,” she said. “I had my routine, my schedule and my plans. He kind of got in the way of all those things.”

Redeployment is an overwhelming joy and a rollercoaster ride of emotions, including everything from feelings of guilt from a newfound independence to the insecurity and frustration of getting to know one another again. But these emotions are 100 percent normal, according to Army Chaplain (Lt. Col.) David Scheider, deputy chaplain for the U.S. Army Garrison here.

The key to getting back on track, he said, is communicating expectations and emotions with one another.

During extended separations, Scheider said, it is common for couples to develop unrealistic expectations of a physical and emotional reunion. One of the most common types of expectation building is for soldiers to develop an unrealistic image of their spouse in their minds. A very high number of deployed troops do this, the chaplain said.

“There is really not much of a place to get away from it all [while deployed],” he explained, “So they develop a place in their brain to go to, in their memories. And they start to build this safe place. The star of that safe place in their mind is usually their [spouse].

“After awhile, they’ll begin to develop this expectation of [the spouse] as this perfect person,” he continued. “It is totally unrealistic. It is half fantasy and half reality.”

Back at home, Creel said, a spouse may experience the same thing.

“I did turn him into this perfect husband [during the deployment],” she admitted. “The reality is different.”

To prevent reality shock from upending the marriage, the soldier and spouse should reevaluate the “fantasy” image they have created of their loved one, Scheider said. Because everyone changes during deployments, he said, couples must evaluate the reality of who they have become and get to know each other again when they’re reunited after a deployment.

In doing so, he added, they shouldn’t take anything for granted. Couples should communicate even the most obvious expectations and desires, even something as simple how much time you expect to spend alone together or who will take out the trash, the chaplain said.

Some spouses look forward to handing over the job of disciplinarian and household organizer to the redeploying soldier, Scheider said, but recently returned servicemembers often can’t make this decision because they are unsure of what the rules were in their absence, or what the rules should be. At the same time the spouse is ready to hand off the disciplinarian hat, the soldier, having missed birthdays and other important family events, is ready to make up for lost time by overindulging the child.

Talk, talk and more talk is the key, Scheider said, as maintaining open communication – detailing both large and small expectations – is one of the only ways to weather the emotional storm of reintegrating.

Another sticking point, the chaplain said, is when increasingly confident spouses who have grown independent during the deployment, begin to resent when their redeployed soldiers expect them to put their lives on hold and devote all of their time to them.

While each couple will experience variations of these common scenarios, each relationship and every individual is unique, Scheider said. The bottom line and the driving factor for a smooth reintegration, he said, is to make reconnecting as a couple a top priority.

Soldiers may find themselves feeling both hurt and proud that their spouse coped so well without them, the chaplain noted. They may question whether or not they are needed in the relationship, and may even feel like an outsider in the family. Spouses should understand these feelings and attempt to make the soldier feel needed, he advised.

Both spouses will need affirmation that their relationship is as strong as ever, or at least growing, Scheider said, but connecting on an emotional level after redeployment may take some time. Soldiers who experienced a high level of stress during the deployment may feel shame for something they did or guilt for something they did not do in combat. This can be a contentious area, the chaplain said.

“The most hurtful thing [to a spouse can be] wanting to have that significant reconnection, waiting for this time to really sit down and talk, and [the soldier] stiff-arms her, thinking, ‘I want to protect her from who I am,’” he explained.

While spouses may be curious about their soldier’s experiences, the chaplain said, the best thing they offer the servicemember is space to work through their feelings. Spouses should avoid asking questions about what happened in combat and never should pressure the soldier for details, he said.

Soldiers still struggling after six weeks, Scheider said, should seek help.

Throughout reintegration, as soldiers readjust to their new home life, they may seek a comrade in arms to confide in and relate to, the chaplain said. This may leave the spouse feeling unloved and alone.

“It calls into question the whole relationship -- the loyalty and the bond,” he said. Soldiers, he added, should resist the urge to close their circle of support to only those they served with.

And just as soldiers do, he noted, spouses learn to rely on those around them for support and assistance during the deployment. When troops return, they may experience hurt feelings and disappointment if those support groups begin to crumble.

“I had a few friends whose husbands were deployed at the same time as mine,” Creel said. “We were like family. We talked to each other every day. They were in my routine. But when our husbands came back, we barely talked to each other. It is sad that you lose that friendship.”

It is important, however, Scheider said, for the marriage, not the friendships, to be the couple’s main priority.

For couples who still are having trouble reconnecting on an emotional level after six weeks, Scheider suggested reaching out for professional help.

“Healthy couples,” he said, “gang up on the problem, not each other.”

(Mary Markos works in the U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr Public Affairs Office.)

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