After the Homecoming: Military Spouses
Sioux city, IOWA --
Five Tips to Help Military Spouses Cope with the Stresses Associated with the Military Homecoming
She can feel her heart pounding through her chest. She spent all day at home cleaning the house, then putting on make-up, fixing her hair, and putting on the dress he said he always loved. As the bus pulls up, she is giddy with anticipation. Although she told herself not to cry, the second she sees him step off the bus, tears begin to stream down her face. He stands in formation and gives her a slight smile and wink. The voice of the guest speaker is drowned out by a sea of emotions and thoughts. Across the loud speaker comes the command, "dismissed." She runs into her husband's arms. Only one word can describe what she feels: relief.
Perhaps no other scene in the American landscape is more emotionally driven than the military homecoming. After months, and sometimes years, of separation full of stress from worrying about the deployed service-member and taking care of the home, the homecoming celebration captures the emotional release spouses feel. The relief.
But once the ceremony is over and life begins its move back to normalcy, many couples begin to experience conflict and stress. This article is the first of a four-part series that provides tips and advice for families and friends coping with the military homecoming. In this feature, we give five tips for spouses to help them transition from running the house alone to welcoming the spouse home.
Often spouses want to present their "honey-do" list as soon as the service member gets in the house. The gutters need cleaned, the yard needs mowed, the garbage disposal needs repaired. Throwing all of this on the service-member right away can create a lot of stress. Most service-members need a "readjustment period" to slowly get back into the swing of the non-deployed life.
Kay Radcliffe-De Boer, the former Wing Director of Psychological Health at the 185th Air Refueling Wing in Sioux City, Iowa, says that the readjust period allows the service-member to re-acclimate to the pace and demands that non-deployed life brings. "When service-members have been gone, everyone begins to develop their own habits for getting things done. Service-members have been working at a high pace during their deployment. So when he or she comes home, the demands of non-military life can be over-whelming. So it is important for the family to take it slow."
For families with children, patience becomes even more important. Spouses may want their children and service-member to immediately hit-it-off. But both the children and the service member may find the reunion immediately over-whelming. So forcing interactions can create unnecessary stress and can actually hinder the relationship.
One step you can take to reinforce patience is to avoid over-scheduling. Everyone will want to see the service members when they return. The spouses will also have a lot of things to do when they return. Make sure you take a step back and avoid over-scheduling. Tell extended family and friends that your service-member will want to spend a few days alone with you and your children. Plan to stay at home and do nothing for a few days. Give your service-member some alone time if he or she wants it. Over-scheduling can lead to a lot of stress on both your family and the service-member.
DeBoer says, "You will have expectations of returning immediately to your ideal life. Forcing these expectations can be detrimental to the health of the relationship. Go slow and allow everyone to re-adjust to their normal roles on their own."
Communication after the homecoming is a critical element necessary for the success of the relationship. But often times, when people think of communication, they think of just talking. In fact, one of the most important elements of communication is listening.
De Boer says, "The most important thing you can do for the service-member is to be there. Let him or her know that you are willing to listen."
In order to listen effectively, be sure to give the service-member your close attention. Try to avoid distractions or working on something else while he or she is talking. Also, try to avoid "solving" his or her problem. Most likely, the service member does not want you to fix the problem, he or she simply needs to talk about it.
It is also critical to avoid making judgments when the service-member is speaking. You may have opinions about your spouse's mission or the military's role in the world, but it is important that, when he or she is talking to you that you avoid making those judgments.
Finally, don't force your service-member to talk about the deployment. De Boer says, "The service-member may not be comfortable speaking to you about everything they experienced during their deployment. Don't force it. Instead, just be open to sharing the experiences, when they are ready."
Over the course of the deployment, you have likely learned to cope with your spouse's absence. You likely took over the household duties. You may even be excited to show off your new plumbing skills that you gained in your spouse's absence.
However, service-members returning from deployments may feel as though they are no longer needed at home. This can lead them to feelings of helplessness. De Boer says, "You need to make sure to reassure the service-member that he or she is needed. Even though you were able to get by when they were gone, they need to know that they are needed."
You can do this by first, allowing him or her to take on a few duties. Ask what he or she wants to do. Include comments that make the service member feel good about helping in the household. Most importantly, let him or her know how grateful you are to have someone helping around the house.
4. Talk About Feelings, Not Personality
As mentioned above, communication is critical for the success of any relationship, especially after the homecoming. But eventually all relationships experience conflict or stress. How one communicates during those times can impact how healthy the relationship will be.
De Boer says that spouses need to understand that feelings such as anxiety are a normal part of the reunion process. She adds, "You need to discuss your negative feelings and frustrations. Be honest to your spouse about how you are feeling."
When dealing with relationship conflicts, however, it is important that partners avoid comments such as "You have changed" or "Since you have come back, you have been moody." Such comments are critiques on the individual and can cause the spouse to feel animosity and anger. Instead, comment on specific behaviors and how they make you feel. Your service-member spouse cannot change his or her personality, but he or she can change his or her behaviors.
For example, instead of saying, "You have turned into an angry man since you got back," say "When you yell at me, it makes me nervous." Such statements turn the conflict into a conflict about your emotions instead of on his or her personality.
Finally, when your spouse is arguing with you, avoid quickly associating his or her behavior with the deployment or mental conditions. It is easy to jump to conclusions when your spouse gets angry. With media coverage on Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injuries, you may be too quick to diagnose him or her with such conditions. Of course, look out for patterns of these symptoms, but don't be too quick to judge.
5. Seek External Help
For many, seeking counseling or support is a sign of weakness, or worse, a sign of giving up. This simply is not the case. De Boer says, "Our government has realized that families of deployed service-members deal with a lot of difficulties. They have invested quite a bit in services to help families cope with the stresses the experience when the veteran comes home."
Service-members and their spouses should check with their chaplains or their family readiness support specialist to find out the services available for them. Additionally, www.militaryonesource.com has set up several services that members can access both online and face-to-face 24 hours a day, seven days a week (1-800-342-9647). Another site, www.afterthedeployment.org, offers articles and handouts to help out service members and their families. Military families can also seek out their local VA and Vet Centers to see what services are available to them.
It is important for all families to know that they are not alone. After the magic of the homecoming is over, the stresses of reunification can be quite difficult. By following these tips and seeking help when necessary, families can build a strong relationship long after the deployment.