Bridging the Gap: Redeployment isn't always smooth for Army Families
October 27, 2008
GRAFENWOEHR, Germany - 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 downrange - 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... I had my routine, my schedule, and my plans... he kind of got in the way of all those things," Creel explained.
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 strange new emotions are 100 percent normal, according to U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr Deputy Chaplain Lt. Col. David Scheider.
The key to getting back on track, he said, is communicating expectations and emotions with one another.
During extended separations, 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)," explained Scheider, "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 wife (or husband).
"After awhile, they'll begin to develop this expectation of (the spouse) as this perfect person," he said. "It is totally unrealistic... it is half fantasy and half reality."
Back at home, said Creel, a spouse may experience the same thing.
"I did turn him into this perfect husband (during the deployment)," admitted Creel. "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.
Everyone changes during deployments. As couples reunite, Scheider said they must evaluate the reality - who they have become - and get to know each other again.
But don't take anything for granted. 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.
Many spouses look forward to handing over the job of disciplinarian and household organizer to the redeploying Soldier. Often, however, recently returned servicemembers simply can't make this decision because they are unsure of what the rules were in their absence, or what the rules should be.
And at the same time, the spouse is ready to hand off the disciplinarian hat, the Soldier, having missed important family events (a child's birthday), is ready to make up for lost time by overindulging the child.
Talk, talk and more talk is the key, said Scheider. Maintaining open communication - detailing large and minute expectations - is one of the only ways to weather the emotional storm of reintegrating.
Another sticking point is when an increasingly confident spouse, who has grown independent during the deployment, begins to resent when their Soldier expects them to put their life on hold during redeployment.
Returning Soldiers, however, may expect their spouses to pay little attention to their friends or hobbies, devoting all of their time to the Soldier.
While each couple will experience variations of these common scenarios, each relationship and every individual is unique. The bottom line and the driving factor for a smooth reintegration is to make reconnecting as a couple a top priority.
<b>A rollercoaster ride</b>
Soldiers may find themselves feeling both hurt and proud that their spouse coped so well without them. They may question whether or not they are needed in the relationship, and may even feel like an outsider in the family.
Spouses are encouraged to understand these feelings and attempt to make their Soldier feel needed.
Husbands and wives will need affirmation that the strength of their relationship is as strong as ever, or at least growing. The question couples most often ask one another during reintegration is, "Are you there for me; are we still connected emotionally'" said Scheider.
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, Scheider noted.
"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,'" explained Scheider.
He said while spouses may be curious about their Soldier's experiences, the best thing they offer the servicemember is space to work through their feelings. He said spouses should avoid asking questions about what happened in combat and never pressure the Soldier for details.
If, however, the Soldier is still struggling with his feeling after six weeks, Scheider said the Soldier 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. This may leave the spouse feeling unloved and alone.
"It calls into question the whole relationship... the loyalty and the bond," said Scheider. Soldiers, he added, should resist the urge to close their circle of support to only those they served with.
As did the Soldier, the spouse learned to rely on those around her or himself 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... 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," Creel explained. "It is sad that you lose that friendship..."
It is important, however, said Scheider, for the marriage, not the friendships, to be the couple's main priority.
For couples who are still 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."