Home again: military spouses and reintegration

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a three-part series addressing how reintegration affects families in the military.

Service members face specific challenges after a deployment, but they’re not the only ones. Their spouses also have adjustments to make in order to build close family ties after a year of independence.

 “It’s a big transition not only for the Soldiers or service members, but also for their families,” said Dr. (Lt. Col.) Eric Leong, chief of behavioral health for the Stuttgart Army Health Clinic. “Splitting apart is tough, but coming back together is hard, too.”

Providing mutual support can help military couples tighten the bonds that were stretched during the their time apart.

Changes on both sides

The first month or two after a deployment, military spouses may notice that their husbands or wives become annoyed at small things that did not used to bother them, Leong said. “It’s everyday things — registering a vehicle, grocery shopping … .”

This may have to do with sleep deprivation, or the fact that the service member hasn’t experienced day-to-day life in so long, Leong said.

Laura Burhans, a Navy Reserve nurse and Marine spouse, was prepared for this, since she has deployed herself, and understood how her husband felt when he returned from a year in Afghanistan in May.

“When you’re deployed … you don’t have a lot of external demands. You just work, you eat, you sleep,” she said. “Here, you work, you eat, you sleep, plus you have a lot of external influencers. You’ve got bills to pay, you’ve got family … little things that were removed from you when you were deployed can feel like they’re bombarding you.”

When her husband, a Marine lieutenant colonel, arrived at home, it was as she expected. “He was tired … physically and mentally tired,” she said. “It doesn’t take much to overwhelm him. You have to parse it out.”

So, she planned ways to ease the transition.

“We had to schedule some quiet, alone time [for him] to reflect and change his mentality,” she said. She also included him in the household chores little by little, and planned daily activities to do as a couple, such as having dinner or exercising.

However, even with advanced planning, it’s not always easy pulling a husband or wife back into family activities, she added.

She advised other spouses not to be discouraged, if this happens. “Keep in mind, if they don’t jump in 100 percent, it’s not because they don’t want to, it’s not because they don’t love their family. It just takes time to adjust,” she said.

From the service member’s perspective, they may notice that their spouse has become more independent and self-reliant. If the house has changed, they may feel like a guest, Leong said.

That is exactly what happened to Staff Sgt. Jay Harris when he returned from Afghanistan with the 554th Military Police Company in May. He had not lived with his wife, Elia, since 2006, due to unaccompanied tours and the deployment.

“I think the hardest part was the adjustment of living together again because I set up the house how I liked it,” Elia Harris said. “The first three weeks, he was a little distant.”

However, instead of arguing, they agreed to talk about a compromise.

“You just learn how to communicate with each other without … yelling at each other, criticizing each other or talking down,” she said.

The couple rearranged the house together.

“Furniture can be moved around; it’s not permanent,” she added. “If we say things you can’t take back, it’s different.”

Mutual support

Finding ways to support each other as a military couple is vital for marriages after a deployment, according to Chaplain (Col.) Randall Dolinger, USAG Stuttgart command chaplain.

Marital issues are the number one reason service members seek counseling from chaplains after a deployment, he said.

Often, the underlying cause is simple: Both the service member and spouse want a break. “When people serve a long time, they get tired of serving and they come back wanting to be served,” he said.

 He added, “It’s really about thinking about the other person. It’s hard to do that when all you can think about is, ‘I’ve been gone for a year,’ or ‘I’ve been taking care of the kids for a year.’”

To be cared for, each must first take care of the other, he said.

“Think about what the other person has gone through. Think about what you’re doing for them, and if you focus on that, I think that will go a long way into making reintegration [smooth].”

False expectations

Other contributors to marital strife during reintegration are the expectations service members and spouses have prior to the homecoming, Dolinger said.

Service members often imagine that everything will  be exactly the way it was before the deployment, and are surprised to find that their spouses changed as well, he said. “They developed their own schedules, their own new habits.”

A spouse may envision their returned husband or wife spending every free minute home with them. In reality, the service member may want to spend some time alone, or with battle buddies who they deployed with, he added.

Burhans, the Marine spouse, advised other spouses to be patient during this time. “Keep your expectations low, and try to develop a routine early,” she said. “Know that it takes time, and try not to overreact when you run into those little conflicts.”

Money matters

Discussing household finances after a deployment can be especially sticky.

Leong says couples often have strained marriages because of the way money was managed during the deployment.

A military spouse who has never managed a budget before might spend more money than usual during the deployment, Leong said. Or, a redeployed service member may come home and spend all of their deployment money on a new car or motorcycle.

“It’s tough if you have a spouse [who is] very responsible … [and] the other [who is] more carefree, spends more money. The responsible one gets angry that they can’t pay the bills,” Leong said.

The way couples handle money has major effects on their marriage, according to Utah State University professor Jeffrey Dew’s research in “The State of Our Unions,” a 2009 report released by the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project.

“In one study, feeling that one’s spouse spent money foolishly increased the likelihood of divorce by 45 percent for both men and women,” the report states.

These issues can be magnified during military deployments, when one person manages the money.

In addition, “there’s always these unexpected things that pop up that civilians don’t have to worry about,” said Sylvia Allen, Army spouse, who enrolled in a budget management class with her husband after he returned from a 12-month deployment in May. “PCS moves are a big expense. Things come up — you need to get new uniforms.”

Discussing the budget before and during the deployment can help couples avoid financial problems upon return, Dolinger said.

It’s also important to discuss who should manage the finances after the deployment, he added. Sometimes, its best for service members to first observe how the spouse handled things, then make a decision.

‘Don’t isolate yourself’

Although the return to married life can be a bumpy road, Leong encouraged couples not to give up, but to seek help when they need it.

Joining a local church or organization can provide support during the reintegration period, he said.

“Don’t isolate yourself, don’t isolate your family,” Leong said. “Be connected to other people.”