How am I supposed to handle the sudden role changes that accompany my military spouse's comings and goings? He is a wonderful husband and father, but we're often apart for long periods of time. When he's deployed, I have to take care of all aspects of our family's life; when he returns, he takes the upper hand in certain areas. I want to defer to his leadership, but shifting gears is hard for me. How can I do a better job of transitioning?
First, we want you to know how much we appreciate the sacrifices you and your family are making. As far as we're concerned, you and your spouse are both fighting on the front lines of the worldwide battle for freedom and human rights. We can't thank you enough for everything you're doing to serve your country and your fellow man. It's our privilege to come alongside you in any way we can.
Military life has always been hard on families, but it's become especially difficult and demanding over the past several years. Multiple tours of duty are the order of the day, and they're being served with greater frequency than at any time in the past. Army, Navy, and Marine households are now living in what could be called a state of "extended emergency." And this is happening not once, but several times over the course of the average military career. The resulting pressures on the family unit have stirred up a hornet's nest of problems. The military community has seen a rise in divorce, an increase in the incidence of marital infidelity, various psychological issues (including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and even suicide. To complicate matters, experts have begun to ask serious questions about gaps in the nurturing of young children as military moms are sent overseas in unprecedented numbers. Clearly, this is a situation that requires a great deal of attention and careful thought.
What can you and your spouse do to ensure smoother transitions? How can you head off domestic tension after a prolonged separation? We recommend an intentional, pro-active approach. Prior to his next tour of duty, set aside some time to sit down and talk things out between yourselves. Don't get taken by surprise. A purposeful discussion of hidden expectations and unspoken assumptions can go a long way toward eliminating unforeseen bumps in the road.
Your first assignment is to admit to yourselves and to each other that the process of "shifting gears" can be painful and problematic. Be aware of the potential for conflict. Make up your minds to discuss it openly and honestly. Face the fact that many couples fight bitterly just before a separation. That's because, psychologically, it's easier to part when you're mad than when you're feeling tender toward one another. Be aware that the homecoming is likely to be complicated by all kinds of emotional issues. Cultivate an awareness of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Think about ways of responding if it becomes a factor in your marriage.
Both of you should realize that the spouse who remains on the home front faces a huge assignment. She has to assume a burden of responsibility that would normally be divided between two people. She has to function, in effect, as a single parent. This almost inevitably leads to confusion concerning marital roles when the absent partner re-enters the picture. It can also create a situation in which both parties feel unnecessary. At such times it's incredibly helpful and healing for the returning spouse to acknowledge his wife's efforts with a heartfelt "thank you." He should offer to pick up the slack wherever she feels it's most needed. If you're aware of this beforehand, you can make a joint decision, possibly by way of a written agreement, to be patient and understanding with one another when you come back together.
If you have children, it would be a good idea to include them in a similar conversation. This is especially important if they're old enough to understand and appreciate the challenges you're facing as a family. You may even want to consider the option of doing some family counseling with a trained Christian therapist. Encourage your kids to talk about their feelings. Ask them questions such as, "What's the same and what's different when Dad's away? How do things change when he comes home?" Come up with a plan to maintain as much continuity and "normalcy" as possible in the lives of your children during periods of transition and change.
We've already mentioned marriage and family counseling as a possible source of help and support. We'd encourage you to investigate as many other potential resources as you can think of. Start with your military chaplain's office and your local church. If you need further assistance, don't hesitate to contact Focus on the Family. We have a staff of trained counselors who are available to speak with you over the phone. In the meantime, we recommend that you take a look at some of the materials listed below. All of these resources are available through our ministry and can be ordered by way of our Online Store.
In this iQuestions video from Focus on the Family, Gary and Barb Rosbert discuss the challenges military families face to re-integrate their home life when a deployed spouse returns, and offer advice for making a successful transition.
Christian Military Fellowship
The Chain of Command in Marriage