The war in Iraq has officially ended and the president promises to bring the troops home from Afghanistan by the end of next year. For all of our military and all of their families, finding the way home from war is a treasured event and a complex process.
For families, homecoming involves readjustment in terms of time, space, roles, and expectations. For couples, homecoming means finding a way to integrate all that has happened to each partner and the relationship they share. Whether one or both have been to war, on many levels both partners have to “come home” together. For couples that means coming to know themselves and their partners in old and new ways.
How Does that Happen?
Couples do this in their own way, in their own time, knowing that they are not alone. They often find that even more complicated than the hours waiting to be rescued, the hours of driving in the dessert, the flight from Bagdad, and the applause and embrace of those waiting, is the journey home they will take in the many months that follow.
Listed below are some considerations gleaned from others who have traveled this path as well as from those who have worked with and guided them home.
The Excitement and Fear of Homecoming
- It comes as a surprise to realize that for as much as everyone is counting the moments to be re-connected with his or her partner, many are also very anxious about homecoming – “Will he still love me?” “Will I still love him?” “Will she expect me to be the same?” “How much will she have changed?”
- You are not alone if you are both excited and nervous. If you can, savor those first Kodak moments of connection. You will build upon them as you get to know each other again.
- If those first moments just don’t unfold as dreamed, give yourself time and trust your coping skills and support networks.
Emotional Time Warp
In some ways homecomings throw you into an emotional time warp. One day you are military serving with dust, death, comrades and combat and then –You are home.
It takes time to adjust. There is often such a flood of feelings on the return home that both partners may at times secretly wish to turn back the clock. It rarely means you don’t love your partner.
It takes time to be physically and psychologically home. You still have a powerful bond with your comrades and your mission. Being home does not eradicate that. It means that there can actually be room for many dimensions in your mind and heart.
The Romantic Interlude
- Most partners have been daydreaming about the “Homecoming” with the expectation of the long-awaited sexual connection. For some it is all they had hoped for. For many, human factors of fatigue, anxiety, injury, illness, expectations, children, pets or family conspire to make this impossible – at first. It is worth remembering that this is not a TV “Homecoming Episode,” it is your life together. One or both of you may need time for different reasons.
- Reclaiming intimacy often happens best in small and special steps. Listening to music, holding each other, laughing and crying together, talking in the dark about your first time as lovers, all work to restore a sense of trust and intimacy. As such, they enhance sexual connection.
- You have time – take it. Falling in love again is about feeling your partner’s desire and knowing you are finally back together.
In their valuable book, Wheels down: Adjusting to Life after Deployment, Bret Moore and Carrie Kennedy offer some advice worth holding for you and your partner.
They recognize that you will have the urge to party, feel free, and go out to celebrate your homecoming. They urge you to: Get plenty of sleep -you probably don’t even realize how exhausted you are; Don’t drink much alcohol – your tolerance is not likely to be the same. The last thing you want is to end up in an emergency room from alcohol poisoning or in jail from drunk driving. Above all they urge you to — leave your weapon at home.
Making Sense of Trauma Symptoms Together
“I’m numb- I wish I could feel.”
“I can’t sleep – the nightmares won’t stop.”
“He is so angry; he can’t seem to control the road rage.”
- Combat stress and traumatic life threatening events can jolt us physically, neurochemically and emotionally.
- As one Vietnam veteran said, “When you are finally back here and you finally make connection with your safety, which is your family…that’s when you begin to vibrate with the fact of where you were.”
- Because your partner will be the person closest to you, it is valuable for both of you to understand the common symptom clusters of trauma. In some ways they are functional because they are the body and mind’s way of integrating what you have experienced. They include: Intrusion or re-experiencing the imprint of trauma (flashbacks, trauma memories, nightmares); Hyperarousal or the persistent fear that you are still in danger (quick to startle, inability to relax or sleep, irritability) and constriction, numbing and avoidance (the body’s shut down as a protection against feeling too much).
- You may recognize some of these reactions in yourself or your partner. What is important is that you recognize the need to seek help for them if they persist for more than a month.
- Helping each other cope with these, as well as symptoms of anxiety or depression, is an important example of couple care.
- There are many resources as MilitarySource One and The Real Warriors Campaign , which provide on-line information, mini assessment tests and hotlines for support and help. In addition, The Soldiers Project and Give an Hour offer pro-bono services for military and their partners. Shining Service and MilitaryMomsTalk Radio are sources of support and help for women in the military.
The Pause that Refreshes
A common expectation that partners may have in the glow of “Homecoming” is the belief that they should share every waking moment together. Often neither (thankfully) wants this but fears the other expects it.
The reality is that you are adjusting to your re-connection. You have just managed to cope apart from each other under very difficult circumstances. Celebrate your resilience.
Be it jogging, spirituality, friends, the gym, music, books – don’t suddenly give up your stress reducing routines or ask your partner to give up his/hers. If constructive, these are valuable ways to regulate anxiety and enhance functioning.
Tell your partner about them, include your partner in some – go slowly and add the “We” experiences to what you both find helpful and enjoyable. Love does not mean 24/7 attachment.
Homecomings are about transitions on many levels. On the broadest level they represent a transition from the past that you once knew and shared together to a future, which may seem uncertain and difficult.
As you proceed look for the resilience you have always had and the bond that you once shared. Look for the person you once loved in yourself and in your partner – and fall in love again.
Homecomings are certainly about promises and processes but they are also about the debt of thanks this country owes you and your family for your service.