Helping Military Couple Reconnect after Deployment
People change—it’s just a fact of life. You are not the same person at 51 as you are at 21. Everyone grows and changes over time. Not only do we change physically with less hair, more weight, less strength and energy and more age spots and wrinkles, we change in our personalities, motivations, and priorities. Even as a couple you aren’t the same today as when you started out in those early years of dating and marriage. People say, “But can’t it be like it was in the beginning?” The answer is no, it can’t be. We grow, mature and change over time…it’s called life. We evolve physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually and that can be a real challenge to a marriage if you don’t pay attention to your spouse. Husbands and wives who get caught up in their own worlds and fail to make the necessary adjustments tend to drift apart. I’m sure you have heard of couples who have been married 25 or 30 years and end up staring across the breakfast table at the other person having absolutely no idea who that is! Generally that’s the exception, not the norm since most couples manage to navigate the path of the changes in life. Slowly over the years they learn, grow and make the adjustments together.
Now, sudden change can be a lot more difficult to handle. Things like a cancer diagnosis, other illness such as a stroke or catastrophic injuries from an accident that leave a person paralyzed, the death of a parent—or God forbid, a child can all apply extreme pressure to a marriage. Both people may change dramatically due to the stress and circumstances of the situation. Yet the couple is together during the time learning to cope with the ordeal, and the ensuing bumps and hurdles they have to clear. These types of situations often times bring a husband and wife closer to one another. Trials and tribulations can be very bonding when you are going through it with your mate.
Military families, however, face the worst case scenario when it comes to change: It happens under great stress, very quickly and they are not together to make the adjustments. Men and women part as Wife A and Husband A, but after 12 to 18 months of separation, intense pressure and change, they can come back together as Wife B and Husband B. Their priorities and motivations may have changed dramatically. It is often very challenging and extremely frustrating for both since soldiers and their spouses may now process life in a completely new and different way. Their ideas of what is and isn’t important can also change during the time when one is dealing with the pressures of war, while the other is alone fending for themselves and their family at home. It’s bound to transform them. When they first get back together, they are just so excited to see one another that the shift in who they are may not be evident. But then after a couple of weeks they look at each other and wonder: Who on earth are you? What happened to you during this time? You aren’t the same person I knew before!
They weren’t together to witness the change, the other person seems so different and it’s a total surprise. As humans it’s natural to feel threatened, frightened and angry when you don’t understand something and don’t know what’s going on. But when you know the “rest of the story”, as Paul Harvey used to say, then it makes sense. In my book Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage I include a story told by Stephen Covey that captures the power that understanding has on our emotions:
I remember a mini-paradigm shift I experienced one Sunday morning on a subway in New York. People were sitting quietly—some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene.
Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed.
The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.
It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. So finally, with what I felt was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more.”
The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”
Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? My paradigm shifted. Suddenly, I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely.” Your wife just died? Oh, I’m so sorry! Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?” Everything changed in an instant.
When you understand it changes everything for you—even if nothing changes on the outside. If there is one thing both spouses need after a deployment, it’s understanding. I recommend our simple online assessment tool called The Flag Page (www.flagpagetest.com) for military couples facing this kind of situation. The military is our number one customer of The Flag Page because it very quickly helps couples reconnect and understand who their spouse is right now. You may not like it, but at least you understand it. I often tell couples that what your spouse does may very well irritate you until the day you die—the good thing is you die! Understanding is the key.
One of the things the Flag Page does is show what your five most important motivations are in life. Here is an example: Perhaps the husband was a Great Sense of Humor, Easy Going kind of guy prior to deployment, yet after the stresses of military life and combat, he comes back and now is more of a Serious, Faithful type man. He learned that war was serious business and that his very life depended on the guy next to him being trustworthy, dependable and doing exactly what he was supposed to do. It worked well when serving in the unit, but can be a very two-edged sword. Back at home he now has a heightened sense of “faithful” and can view all kinds of things as being “unfaithful”. Something as simple as his wife saying she’s going to Kmart but going to Wal-Mart instead could upset him because she didn’t do exactly what she said. He has a new filter that he is processing through.
Here is another scenario: Let’s say the husband is the one who deployed and prior to that he managed all the bills and finances. During his time away the wife has become much more Self-Sufficient, Independent as she learned to do this and actually grew to love it and doesn’t want to give the role back to him. It’s imperative for these two to discuss the change and what is now important to them and why. They must have these conversations, let go of who the person was, and stop insisting that they go back to the way they were before. They need to understand that both have changed—no one stays the same. It is just more difficult because this was an accelerated version that happened while they were apart. They have to make the adjustments if they are going to succeed in their marriage.
The Flag Page is a direct line to reconnecting and is great for anyone in who needs to explain who they are or when you want to understand what “the rest of the story” is or why a person is acting the way they are. Chaplains and military personnel all over the world are trained and using the Flag Page because they have seen how effective it can be. So for all of you military couples out there: Thank you and God bless you for your service and sacrifice! Don’t let your marriage become a casualty of war. Do what it takes to gain the understanding and re-establish your marriage after deployments.