Like so many other military families, the Englens are seasoned pros when it comes to deployments. Tina estimates her husband Doug has been deployed 1,700 to 1,800 days over the course of his Army career.
While other families bask in the glow of their soldiers return, Tina estimates the fun, post-homecoming “honeymoon” period now lasts just a week before her family returns to the normal routine.
“I know ours is quick because we get right back into it and life happens, and before we know it, he’s coming down on orders to leave again,” she said.
To keep things running smoothly for the entire family, homecomings and send-offs aren’t a big production, which makes life easier for the whole family.
“(The kids) never would’ve been able to function normally if we made these welcome homes and farewells bigger than they were,” she said. “We’re with other people whose husbands are gone six months to fifteen months. I think ‘Wow, you’re still lovey on each other.’ I think the longer they’re gone, the longer the honeymoon lasts.”
But eventually, that honeymoon period ends and families have to deal with the less romantic aspects of working a service member back in to the daily routine after the wife’s been holding down the fort for months on her own. Both husband and wife have been through a lot and changed over the course of the deployment, which often leads to friction.
“I guess for me, it would be I’m not the full person in control any more,” Tina said. “I think on his part, it’s just hard to see how well we can operate without him.”
The couple has reached a point where Doug tries to slip in and out as seamlessly as possible, Tina said.
“I truly appreciate that he doesn’t come in and make a big ruckus,” she said. “He kind of slides in quietly when he can … that’s when it works the best, when he can kind of give in to what’s already going.”
But not every couple manages the transition well.
“There’s a lot of personality changes in them, especially if they’ve gone over two or three times,” said Amy Twiss, a therapist in Colorado Springs. “A lot of time the women feel like the person they married is different from the person they’re with now. The men get pissed and feel helpless, but there’s so much going on they can’t control.”
Need for control is the recurring theme Twiss sees among her military couples working through post-deployment readjustments.
Husbands often return home, settle in and then take stock of how the wives have handled finances, children, home maintenance and other issues. They may criticize how their wives have managed without them, which the wives don’t appreciate because they’ve carried so many burdens for so long, Twiss said.
But it’s really not about how well the wife has kept things going on her own.
Service members who have been far from home in a war zone for long periods of time in a chaotic, unpredictable environment have a strong subconscious need to take control, Twiss said, because for so long, they had virtually no control over anything.
For wives, the opposite is usually the case. They’ve been in complete control of everything for months, and they often don’t want to relinquish it.
“The woman’s been independent, the man comes back and wants to take care of the household,” Twiss said. “That does not go over well - and rightly so. It gets really ugly.”
Then there’s the fact that each spouse has adjusted to life without the other.
“(Wives are) feeling kind of lost when (husbands) leave, they’re gone and they figure it out and they make it work,” Twiss said. “Husbands come back after (wives have) been single basically for a year and a half and now you’re a couple again and it’s very hard to make that transition again.”
By the time couples come to Twiss for help, they’re usually at the point where tempers are hot and communications are cold. Pulling away, shutting down emotionally and heavy drinking are often warning signs leading up to seeking professional help, she said.
In her office, nobody can get angry and storm out.
“I give them a safe space for both of them to tell where they’re at, how they’re feeling, what’s different, what they can do for themselves that can make it better,” she said.
“They talk as a couple about what they can do for each other to make things change and what they can do for themselves as well to make things different to make things better and move forward,” she said.
The couple can build on that initial communication to regain intimacy they previously shared, or even new perspectives on each other, Twiss said.
“The couple gets insight on deeply locked-in emotional stuff,” she said. “They develop compassion. It’s really interesting. They start getting a different level of vulnerability with each other again.”
With counseling, couples can often come to a place where they understand their spouse’s wartime experience, a key to repairing the relationship damage.
“It’s a little bit deeper than trust,” she said. “They’re able to finally see for the first time what that other person has been through.”