When a partner returns from war, it is a time of joy. But after the initial period of celebration, many couples face a number of unexpected difficulties adjusting to their lives together. In this exclusive Q&A, clinical psychologist and author of Coming Back Together Steven L. Sayers offers real tips to help returned service members and their partners navigate the myriad challenges of reintegration and family life after deployment.
We often hear about the challenges that veterans face after returning from service—post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) being the most commonly discussed. What are some of the unique challenges faced by the partners of returning service members?
One of the biggest challenges partners of deployed service members face is not feeling involved in what his or her partner is going through. Many returning service members feel that others simply cannot understand what they have experienced. This can cause partners to feel cut off and unable to help, leading to more relationship and family struggles.
The time period when a veteran returns home is commonly referred to as “the honeymoon period,” but, as you point out in your book, it’s far from that. Can you elaborate?
Many couples experience an initial period of happiness when they see each other again. But reality can hit hard if a partner resists sharing household decisions and responsibilities with the service member. Partners often feel proud about the way they’ve managed things in the service member’s absence, and returning service members often have little patience with the tedium and details associated with everyday life at home and may be used to a life that is mission-driven and intense, involving important life-and-death decisions.
If the returning service person is a parent and is suffering from difficult reintegration or mental health issues, how should the partner talk to their children about these challenges?
Parents should adjust [what they say about these issues] according to the age of child. Less detail is usually needed for younger children. Also, many young children believe that they are the cause of the problem they are observing in the family. Because of this, parents need to take special care in letting children know they are not to blame. In general, children of all ages can be told that their returning parent had difficult experiences, which led them to feel sad, angry, or upset. The important thing is to assure children that both parents still love them and will both work hard to help the whole family feel happy again.
What are some ways that couples can reconnect after deployment?
Be willing to take risks. Offer to spend time together in simple but enjoyable activities, such as taking walks, listening to music, or sharing a meal. Have patience when your partner is not in the mood to be open with you or take you up on a certain activity. Instead, be willing to offer a chance to spend time together again soon.
Could you talk about your work for the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center?
My staff and I have been working with veterans since the beginning of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, providing couple counseling and education about the impact of deployment. Recently, we have been conducting an interview study concerning reintegration from deployment. I also direct a national VA telephone call center called Coaching into Care (888-823-7458) for family members who want to learn more about how to talk to the veterans in their families about seeking care.
If you could give one piece of advice to the partners of returning service members, what would it be?
Make a conscious commitment to the relationship. It is an essential step in making sure you and your partner are successful in reintegrating. This will create a very positive and practical atmosphere that will lead to solutions for most problems. The core message of my book is to show partners how to take an active role in adjusting to the return of their loved ones after deployment, leading to easier reintegration and better lives together.