Why Military Homecomings Are Harder Than Goodbyes

military couple

If someone you love is in the military, there's something you should know.

You've seen the pictures of men and women of the military rushing off planes and buses to greet their spouses and children. The smiles, the tears, the hugs and the fanfare warm the heart and cause tears to flood the eyes. But what happens after the cameras are put away? What happens after the homecoming festivities are over? Do things go back to pre-deployment state or are they forever changed?

As a clinical psychologist who served in the United States Air Force, and as the spouse of an active duty Marine, I can personally and professionally report that for many, the homecoming is harder than the goodbye.

Military families are strong and resilient. They are masters at organization and pulling oneself up by the proverbial bootstraps. The spouse left behind when the active duty member deploys becomes "the one." The one who grocery shops, the one who mows the lawn, the one who gets the children ready for their day and the one who puts them to bed, the one who handles calling the plumber and the cable person, who takes care of the laundry, who fixes the flat tire, who kisses the kids' boo-boos. 

The family remaining at home anxiously awaits a 30-second phone call or two minute Facetime session. They obsessively check their email.  They count down the days until they get to once again meet and greet their military loved one, get to witness the fanfare and get to settle back into old routines.

What many do not expect upon homecoming is that old routines are now obsolete. Everyone has fundamentally changed. The military member has been exposed to many life-and-death situations. They have faced a myriad of stressful circumstances. They have closed off part of their emotional abilities in order to get through the deployment.

Meanwhile, the ones who stayed at home have become the one who handles it all. They too have closed off part of their emotional capacity in order to get through the deployment. They have pondered life if their loved ones do not come home. They have experienced a myriad of emotions and stressful situations. They have most likely mastered the most complex of school, work and home schedules.

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Pre- and post-deployment briefings discuss the likelihood that becoming reacquainted with loved ones takes time (I distinctly remember one briefing saying 2-3 weeks). They explain the one returning may have trouble sleeping, may appear hypervigilant and may drink to excess to calm down. These briefings (many of which I gave) did not include the fact that when your loved one returns your grocery bill will triple. They did not account for laundry quadrupling. They did not address the process of going from "being the one" to again "being two." They do not prepare military families for the difficulties in reestablishing bonds and trying to be patient in re-learning one another's strengths and weaknesses.