On Oct 13, 2010 the 33rd Chilean miner emerged from the mine that had entrapped him and his co-workers for 2 months into the arms of family, friends, the Chilean president, the nation and a billion viewers worldwide. Publicly it was a homecoming that the world wanted to embrace as proof of resiliency and success in the face of death defying challenge. Privately this homecoming was the answer to the prayer of every partner still waiting for someone in harm’s way.
What a billion people do not see and may not understand is that the homecoming of a partner who has been in danger, as in the case of these miners, and so many military returning from war is both a treasured event and a complex process.
For a couple, in addition to all that it demands in terms of the reality of time, space, roles, money, kids and deployment cycles, homecoming means finding a way to integrate all that has happened to each partner into the relationship they share. It doesn’t matter which partner actually arrives home. On many levels both have to “come home” together. As a couple that means coming to know themselves and their partner – falling in love again.
How Does that Happen?
Couples do this in their own way, in their own time, knowing that they are not alone. They so often find that even more than the hours waiting to be rescued, the hours of driving in the dessert, the flight from Baghdad, and the applause and embrace of those waiting, the journey home is the one they will take together 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 their 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 have many more moments to 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 a marine serving with dust, death, comrades and combat as your familiar context or you’re an entrapped miner working and waiting without the light of day. 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 day dreaming 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 and the last thing you want is to end up in an emergency room from alcohol poisoning or jail from drunk driving. Above all -- 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 the 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, and 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 provides on-line information, mini assessment tests and hot-lines for support and help.
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.
Who is That Stranger?
According to Colonel Thomas Burke, the Director of Health Policy for the Department of Defense, nobody returns from combat unchanged. Similarly, trauma theorist Janoff-Bulman suggests that traumatic events change us because they call into question assumptions about ourselves, our sense of mastery, the world, even our faith. Whether those changes become adaptive or problematic, for couples it is worth considering that even when thousands of miles apart, if one spouse has been faced with dangerous, life threatening events- the other has also been impacted.
Notwithstanding this impact, we know that even the most painful situations can be opportunities for growth- if understood and embraced.
• Be empathic to yourself with regard to your mission and your service. Be understanding of certain physical or emotional changes you and your partner are dealing with.
• Be accepting of what you observe to be different in your partner and curious or concerned about behavior that may warrant help.
• Be open to changes as there is something enlivening about expanding your own definition of self and recognizing something new in your partner.
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 find a way to adjust to changes. 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.