A woman standing next to me in the airport once complained, “I didn’t get married to be a single mom, this isn’t what I bargained for. I’m so exhausted!” She explained that her husband had been away for two weeks and that she had “had enough.”
This brief encounter illustrates the strain of family separation. If a mere two week business trip can frustrate a spouse’s expectations, what must our military families experience following a lengthy deployment?
While separated, family members often fantasize about reunion; the exhilaration of hugging one another, the anticipated vacation, and the return of intimacy all enable family members to manage separation. Some of these expectations can be met – few families forget the joy they experienced during the moment of reunion.
Although family members fantasize about reunion, few fantasize about reintegration. Reintegration is the process by which the separated family member reenters the family system; a family system is a collection of roles and rules that exist in every family. When a member leaves for any reason, roles and rules shift to adapt to new circumstances; the return of a family member necessitates a further modification.
The reintegration process often begins when the returning family member attempts to reinstate previous family roles and rules. The returning family member did not shift their expectations in unison with the rest of the family system; predictably, their family resists returning to old patterns. For their part, families often want the returning member to adopt the roles and rules they created during separation. Unsurprisingly, the returning family member opposes what they distinguish as unnecessary change.
To facilitate change, individuals need to feel secure and they must understand the benefits that change ensures. Unfortunately, recently reintegrated families may not sense security – they have been stressed by separation, disconnected by distance, and face uncertain expectations. More, families may not appreciate their need to change, often relying on known behavior patterns which only appear helpful.
Complicating matters, some military members return home with lingering effects from being in a war zone. These effects may be misunderstood by family members who, upon reunion, see the person that deployed but are unable to grasp the profound turmoil that lies within them.
During reintegration families can regain security by moving slowly; the emotional “rush” of reunion must be accompanied by an unhurried desire to discover the personal changes that occurred during separation. Additionally, rather than employing known roles and rules, families need to be encouraged to explore and invest in new expectations which benefit every member.
Reintegration can be a lengthy – and sometimes difficult – life event. Army chaplains are positioned to assist families which are struggling to embrace change. Through counseling, family retreats, worship services, and seminars chaplains offer holistic reintegration support. Support, in turn, enhances the family’s sense of security, creates family solidarity, and increases the likelihood of healthy adaptation. The public can assist, as well, by being aware of the complexity of reintegration and assisting the process through patience and consideration.
Reintegration is not effortless, but its benefits are long-lasting. By supporting committed military families, no one needs to fell that they have “had enough.”
Chaplain (Maj.) Donald Ehrke was raised in Mount Clemens, Michigan. He graduated from Oakland University, in Michigan with a Bachelor of Science degree in Public Administration and also with a Master of Art degree in History from the same institution. He received a Master of Divinity degree and is ordained as a Lutheran minister. He is a certified Family Life Chaplain with a degree in Counseling Psychology from Texas A&M/Central He has served as a Battalion and Regimental chaplain with deployments to both Afghanistan and Iraq. He is currently serving as the Pentagon Family Life Chaplain. Chaplain Ehrke has been married for 16 years. He and his wife have a teenager at home (13-year-old son).
Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force.