I’ll never forget hearing that the Space Shuttle Columbia had broken up upon its return to Earth, killing all seven gallant crew members. The cause of the crash was traced to a damaged heat shield on the spacecraft that protected it from the enormous friction and the intense temperatures it experienced upon re-entry into our atmosphere. The 2003 disaster serves as a tragic salute to the courage of men and women willing to dare greatly in life. But it also offers a sobering reminder for the rest of us who may never go into space: sometimes the most dangerous part of a mission is coming home and the friction that occurs.
I’ve heard this from couples who have been separated by short business trips as well as months-long military deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. The latter was brought home to me when I was invited to speak to the military families at the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) at Fort Bragg. While there, I heard how separation and re-entry greatly affect our servicemen and woman and their families.
Whether a husband or wife goes away in uniform or a business suit, it seems that oftentimes they and their spouse somehow get through the challenges of being apart, but being reunited doesn’t quite turn out to be the sweet homecoming they had imagined. How is it that an anticipated happy reunion can end up in hurt feelings, frustration, and disappointment? I believe there are four reasons why re-entry can be so hard for separated families. Here is what you can do about it.
Both the goer and the stayer are looking forward to being together but for different reasons. The one who has been on the road may feel they are due some reward for working hard and “bringing home the bacon.” They may be looking forward to nothing more than putting their feet up in an easy chair, with the children in their lap. But the spouse who stayed behind may want a break from single parenthood and serving the kids in the other’s absence. They may want you to get the kids’ dinner, do the dishes, and take out the garbage so that they can have some alone time and rest.
Clarifying what each of you is thinking and hoping for ahead of time could reduce the friction—and also remind you that the other has needs and wishes, just like you. As I said in this blog, knowing what to expect is half the battle. And while you are clarifying things, here are some unfair expectations for wives to have of their husbands, and husbands of their wives.
Being apart necessarily means picking up extra or different responsibilities—typically for the one who stays behind. Redistributing those things again when you are back together may not go smoothly if it isn’t discussed. For example, if Mom has been home alone with the kids, they’ve known her as the one to set the rules and make decisions. If Dad comes back with different ideas about what’s what, that can be confusing. There needs to be a clear transition. And just as important as clarifying roles is, remember that whatever position you may be playing, you are on the same team: Us.
During my time at JSOC, General Raymond A. Thomas noted the important part everyone in a military family has to play in deployment, saying, “Your proximity to the fight does not determine your value to the fight.” He’s saying that everyone plays an important role, whether fighting on the ground in a foreign country or fighting at home for their family.
In one sense, while it certainly brings some additional challenges, being separated doesn’t create that many new problems. But it certainly magnifies and intensifies those that already exist. If you’re feeling undervalued, chances are they will come to the surface when he or she comes back from a trip full of what they have done and forgotten you have been home holding down the fort. One way to avoid re-entry problems is to work on those “little things” now, so they don’t have the chance to fester and blow up when you get home.
If they haven’t been identified ahead of time, you may not even be aware yourself of what the separation has taken out of you. Physically and emotionally, being apart can take its toll and it’s not unreasonable to want those needs to be met. They just need to be voiced in a kind and gentle way: Remember that your spouse is not a mind-reader. They also should be considered in the light of your spouse’s needs too.
What have your experiences with re-entry been? How have you learned to navigate a safe landing? Share your experiences below.