Meet, Catch, and Keep

A scientific look at the complexities of romantic relationships

Pulled Apart then Coming Back Together

Military couples face unexpected challenges when they reunite after deployment.

Homecomings are joyful, celebratory occasions. Families, spouses, and partners look forward with great anticipation to a reunion with a loved one who has been deployed.  After the initial surge of emotions settles, a reintegration process begins. We might imagine that couples can re-engage seamlessly in the patterns and habits they established before deployment, but such is not the case. Many couples, even happy couples, struggle with the reintegration process, experiencing unanticipated challenges after a period of deployment. Recent research gives us insight into how couples (and families) can best approach the often-difficult reintegration process.

Navigating Closeness

Right after reunion, many couples experience a period of “idealized closeness;” they perceive relationship positives while neglecting to notice the normal challenges that occur within every relationship (Karakurt, Christiansen, Wadsworth, & Weiss, 2013). This period typically persists for longer than a month and then slowly transforms into realistic closeness. Those who experience realistic closeness acknowledge the strengths in their relationship but also see opportunities for improvement.  

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For others, early feelings of idealized closeness give way to disengagement. Individuals might start attending more to the negatives than the positives in their relationship and might contemplate leaving (Karakurt et al., 2013). While some people report valuing their relationship more and viewing it as stronger having survived a deployment, others struggle with unexpected challenges, such as trouble communicating, difficulty reconnecting, or increased conflict (Knobloch & Theiss, 2012). Meanwhile, some individuals never experience an initial wave of idealized closeness; for those couples, stressors within and external to the relationship highlight relationship negatives and encourage disengagement (Karakurt et al., 2013). 

Couples dealing with the challenge of closeness post-deployment might benefit from knowing that reconnection challenges are normal and rebuilding intimacy is supposed to take some time (Bowling & Sherman, 2008). To reflect upon all that was and can be learned through separation and reintegration is one approach that might help empower the couple.

Navigating Interdependence
While separated, military couples can’t help but adopt new ways of going about their everyday lives. They grow accustomed to living each day independently from one another. Part of the challenge of reintegrating is discovering how to be interdependent again and couples often feel uncertain about this transition (Knobloch & Theiss, 2012). Finding interdependence is a particularly salient problem during the first month after reunion and occurs most often for the partner who was not deployed (Karakurt et al., 2013). 

It is important to remember that re-coupling involves negotiations on many levels. This includes between self-reliance and partner-reliance, not only in everyday activities, but also in emotional support.  It can take a little while for couples to begin to rely on each other for support again, after developing habits of turning to friends, comrades, or co-workers during the deployment.

Navigating New Roles

Finally, many couples struggle with negotiating their roles within their own partnership and within their family when a deployed partner returns (Karakurt et al., 2013). Figuring out who is responsible for what becomes an important topic to think about and discuss during reintegration. Even though it tends to occur after the deployed person has been back for awhile, the re-negotiation of responsibilities should occur; otherwise, tension can arise. 

Couples might assume they can operate the same way they did before, but each of member of the couple changes during the separation period. The partner who stays at home, for example, might be proud of his or her new culinary, lawn-cutting, oil-changing, or house cleaning skills; responsibilities need to be re-shuffled and re-negotiated to accommodate the current needs of both members of the couple  Couples often benefit from flexibility, open-communication, and an approach to re-integration that emphasizes they are creating a “new normal” (Bowling & Sherman, 2008). 

Family and Friends

The challenge of reintegration is an important one not only for couples to recognize but for friends and family to acknowledge and appreciate as well. Preparing a couple you love for this challenge by discussing it with them before the reunion occurs is one way to show that you are anticipating the back-and-forth process that is a normal part of reunion and reintegration. Talk with your friend or family member about his or her concerns, fears, hopes, and expectations about their transition back into the every-day of their relationship. After reunion, providing social support, but also providing the couple space to learn new ways of working together, can help as they navigate the reintegration process.

Theresa DiDonato, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and assistant professor at Loyola University Maryland.

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