By Matt Lensing, MTI Contributor
On my flight to Hawaii, I looked over at the empty seat that my wife was supposed to be sitting in and felt dejected. She had planned to accompany me, but our son had gotten sick, so I left her behind after only returning home from a six-month deployment a few weeks earlier. My plan had been to make the most of this short notice work trip and bring her along to ease the shock of my unexpected absence. Although it was the logical decision for her to cancel her flight I was still crushed. When she saw the anguish in my face, my wife told me to, “stop trying to make up for lost time.”
That was exactly what I was trying to do. The trip was supposed to be a grand gesture to compensate for the last 7 months of being gone for training and then deployed overseas. I should have known better that you cannot rebuild a relationship in a day, or through one vacation.
Preaching resiliency and trusting the process are some of my primary messages as an Army leader, but I did not follow my own advice. My overwhelming desire to accomplish any task was damaging my most important relationship. This setback during my post-deployment reintegration with my family forced me to reflect on these tenets:
- Show gratitude – Be grateful for being home and what your family accomplished during your absence.
- Don’t treat family relationships as check-the-block tasks – There are no shortcuts to quickly reintegrating with loved ones after an extended absence. It takes time and consistency.
- Ask your family for direction – Ask for feedback to determine where to prioritize your efforts before starting reintegration.
- Presence counts – Just being there is often enough to help your family start to feel more normal with you back in their lives.
Although this most recent deployment was not a combat tour it still took me a while to shift my mindset out of being overseas when I returned. I focused on the mission to avoid missing my family too much. Even after coming home, I tried to maintain the same pace and intensity by replacing deployed requirements of briefings and drafting Situation Reports with being a husband and father again.
Instead of being grateful that I was home I found myself irritated adjusting to a routine that had changed since I left. Although I had good intentions to jump back in and take the burden off my wife who had been solo parenting in my absence it was difficult to find my place. At first it almost seemed like my family did not need me since things were running very smoothly, and everyone had accomplished a lot while I was gone.
My son had grown from an infant to a toddler about to take his first steps, and our daughters were excelling in school while maintaining a full-time competitive cheerleading schedule. Plus my wife had completed her first year of a full time PhD program while being a single parent. Instead of dwelling on what I had missed I started integrating better once I appreciated my family’s individual and collective accomplishments.
Don’t Treat Relationships as Check-the-Block Tasks
A positive of being away from home was having a lot of time for personal reflection, but it turned out to be a double-edged sword. Although reading leadership books and listening to podcasts on self-development can cultivate a relentless mindset, they hindered reintegration with my family. I thought if I followed certain steps in a particular order my wife and kids would immediately shower me with affection and devotion even stronger than before I left.
Prior to returning home I read articles about relationships and took to heart the advice from the unit chaplain and Military Family Life Consultant (MFLC) during my unit’s reintegration briefs. The irony is even those individuals highlighted that you cannot set a timeline to reintegration, but I figured I could overcome the odds by planning activities and having thoughtful conversations with my wife and kids.
Date nights with my wife were positive, but my attempt for a weekly, “state of the union,” meeting never took off. I thought I could demonstrate my commitment by initiating deep conversations about current and past issues, but it was too much too soon, and my wife felt like I was pushing her. Best thing I could do was be patient, see where I could assist, and most importantly ask my family where I should focus my efforts.
Ask Your Family for Direction
Coming back from deployment I was motivated to strengthen my marriage and family, but I didn’t address my wife’s needs before I started my initiatives for reconnecting. At any point I could have asked her, “what do you need from me?” Instead, I started down a path to change my behavior without checking if it’s what she needed.
An example of failing to communicate was when I told my wife my plans to take the older kids to the movies. It seemed like a great opportunity to give my wife a break, but it meant she would have to stay home with our youngest son. She was looking for time to bond with our daughters, but I did not take that into consideration with my plans.
However, the biggest example of failing to consider my family was when I tried to schedule my return flight from overseas during their spring break trip to Disneyland. I was enticed by the reunion videos of service members surprising their kids at a sporting event, or amusement park, and thought I could do the same. Although it would have meant hopping on another flight immediately after returning home, and probably only getting to spend 24 hours together, I decided I would try to plan a tearjerking family reunion at the “Magic Kingdom.”
Thankfully my wife had the forethought to realize it would not be the best way to begin my reintegration. The happiest place on earth could become a high stress environment as I interacted with my family for the first time in months jetlagged and irritable. In the moment it was a significant blow to my ego, but ultimately was the best decision for our family in the long run.
Turns out being home and engaged with the daily routine can be enough to make everyone start to feel comfortable after extended absences. Instead of lofty ideas to create a single memorable event that would erase the memories of my absence, I should have just focused on being present each day.
Making small deposits daily became my mantra. The grand gesture to replenish the debt in my close relationships never came to fruition. Instead, I just focused on listening to my wife and asking what she needed me to do. I did things around the house without expectation of being noticed for my contributions. Also, I tried to note and comment on the positive things my wife and kids did, and avoided judging what had changed since I left. Most importantly I stopped thinking about getting to a finish line with reintegration.
Marriages and relationships evolve as people grow, learn, and move into different phases of life. My pre-deployment mindset anchored how I viewed my wife and kids, which caused me to keep trying to get things back to the way things were. Rather I should have spent more time learning the current state of my family before trying to make changes.
There is no point where I can say the reintegration process is fully complete. Being a military family, we are constantly in a state of transition either preparing for an upcoming deployment or anticipating the end of one. Although this reality is at odds with my desire to feel a sense of completion, I will now remain content with a perpetual reintegration process in my life.
Matt Lensing is an active duty infantry officer who has served in the U.S. Army since 2007.
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