I recently had the privilege of teaching a group of undergraduate students about military family experiences and got to show a heartwarming video of Service members reuniting with their family members. The video was filled with shouts of joy, hugs, and happy tears as loved ones embraced each other after months of separation. Indeed, family reunions after deployments are joyous occasions, and afterwards the family goes through a process called reintegration (i.e., when family members are reunited following deployment). Although many families feel that their relationships improve during reintegration, it can also be a time of great challenges as romantic partners, parents, and children figure out how to navigate life together again. During this time, challenges can become magnified and couples may experience more ups and downs than usual. This is called relational turbulence.
Relational turbulence is influenced by relationship uncertainty and interference. Uncertainty refers to doubts about the relationship, concerns about partner roles and expectations, and/or questions about how long the relationship may last. Interference is when someone feels like their goals (i.e., or something that they want) are being obstructed by their partner. For example, a newly returning Service member prematurely adopting a role, such as disciplinarian, that the at-home partner has been conducting during the deployment.
These experiences can ramp up a short time after reintegration and can cause challenges in the relationships between the couple and parents and children. Couples may experience declines in emotional or sexual intimacy, feel a lack of support from their partners, and have poor communication. Children may experience more difficulties reintegrating their parent into daily life and routines. The difficulties that military families experience may also be exacerbated when a Service member or an at-home parent is dealing with mental health symptoms like anxiety, depression, or posttraumatic stress disorder.
So, what can couples and families do to better manage the challenges of reintegration?
- First, realize that it is normal for families to stumble during the reintegration phase and become frustrated with reorganizing family routines. Interpreting these challenges as signals of doom for the relationship may contribute to more doubt about the future, which may further complicate the reintegration process.
- Second, communicate openly and have clear expectations during reintegration. This can include covering topics like which roles will be resumed by the Service member and when those changes will occur, areas of doubt or concerns about the relationship that the couple would like to address, how much about the deployment the Service member wants to share with their family, and any plans to seek support or services. It may be helpful for the Service member to take time to reconnect with their children before adopting or re-adopting authoritative parental roles.
- Third, recognize that mental health challenges are normal, and seek resources to build a stronger base for the family. Depression, anxiety, or posttraumatic stress disorder are related to more relational turbulence and reintegration challenges. These challenges are treatable and manageable, especially if addressed with support early in the reintegration period. Consider going to see a counselor as a couple or family to navigate mental health and relational challenges at the same time.
Reintegration is a normal part of the military deployment cycle, and it is normal for families to experience emotional highs and lows during this time. Read more about this experience in our library and be sure to seek out any desired resources to successfully manage challenges that arise.