By Jennifer DeFrates

Nothing is harder than waiting for the end of a long deployment. . . except maybe the realization that reintegration isn’t all champagne and roses.

And sometimes it’s really hard to admit it’s hard.

We counted down the days, we made posters, lost weight, cleaned the house, and did everything in anticipation for that sweet moment our spouse is released and we can rush into their arms. Those are the easy things. But much like the Christmas morning that is over too fast, the intense joy of homecoming can be temporary, quickly replaced by the real hard work of reintegration.

Coming back together as a couple or family after a long separation isn’t easy. We all have habits and preferences that we indulge when we’re apart. We get used to doing everything our way. It’s hard to re-create a space in our lives.

Make sure to factor in the difficulty your service members faces in coming home from combat. They are physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. The transition for your service member is often multilayered and complex. During deployment, you made changes to the house, reorganized the pantry, the kids got older, household routines changed. There is a myriad of ways that life doesn’t look the same as it did when they left.

1. Don’t fall into the trap of expecting it to be easy

trap from Flickr via Wylio
© 2006 dalius kniukšta, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Of course you’re both happy to be back together, of course you still love each other deeply, but that doesn’t change the need for real work on both your parts.

So what can you do?

2. Communicate early and openly

Phone from Flickr via Wylio
© 2010 Steven Lilley, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio

About a month prior to redeployment start talking about expectations. Ask your partner what they want to do when they get home. What are their plans for block leave? What are their expectations for homecoming? Reintegration?

Be willing to share what is important to you and why. Don’t make any decisions at this point. Just listen to each other. Lay all the cards on the table; you can discuss together which ones are important later.

If your expectations and plans differ, find ways to compromise and plan ahead. (When we had to choose one way, I often deferred to my husband since he had been living so long without his favorite places, people, or things.)

3. Decide what you both want homecoming to actually look like

Welcome home from Flickr via Wylio
© 2013 The National Guard, Flickr | GOV | via Wylio

We always invited his family and friends to the house for a huge welcome home celebration. We loved having happy festivities to focus on and sharing the homecoming ceremony with everyone that loves him. It took some pressure off of us for those first few days of readjusting. Maybe you prefer a quiet welcome home and later take a trip to see everyone–a couple of weeks of fun and busyness, enjoying being together again.

After deciding what you want for homecoming and the first few weeks, start talking about normal life. Our deployment phone calls and emails were always the big stuff of “I love you and miss you. Stay safe.” We didn’t waste time with daily drudgery like the cable bill or leaky sinks. Near the end, we had to purposefully start talking about daily life. This eases your service member back into what is happening at the house and prepares them to be part of the family again.

4. Manage your own expectations

2014-10-planner-mitte from Flickr via Wylio
© 2014 danyeela, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

It helped me to think about the month after my husband comes home as the real last month of his deployment. In many very real ways, he needed transition time with low expectations.

Don’t be disappointed if your spouse never sits down or sleeps all the time. . . or isn’t ready to be 100% present with you just yet. Try not to get frustrated if they’re overwhelmed by the kids at first, and it looks like a tough box exploded in your living room.

At the end of my first experience with deployment, I was so excited to see him and all he did was sleep for weeks. He would fall asleep in the middle of the shows I had saved to watch with him. He would fall asleep right after dinner. It was hard on me emotionally.

Using his R&R to anticipate homecoming led to real disappointment. I didn’t realize the dramatic difference between truly coming home versus a two-week vacation. There is a very real letting go of combat that has to happen when they come home for good. Plan for it, and you’ll be ready to give them the time they need.

5. Plan mini-dates

Cupcakes from Flickr via Wylio
© 2010 Joel Olives, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Have five minutes of holding hands, play a hand of cards, or drink a glass of wine together after dinner. Reconnecting can happen in ten small moments over the course of a day.

Don’t expect them to jump back into parenting and housework. They may feel like they don’t belong or know quite what to do.

I know. You’ve been doing it all for the whole deployment and are tired, too. Give them a chance to be your hero instead of pressuring them. Give them choices. Do you want to take over bedtime or breakfast routines? Can you do carpool or make lunches? And let them find their own way as much as possible.

Remember reintegration isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. Sometimes, it’s a relay race and we’re just passing the baton to whomever is handling life better today.

The key is to plan ahead as a couple, manage your expectations and communicate openly, and be patient and kind with each other. Through your FRG, house of worship, or community, find seasoned mentors that can guide you during difficult moments.