The airport was buzzing with activity as my wife and I made our way through security. Perhaps it was the considerable noise only possible with sixteen US Army soldiers in a small area. On the other hand, the thoughts and emotions created a noise of their own.
That morning, my wife accompanied me to the departure gate as we prepared for what became an 11 month separation. My focus was changing from tire pressure and grocery shopping, to assault rifles and the IEDs. I kissed my wife, tied a yellow ribbon in her hair, and told her I would return safely.
Before our separation, the chaplain warned us that changes would take place. Our wives and children would adapt and change to fit new circumstances. I, too, would change during my trip to Afghanistan. I was also assured I would not notice those changes. My return came and that chaplain was right.
Home was different when I finally got there. The first thing I noticed was my wife still loved me, and for that I remain supremely grateful.
After a few days, however, I felt out of place. I absent-mindedly cluttered the front room or left a dirty dish in the sink. Each time I felt guilty, as though I were trespassing on the life my wife had built in my absence. I realized I was living with my girlfriend. That’s how it felt. From then on I was determined to re-engage.
Long separations are difficult but the return home can be even more challenging. Here are five strategies anyone can use to reconnect at home.
BECOME A PARTNER IN THE HOME
Thinking of yourself as a partner will immediately shift your mindset. Thoughts dictate behavior. You see where I’m going with this, but what does it mean for your partner?
Your partner notices when you are making an effort to be a member of the team and your work will be appreciated. Your partner will find renewed energy knowing they no longer have to work alone. House cleaning, yard work, raising children and taking care of pets, are all areas where your partner needs your help.
One of the first things I noticed was my wife avoided doing the dishes. Few people enjoy washing the dishes by hand, and my wife’s name brand dishwasher (me) had not been available for 11 months. This was the first area I chose to work on. Picking something your partner can see, like a sink full of dirty dishes, does double duty. You get to show you care and demonstrate your commitment. And there is no way your partner can miss the newly empty sink. Bingo.
If you have been gone the better part of a year, you can be sure meals have become a burden. Either cooking becomes mundane and un-enjoyable, or every meal becomes a chance to eat out. Your partner is tired of cooking uninteresting meals just to eat in solitude. Assuming the chef role is another great place to start. Cook for your partner, and eventually, cook with them. Commitment? Yes. Caring? Yes. Burden lifted? Yes.
Because we did not have children during my time away, my wife spent loads of time with friends and family. Her plan was flawless, so long as her people were available. We have all had days and nights sitting alone, wishing a movie sounded good or a book looked at all interesting. My wife craved quality interaction with others. More than that, she wanted time with me. Once I was home, that is what I tried to give her.
Plan activities focusing on quality time. Going to see a movie can be fun but it is less interactive than bowling. Activities like a couples painting night or indoor rock climbing allow you the chance to reconnect with your partner. After time apart, these experiences are more healing than a great spa day.
SAY THANK YOU
Verbally acknowledge your partner’s hard work. It doesn’t matter if they think they have messed everything up. Assure them they did not. Focus on the positives. Complement the organization of the home, the maintenance of the vehicles, new art or decoration choices. Recognize all of the good your partner achieved during their difficult time. Once everyone is feeling great, and a warm hug is in progress, I like to crack a small joke. Tell them how wonderful it is to see the children didn’t kill each other. Or, perhaps how happy you are to see they didn’t bury the car into the neighbor’s front room. Because, personally, you’re impressed.
Active partners in the home are happier. Happier partners make overcoming challenges easier. Overcoming challenges with love, as a unified team, may be the key to successful marriage. It’s working for us.
Brig is a husband and father who loves telling stories. Whether through words or photographs, he believes telling the right story at the right time can change the world.