Military Spouse Reintegration Discussion.
It all started with a blog post and an idea.
A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about Reintegration—the time of adjustment that follows a military Homecoming. I realized that our unit had many spouses experiencing their first deployment, and they were nervous about what to expect and how to adjust. But we also had many spouses who had done this before and been through multiple deployments and Homecomings. So I had an idea: what if we brought everyone together to spend an afternoon discussing Reintegration? The FRO (Family Readiness Officer) approved my idea, and he liked the fact that this would be an event led BY the wives, FOR the wives.
I hosted a unit event that was led by the wives, for the wives, to discuss Reintegration after Homecoming.
The logistical part of planning the event seemed overwhelming at first. I needed a date, location, speakers, food, and childcare. The unit was willing to help with reserving a building and funding the childcare. But I got a huge amount of help from a local church who has “adopted” our unit during their deployment. The church group provided a catered meal from Macaroni Grill, and a huge group of volunteers to do Kid Kamp during the event. They also provided a room full of beautiful decorations, to make it a relaxing and fun event for the spouses. They even made gift baskets that were prizes for our games.
Last Sunday afternoon, as the spouses arrived, they were welcomed at the front door with a gift bag and a Bingo game. We fed the children right away, while the ladies played the get-to-know-you Bingo. Each square had a different description, like “Someone with a baby” or “someone who likes to bake.” The ladies had to find someone who matched each square, and then fill in their name. It was a great icebreaker, because it got everyone mixing and mingling, and chatting with each other about where they lived, if they had kids/pets/job/hobbies etc.
Once we sent the kids off to Kid Kamp with the volunteers, the ladies moved into the decorated room to enjoy their kid-free meal and discussion time. We set up round tables, to aid conversation, and we mixed the “experienced” spouses throughout the room. After everyone ate, we had a few extra icebreakers. We polled the room and asked people to raise 1 finger for each major event they had experienced during the deployment: moving, getting a job, having a baby, taking a class, running a race, attending a wedding or funeral. One woman very quickly had 10 fingers raised. This helped us all realize how much we had been through and how much we have changed during this deployment. We also took a few moments to break people into groups by housing area (on base and off base). Several spouses had recently moved back to the area, so we gave them a chance to meet their neighbors and learn about their neighborhood.
Then it was finally time to begin the presentations and discussions. I had invited 5 “seasoned spouses” who had been through at least 2 deployments to share some of their Reintegration experiences—good and bad. Each one spoke for about 5 minutes, then asked a question for the group to discuss at their tables. Each speaker had prepared a different topic, and we had decided ahead of time what we thought were the most important things to discuss. Some speaker had props or visual aids, but most just shared their experiences.
Reintegration Discussion Topic 1: Dating your Spouse Again
First up was Quinn, who talked about the importance of Dating your Husband. No matter how long (or short) you have been married, Reintegration can be an awkward time of getting to know each other all over again. She had some great ideas and cheap date nights. (Some came from the website www.datingdivas.com.) First, she said it is important to set aside 1 night each week that is just for you and the spouse—a weekly date night. Other social plans should be scheduled around that. You don’t have to go out for an expensive dinner and a movie. You can to a scavenger hunt at a book store, complete a list of Selfie Photo assignments, or watch a movie at home together while answering questions like “Would you Rather…” She keeps some envelopes of easy date ideas, so that her husband doesn’t have to spend much time coming up with an idea. They can just reach into the envelope and choose what to do. The important thing is to do something together, and just have fun laughing and being yourselves around each other. Another suggestion is to keep a jar of colored popsicle sticks. These can be used to write down date ideas, (ranging from cheap and easy, to more expensive or elaborate), or you can write different get to know you questions on the sticks, and take turns drawing them to learn funny details about your spouse. After her fun presentation, the tables discussed “What is the best date you have ever shared with your spouse?”
Reintegration Discussion Topic 2: Finances
The next speaker was Iris, who discussed the importance of financial conversations with your spouse. During deployment, couples have different ways of handling finances. Often, the deployed spouse is making the primary income, but the spouse at home is spending the most money—on bills, food, car repairs, baby items, etc. When couples don’t have a budget or a lot of trust, this can cause arguments afterwards. Iris listed all the paycheck bonus that would be going away when the deployment ended: Separation Allowance, Sea Pay, Tax-free income, and Hazardous Duty Pay. At the same time, there are a bunch of increased expenses once the service member comes home: gas for their commute, more food needed for the household, along with increased entertainment expenses. Sometimes, a service member returns home after deployment and feels that he has earned a big-ticket gift after deployment—like a new TV or motorcycle. If he deployed before as a single, unmarried person, he probably returned home to a large sum of cash, because he paychecks were deposited for months, while he enjoyed no living expenses. But if he has a family, they have still been paying the bills for housing, cell phones, utilities, and cars. So even a family who is thrifty during deployment doesn’t usually have a large sum of cash afterwards. This is especially true for Navy deployments, when every Liberty Port means hundreds of dollars in hotel stays, plus food, drinking and souvenir expenses. So families need to have very realistic expectations and calm budget discussions. This is easiest if there is a visual household budget, so you can see where your money is going, and you can work together to decide how to spend it. She recommends bi-monthly budget discussions with your spouse, so no one will be surprised. Another helpful app is Moolah, which helps you track your “allowance” money. Instead of getting mad at your spouse each time they buy beer or a movie, give each other a certain amount of allowance money each month. $50, $100, whatever works in your budget. If you buy something for yourself, it should come out of that. If one of you wants a large item, then save up your allowance for a few months to earn it. This eliminates a lot of frustration and budget battles. The tables discussed the question, “What is one large expense you anticipate after the deployment.” People had some very heated opinions!
Reintegration Discussion Topic 3: Children
The third speaker was me. My topic was Children during Reintegration. Not everyone in the room had a child, but there were several people who had given birth during the deployment. There were also many moms of toddlers. So we felt it was an important topic to cover. I gave some brief tips for helping kids at different ages to reconnect with Dad—from newborns to school-age children. Most of my highlights can be found in this post about military kids. Whether it is your first deployment with children, or your 5th, there is always an adjustment for them to get used to having both parents around. It is important for you and your spouse to discuss discipline and agree on rules, so the kids don’t get confused. It can also be challenging to be patient and let Dad feed or bathe the baby when he is doing it “the wrong way.” Don’t ever laugh at your spouse or take over a job they are doing. Show them your techniques, then give them time and space to do it their own way. At the tables, people discussed how their children had changed during this deployment.
Reintegration Discussion Topic 4: Stress
Our 4th speaker was Emily. She shared some of the challenges from her most stressful deployment, when she had her first baby right after her husband’s return, and they were simultaneously packing up the house for a cross-country PCS. She asked the audience for some words to describe Reintegration. Some of the suggestions were “awkward,” “frustrating,” “arguing a lot,” or “not on the same page.” The Reintegration stage is a normal part of the deployment cycle. When you and your spouse have been separated for months, it is normal that it will take some time to get used to living together again and seeing each other every day. This is a welcome change, but one that still has a lot of emotions, and can take some communication to work out. Typically, Reintegration happens within the first few weeks after Homecoming. But in Emily’s case, because there were so many big life events happening, she found that their child’s birth and their cross-country move overshadowed Reintegration. So it wasn’t until they were settled at their new duty station… 6 months later… that she and her husband finally experienced Reintegration stress and communication problems. So she wanted everyone to know that Reintegration stress is normal, and that if it doesn’t happen right after Homecoming, then be prepared for it to hit you and your spouse a little later, when life settles down a bit. At the tables, everyone discussed what major stressful event had happened during the deployment, or would come in the next year.
Reintegration Discussion Topic 5: Communication
The final speaker from the unit was Natalie. Her topic was Communicating with your Spouse. Right before her first deployment, she and her husband got a puppy. During the deployment, Natalie trained the puppy and established house rules. When her husband returned, he wanted to let the dog do anything. They ended up arguing about dog discipline! She wished that she had taken some time in letters or emails to explain why she had created certain off-limits areas for the dog. If her husband knew the reasons behind the rules, he would have been a lot more supportive and on her side. The same would be true for anyone with a baby or toddler during deployment. The more you can communicate with your spouse before Homecoming, the better they will understand household rules and routines. Natalie also discussed the importance of making her husband feel at home. She spent some of the deployment re-organizing their first home. When he returned, he felt out of place because he didn’t know where to find basic things like dishes. It’s important for the service member to have his own space in the home: room in the closet, a shelf in the bathroom, etc. She suggested taking pictures of anything you re-organize, so he will know where to find things. Finally, she emphasized the importance of talking during the deployment to discuss priorities that may affect each other post-deployment. Has one of you changed your diet or workout routine? Do you intend to go running for 1 hour each weekend? Have the kids started a new sport or activity? The more that spouses discuss their preferred lifestyle, the more they can respect each other after deployment and avoid fighting. At the tables, people discussed one recent change that they needed to communicate with their spouse.
Our afternoon ended with an address from one of the members of the church group, and some gifts to recognize those who helped coordinate the Potlucks throughout the deployment.
Free Resources for Reintegration:
The speakers mentioned many resources that are available to military spouses. Most can be used at any time, but are particularly useful during or after deployment.
The MFLC (Military Family Life Counselor) is a professional clinical social worker assigned to the unit. Any military member or spouse can contact the MFLC about family or health issues: behavioral problems with children, marriage problems, anxiety, or depression concerns. They can meet with you for free on base or off base and offer some counseling, or refer you to another professional if necessary.
FOCUS is a program designed for military families to assist with communication and expressing emotions. They have a program for children, or you can attend with just yourself and your spouse. During the program you will learn some communication and problem-solving techniques
Military One Source offers free counseling to military members and/or spouses. It is confidential, so it will not get to their chain of command. It can be used for marriage counseling, substance abuse issues, domestic violence, PTSD, etc. You can get 12 free sessions in a year.
CREDO Retreats are marriage retreat weekends offered through the Chaplain’s office. They are not specifically religious. They focus on enriching marriages though improved communication, trust, forgiveness, and shared goals. The retreat weekend is free, but childcare is not provided.
For financial assistance, the Navy/Marine Corps Relief Society can set up a meeting to help you plan a household budget, or make debt payments If you have unexpected expenses or an unusually low paycheck, they provide interest-free loans up to $1,000, which can be paid back on a schedule the service member chooses.
Free classes like the 4 Lenses or the 5 Love Languages are offered through Marine Corps Community Services (MCCS). These can help you understand more about your partner’s personality, and determine what actions or gestures mean the most to them. It can be a fun date night!
Local churches offer groups for moms, married couples, or young ladies, who want to make new friends and socialize together. The groups are often free, and sometimes include childcare. The church supporting our event, Compass Bible Church, has a variety of groups available on their website.