Spouse 101

Why Is Reunion Harder Than It Looks?

By Dr. Leanne Knobloch, University of Illinois    

One of the best-kept secrets about deployment is that reunion can be really stressful. Of course deployment is challenging: You never have enough time on the phone, you worry about each other’s safety, and you have to make difficult choices on your own.

In comparison, readjusting to life together after the service member arrives home is a piece of cake, right? Well, no.

The unexpected challenges of reunion can take couples by surprise. And not just mild annoyance along the lines of “you left your boots in the hallway again!” but rather the starkly difficult “who are you and what did you do with my partner?” Returning service members can be disheartened by how much changed while they were gone, at-home partners can have problems sharing their decision-making power, children can be slow to warm up, and all family members can wonder why homecoming is not living up to their expectations.

It may be hard to admit you are struggling, but the truth is you are not alone. Research shows that both returning service members and at-home partners are prone to experiencing depression, anxiety, and relationship problems during the six months following homecoming.

Twin sisters Dr. Leanne Knobloch from the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois and Dr. Lynne Knobloch-Fedders from The Family Institute at Northwestern University are determined to help military couples navigate the transition more effectively. Leanne is an expert on communication in marriage, and Lynne is an expert on depression and anxiety in marriage. They have teamed up to launch a study that will follow 250 military couples from the first days of reunion forward.

“We know couples experience ups and downs during reintegration, but the ingredients that make for a successful transition are still mysterious,” Leanne says. Lynne jumps in to finish her sentence in true twin-sister fashion, “Our goal is to identify guidelines to help couples better navigate this transition.”


 

The twins face a big recruitment task in attracting 250 couples to participate because reunion is such a busy time for families. “We are hoping couples will share their experiences with us,” Lynne says. “We are offering e-gift cards, which are a nice reward, but beyond that couples can take pride in knowing that their responses will help shape future policy and programs.”

You and your partner can earn up to $170 in e-gift cards per person ($340 per couple) by completing a 45-minute online survey once per month for the first eight months after homecoming (couples from any branch or component are welcome). You can reserve your spot in advance of your reunion, and then you and your partner need to complete the first survey within 7 days of homecoming to be eligible. If you are interested in signing up, visit http://publish.illinois.edu/military-couples-study/.

The study is funded by the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs through the Military Operational Medicine Research Program (Award No. W81XWH-14-2-0131). The twins expect to be enrolling new couples into the study until at least March of 2015 and probably beyond.

In the meantime, the researchers offer some basic guidelines for helping couples adjust during the transition. “Be realistic,” Leanne notes. “Every detail of your reunion will not work out as planned, and that’s okay.” “Don’t forget to take it slow,” Lynne adds. “Family members grow a lot during deployment, and it will take awhile to adjust to having everyone together again.” 

Another key point: “Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it,” Leanne says. “It can be hard to ask for support sometimes – whether it is asking a friend to babysit so you can have a date night, or getting help with errands, or setting up a meeting with your chaplain, or arranging for a counseling session. But getting help can be a big boost for families navigating the transition.”

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