"The War Really Changed Him"
The Counselor's Turn
"When a soldier returns from a long deployment, the stresses on him and on his family can be extraordinary. The long separation, the fact that one spouse has been in a life-threatening situation while the other has been maintaining a 'normal' homelife -- well, it's anything but normal.
"Maggie and Greg couldn't simply pick up where they left off. Too much had happened, and both had changed over the course of the year. I saw them separately as well as together during the time that Greg was home. Over the course of our sessions they began to express their feelings honestly and to find ways to reconnect.
"I talked to Greg about the enormous stresses of his having been on the battlefield. As he opened up about his wartime experiences he began to appreciate how traumatic his deployment had been. I was happy when he told me that our conversations had helped him to 'lighten the load.'
"In my sessions with Maggie she complained bitterly about how much work she'd been doing when Greg was gone. That's why his seeming lack of appreciation for her efforts -- as well as his complaints that the kids were spoiled -- made her really angry. She was also upset that her husband didn't seem interested in doing any of the things she had planned for his leave. But when I reminded her that he had just come from a chaotic world and that he wanted nothing more than to be at home with the people he loved, she began to view things differently.
"In our joint sessions I helped them see the vicious cycle they were stuck in. The more Maggie demanded from Greg, the more he retreated into his own space. And the more he did that, the angrier she felt. I encouraged them to communicate more openly. Soon they agreed to make time each night to talk to each other without interruption.
"Next we discussed Greg's relationship with the children. I explained to Maggie why it was so important for him to instill a sense of discipline in them. 'He's been in the military his entire adult life and its influence is deeply ingrained in him,' I told her.
"Maggie conceded that she often parented out of guilt, buying the kids toys or allowing them to neglect chores to make up for their dad's being away. She also said that she kept them so tightly scheduled because she didn't want them to have too much time to think about how much they missed him. Greg was touched by that and told his wife how grateful he was for all she'd been doing. Maggie softened, too: 'If having the kids make their beds or clean the sink means that much to you, well, then they should do it.'
"Lastly, I encouraged the couple to look for ways to ease Maggie's workload when Greg was not at home. They decided to make a list of tasks the kids could help out with so she wouldn't have to do everything herself. Greg volunteered to take care of as much as he could while he was home this time and announced he would ask Jenna and Timmy to help out. 'I'll get all those handyman chores done -- and I'll get to spend time at home with the kids.'
"In our final session we focused on ways the couple could stay better connected when Greg headed overseas again. Maggie promised that she would send lots of e-mail and photos as well as scans of the kids' drawings and schoolwork. Greg suggested they hold weekly family meetings on Skype so he could feel more on top of what was happening at home.
"'I think we've accomplished a lot in the short time we've been in counseling,' Maggie told me when I saw her at our last session. 'We now realize we can't just blame and complain. We are committed to each other -- and to the Army -- so we need to figure out how to make this marriage work.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, June 2010.