"Greg has been back from Afghanistan for more than a month, but it still seems as if he's not really here," said Maggie, 31, who's been married for 12 years and has two children, Jenna, 12, and Timothy, 10. "Ever since he got home he's been totally withdrawn. I'm still taking care of everything — the housework, setting up carpools, managing finances, supervising the kids' homework. Greg just doesn't seem to want to pitch in at all, or even be involved with the family. He spends all his time in his workroom, away from everyone.
"My husband is in the Army's Special Forces and has been deployed overseas twice in the past two years. First he was in Iraq for six months and then he went to Afghanistan for almost a year. I realize that things were tough on him over there, but he doesn't tell me anything about his experiences. Other military wives say that's typical. If you focus too much on the horrors of war, you just would be crushed and stop functioning. Still, I wish I could feel more connected to him. He's only home for another few months before he goes back to the Middle East.
"The kids and I had been counting the days until Greg's homecoming. We had so many plans — visit family in Virginia and see the museums and monuments in Washington, D.C. But now Greg doesn't want to do anything or go anywhere. He won't even come to church with us on Sundays. It's as if he has lost his faith. I'm especially annoyed at the way he treats Jenna and Timmy. He's always commenting about how spoiled they've gotten. I resent that. They're doing great in school and never get into trouble. Yeah, I buy them a lot of toys and video games, but so what? We can afford it.
"On top of that, Greg treats the kids like a couple of Army recruits. When Timmy left a bit of toothpaste in the sink the other night, Greg threatened to make him clean the whole bathroom if it happened again. And he insists that they make their beds as soon as they wake up. I've been getting them up and out for a year. I don't make my bed every day, so why should they?
"You'd think I'd be accustomed to life as a military wife. My dad was in the Army and I saw how hard it was for my mom to raise four kids, mostly on her own. When Greg told me right after we got married that he wanted to enlist my first reaction was total terror. My main concern was that something would happen to him. But he just seemed so committed to serving his country that, ultimately, I supported his decision.
"I lived with my folks when he did his basic training — I was pregnant with Jenna then. Three months later he went to Kosovo and didn't meet our daughter until she was 3 months old. Initially I really didn't know how I'd manage to raise a family without him around. And when he was first gone I just missed him so much. I lived for his e-mails and phone calls. But it's gotten easier with every deployment: You figure out systems to manage day-to-day life and you learn to close off the part of yourself that makes you sick with worry. When you've got young children you need to stay focused. You can't break down since you're the one keeping the family together. I've gained a lot of confidence over the years, which is why I get so insulted when Greg criticizes the way I'm running the household.
"I know it's difficult for Greg to dive back into our lives after being in the middle of a war. But it's not easy for me, either. We're snapping at each other all the time. He'll be heading back to Afghanistan again in three months, so I insisted we get counseling. I love this man — at least I think I do. But we need this time to work on our family or we may not be married the next time he comes home."
"Each time you're on a battlefield you leave a little piece of yourself behind," said Greg, 30. "I'm not the same person I was when I left last year, and I guess that's why it's so hard to play catch-up with my family.
"At first I was really thrilled to see Maggie and the kids. When I was overseas I missed them so much and thought about them all the time. But now that I'm home I feel distant from everyone. Maggie doesn't seem too happy to have me around, either. I don't remember the last time she spoke to me without an edge in her voice. When it gets too overwhelming, I head to my workshop, which is my safe zone.
"I just feel so confused about what I'm supposed to be doing. In Afghanistan I knew exactly what my job was. But back home I'm not sure what my role in the family is anymore. Maggie complains that I'm not helping more with stuff around the house, but she's gotten so used to taking care of things by herself that I feel like she doesn't need me to do anything but mow the lawn. And all she does is criticize me: I'm too strict with the kids... I don't go to church... I'm not involved with our family. That last criticism really hurts. I truly like being with my wife and kids, but this isn't what I expected. I had visions of all of us going for long bike rides together or just hanging out in the house. But Maggie has Jenna and Timmy so tightly scheduled — every day after school, even on weekends — that trying to figure out where I fit in is like jumping onto a moving train.
"I also don't really have much desire to do some of the things Maggie had planned, like going to visit relatives or playing tourists in Washington, D.C. And I don't feel like spending hours in church, either, but that doesn't mean that I lost my faith. I'm exhausted — mentally and physically. I really just want to hang out and chill.
"As far as the kids go, what's wrong with trying to instill a little discipline in Timmy and Jenna? It's important to teach them the value of hard work. Am I really expecting too much to ask them to make their beds and keep the bathroom neat and clean? And it bugs me that our house looks like a giant toy store. I was in a country so poor that the children were ecstatic to play with a 10-cent Frisbee every day because that's all they had. My kids have flat-screen TVs, video games, and Nintendo Wiis. Some days I feel like junking it all and making them sleep on a simple mat to get a taste of what it's like in other parts of the world.
"I'll admit — it was pretty traumatic being in Afghanistan. You're in danger all the time and it's scary. I wish I could talk to Maggie about stuff, but things are so tense between us that I just don't feel like discussing anything with her. I'm realizing now, though, that it feels good to get this off my chest. I hope my wife and I can figure out a way to talk to each other again."
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.