How to Save your Marriage When War Comes Home

How can you save your marriage when war comes home? It's a journey of patience and grace with a whole lot of Jesus filling in the empty spaces.

When a soldier comes home, War comes home, too. When my husband came home last time, it was our hardest yet. He came home to a stressed-out wife starting her next school year and a toddler daughter he barely knew. Reintegration was going to be tougher than it had ever been on top of the extreme stress of cumulative deployments.

Reintegration means readjusting, remembering things we took for granted: Where is my place? What is my role? How do we do this together?

For me, a small positive of deployments is getting to organize my house to my little OCD heart’s content. I get to color code and label. And everything stays where I put it. Hooray! A little thing I can enjoy while trying not to worry about my husband being in a war zone.

Remind Him that You Need Him

But when he comes home, I’ve moved his things. The gadgets only he uses got relegated to the back of the cabinets. He feels put away, like he doesn’t quite fit. Our lives went on without him, and we were just fine. Of course, It isn’t true, but it feels true to him.

He’s forgotten how to do the everyday things, and we’ve got our own rhythm.

Coming home took away his sense of mission and purpose. He felt like he left the job undone in Iraq and didn’t know how to change gears. He struggled to find his place in our home and lives. I had to learn how to let him back in, let him be her dad and do things his way.

Be Patient

Truly reintegrating took time. Six years after his last return and we are still finding places in our lives that we’ve held apart, stories we haven’t told, hurts we need to share. Learning to communicate our deepest truths after years of skype and emails takes practice almost like dating all over again, but with piles of expectations and resentment to climb over.

Think marathon, not sprint.  In fact, sometimes, it’s a relay race! Who is coping better today? You’ve got the ball.

When a soldier comes home, War Comes Home, too. Becoming one again is a marathon, not sprint. Click To Tweet

The mental and emotional tolls are only part of the equation. Deployments are also tremendously physically demanding, adrenaline pumping continuously 24 hours a day, everyday.

At least, previous deployments had prepared me to be patient with him. He was a hummingbird around the house, zipping from place to place, barely lingering long enough to be still a moment. I got exhausted watching him.

When a soldier comes home, War comes home, too.

It was weeks before he sat down, then all he did was sleep. His body was wrecked from getting less than 6 hours of sleep a night and wearing 100lbs of gear all day everyday for a year.  When he finally crashed, he slept every empty minute for weeks. My heart broke to watch him sleeping through those precious hours, when I so desperately just desired his presence.

As much as I wanted to authentically celebrate his being home, it took almost a year to feel like he was really home. And then the really hard work started.

Anticipate additional time for healing after he comes home.

The wounds from war are deeper than just the adrenaline and combat; they’ve lost so much time.

I was not as patient as I could have been. I felt like I’d been alone raising this baby by myself for so long, I just needed my husband. But he wasn’t ready to be home with us. He felt robbed of another year of his life, hunting and fishing, and having any time alone after being continuously with others (even on the toilet). As a mom, I can better relate now!

And then the loss of time with his kids was stoo much, he didn’t know how to cope, let alone how to begin reconnecting with them.

A special kind of hurt wraps itself like a noose around your heart when you lose time with your children, much less a cumulative 4-5 years of their lives. Just writing those words grieves my heart. I. CAN’T. EVEN.

Additionally, the unique, violent experiences he had in combat came home with him too; they live in his heart and mind in a way I’ll only barely grasp. They were tearing him up inside, and I didn’t know how to help or that I was inadvertently making things worse.

We said the word “divorce” too often in the heat of bickering over mundane domesticities that turned vicious. Our house became the war zone.

We reached a point nothing on earth could save us, at least nothing OF earth.

God doesn’t want us to turn to Him because we think His way might be better. God wants us on our knees imploring Him to save us. He wants us to realize our desperate need for Him, so we won’t take another step without him. He wants our full surrender, that moment we truly give it over to Him, quit playing at Christian and become a disciple.

For me, the path to that moment of surrender started when I truly realized the extent war comes home. The smell of it, the frenetic energy of it, the despair, bravado, and horror of it moved in with his foot locker at the end of his 4th deployment.

How can you save your marriage when war comes home? It's a journey of patience and grace with a whole lot of Jesus filling in the empty spaces.

And things got bad. Really bad. Not everyday was bad, but we fought a lot. Tension and anger were the under current of our marriage and home. I didn’t know what to do. It felt like we couldn’t even talk.

I started crying out to God.

But I wasn’t completely ready for total surrender. It took another year for the moment I stood in front of God and said, I just want you, to follow you, Lord, no matter what. I’m standing here until you make me move.

I had to learn to lean on God, completely.

When I finally grasped how I had been forgiven by God, I remember feeling like Paul when the scales dropped from his eyes, my vision changed almost physically. I finally understood that I didn’t have to get cleaned up to come to Christ. I just had to come and he would clean me up.

The next step for me was a book called When War Comes Home: Christ-Centered Healing for Wives of Combat Veterans. God placed this book in my path at just the right time to make dramatic changes in my heart and marriage. I spent the next several months reading a chapter a week and discussing it with a dear friend. We were both struggling with how combat had changed our husbands.

The book is written by combat veterans, wives, and experts from a Christian perspective. It costs about $25, but is a priceless resource. The book deals with everything from grieving the changes any combat veteran might experience to the most severe PSTD, offers insight and biblical solutions, as well as resources for help, counseling and domestic abuse if necessary.

I learned so much about forgiveness and commitment, God’s truths, and our real enemy in this world. Some content might not relate if your spouse isn’t a veteran, but so many raw truths about love being an action, not just emotion make this a trusted marriage manual I could recommend to anyone.

I was able to start understanding what he had seen and how he had lived in a way I hadn’t before. Compassion blossomed in my heart.

I had prayed for God to change my husband, and He did, but His answer was, “you first.” Today, I am tearfully thankful for that.

I remember one evening after a rough day, I was standing over dishes and a mess not of my making. My husband walked in from work and was being kind of a jerk. I felt my frustration start to rise. I was so angry I didn’t even know what to say.

My mouth clamped shut and I prayed in my head, “Lord, help me see him the way you do.” Instantly I saw the chains around him dragging him down: war, anger, death, loss, grief, shame. He wasn’t a jerk on purpose; he was too wounded to be anything else.

How can you save your marriage when war comes home? It's a journey of patience and grace with a whole lot of Jesus filling in the empty spaces.

Lord, please change my husband. His answer - You first! Tearfully grateful for His grace. Click To Tweet

“Oh, you’re having a hard time just being you today . . .” I said. He froze. His eyes immediately softened and changed. “Yes, I’m having a hard time being me.” “What can I do to help you?” “Give me five minutes to myself.” Done! Easy peasy lemon squeezy as my kiddo likes to say. So simple.

Ditch the expectations

And that was the beginning. I stopped expecting ANYTHING from him beyond going to work and coming home. While that sounds drastic, he couldn’t handle the pressure of my expectations. And I had been counting on him to make me happy when I should have been finding my joy in Christ.

I finally realized, he couldn’t fill my longing for true and everlasting love. Human love would always disappoint, but God never would.

Eventually, he began to unfurl in the security of God’s love for him through me and be able to relax again, laugh more, and take back some leadership in our home.

It’s been a couple of years, and I am still just barely scraping the surface of how war comes home, how what he has seen changes everything for him: the sound of a child crying, watching political debates, going to the movies, driving down the road.

We are just learning to trust and rely on each other again for the most secret places of our hearts. After years of self-reliance, it takes practice to risk being vulnerable with each other again. I had to learn to listen with my heart to a person God loves more than I do. I had to stop taking his anger and emotions so personally.

But God has worked miracles in my heart that are healing both of us and our marriage.

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The Devastating Agony of the Night Before Deployment

The nights before deployment were some of the most difficult of my married life. Every moment is full of the devastating agony of letting go. Each second is rich with longing and fear.

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Seven years ago this week, the night before deployment, I began writing an army wife blog. As he was running around the house searching for random gear to pack in his last dufflebag, I began to write about the bizarre juxtaposition of emotions in the waiting for good-bye.

While he was gone, I wrote about our life on the homefront, my daily experiences as a geographically single mom, waiting for his return and doing my best to survive without him. I realize that this old blog might still be encouraging or helpful for someone, so I dug it out of the archive.

I will also add any new thoughts or things I’ve learned in the years since at the end.

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August 2010 – Day 366  (the night before goodbye)
The nights before deployment were some of the most difficult of my married life. Every moment is full of the devastating agony of letting go. Each second is rich with longing and fear.
My husband kissing our infant daughter goodbye in 2010

So . . . here it is. After months of looming, the day is finally here. His last day at home before leaving for Iraq, AGAIN.

It’s the night before deployment.

I try not to cry when I ask if I can leave a few minutes early today. Supportive smiles are good, but the pitying looks at various levels of understanding are hard to face.

We live near a military base; people, for the most part, get it, but unless you have gone through it and sometimes even unless you’ve gone through it more than once, the nuances of this military life escape even the most sympathetic friend.

By the end of the school day, I am ready to race home, take off my heels and see my husband, but there is a heaviness surrounding our exchanges. So many words hang in the air, unsaid but felt.

Dealing with deployments-the night before goodbye is full of unsaid words and not enough time. Click To Tweet

He wants to tell me so many things, but his mouth can’t seem to juggle the marble ideas in his head and spit them out. Instead he grasps my fingertips with my arms wrapped around the baby and whispers, “I love you.” And takes her, wanting his last few minutes with her too.

By the time he sees her again, she will be crawling, maybe even walking. Today she smiles and is working up to giggling, but is still very much a newborn. When he comes home, she will have celebrated her first birthday and be several months closer to the next one.

How do you fit an entire year into one last night?

I watch him feed and snuggle her. Her whole faces explodes into a Cheshire grin when he smiles at her. I am worried that his deployment will subconsciously make her feel abandoned by men or sad.

Even though, she will never remember this year without her daddy, I will have each day etched across my heart.

He wants to eat at his favorite sushi place. I think raw fish should still be swimming in someone’s tank, but I concede. He is deploying to a place he affectionately calls “the armpit of the world” or “prison” depending on his mood. I can give in.

We have sushi and spend our last precious evening on the couch watching TV, because even though, I have raw and deep emotions, I don’t really know what to say. If we haven’t loved each other enough all year long, the next ten minutes or just the right phrase, won’t fix it.

Saying goodbye before deployment is standing on the edge, leaning over just enough not to fall. Click To Tweet

Saying goodbye before a deployment is almost dangerous, walking a fine line between rich and hopeful and breezy belief that this is just see you later. I feel like I’m peering over a cliff’s edge, leaning over just far enough not to fall.

We stay lighthearted as we start to discuss the most ridiculous news headlines of recent days. The laughter pulls us together. We laugh and want to fall asleep, but he has to go inspect barracks, so we kiss goodnight.

His goodbye is only for a few hours yet, but the word tastes bitter on my tongue. I fall asleep and wait to wake up for the real good-bye. My dreams are frantic and jumbled, some with him and some in which he is already gone.

At some point, I reach across the bed, and he is there. I am tempted to stay awake just to memorize the safe warmness of him, but drowsiness wins and I slide back into slumber.

He wakes just before four, and I get up to say goodbye.

The nights before deployment were the most difficult of my married life. Each moment is full of the devastating agony of letting go, rich with longing and fear.

Some wives will spend the morning sitting in the gym bleachers, listening all the speeches, etc. but it’s the second day of school. I shouldn’t miss work and can’t see waking the baby this early will help her adjust to this new routine, so we decided that good-bye is the same whether we say it now or in two hours.

Besides, I don’t have to have a brave face for anyone here at home. I cry ugly sobs when the minute comes.

Despite really trying here, I can’t quite capture the horrible lead-weight-in-my-chest feeling with words.

Quietly, I tell him to come home and be safe.

Then, he is gone. I stumble around the house picking up cast off items that didn’t make the final duffel bag. I finally drop back into bed for an hour or so before my first day as a temporary single, working mom commences.

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I haven’t had to say goodbye like that in seven years now. But just reading it, I remember every second like yesterday.

Nights before deployment were difficult, full of devastating agony, rich with longing and fear. Click To Tweet

I shouldn’t have to do it again as we near retirement. But for younger wives, letting go and saying goodbye is a process that begins with his orders.

You start mentally preparing a world-wind family vacation tour, and a slew of honey-do lists that will help you start this year alone- because everything breaks when they leave.

You start measuring every moment against, “What if he never comes home,” which is the pendulum swooping ever closer that dangles over every interaction until he leaves.

I watched every second between him and the baby. As her mom, I wondered if these small moments and pictures or recordings would be enough if it were all she ever had of her dad.

Those days before deployment definitely help me now be more mindful of today’s blessings. Even when life is hard, it isn’t deployment hard.

And it reminds me that none of us have a guarantee of tomorrow.

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