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Reintegration | Reunion and Marriage
We've discussed in other parts of this booklet how during the deployment you've changed in subtle ways, as have your family and friends. If you are the deployed person, you've functioned in living and working environments that may be very different than anything you'd previously experienced. Perhaps you've taken up diving, weightlifting, or jogging. You've rubbed shoulders with a "different world" and stretched your comfort zone. As a result, you'll go home an enriched, but a somewhat changed person.
If you are the "stay behind" spouse, you have also probably grown during the deployment. You have taken on new responsibilities and developed confidence that you can "keep the ship afloat" in your spouse's absence. Out of necessity, you have learned to cope without your spouse. Now that your partner is coming home, you may be engaged in such activities as dieting, exercising, trying a new hairstyle, buying groceries to prepare your spouse's favorite meal, redecorating the house, and preparing the children, if any, for your spouse's return. At the same time, you are probably looking forward once again to the familiar pattern of sharing family and household responsibilities with your spouse.
Both you and your spouse are probably thinking a lot about what it will be like to get home. Maybe you're finding it more difficult to concentrate on work as your thoughts continue to drift to reunion. While you're excited about reunion, perhaps you're also a bit worried about some "unfinished business" in your relationship. After all, whatever challenges existed in your relationship before the deployment will not have magically resolved them during the deployment. Maybe there are other lingering doubts and fears. Sometimes, for example, as partners prepare to reunite they both wonder about the possibility of infidelity. Over all, though, you're probably very excited about once again spending time together as a family and sharing private time with your spouse.
Changes at Home
Although you'll be excited about reunion, and the whole family will probably be thrilled with the return of the deployed person, everyone may experience a range of thoughts and feelings. Perhaps the deployed person will be a bit worried about how well he or she will fit back in. At the same time, family members might also be concerned about how the deployed person will treat them. They may wonder if their accomplishments will be appreciated or resented. They may be concerned that the deployed person will violate the "go slow" principle and attempt to immediately "take over" everything. These concerns are a normal part of the reunion process and typically require little more than some time and patience to sort out. The "stay behind" spouse probably had to change some procedures while the deployed person was gone. If it was the deployed person's responsibility to mow the lawn, take out the trash, vacuum the carpet, or pay the bills, someone else in the family had to temporarily assume those responsibilities. Other changes in family procedures may have taken place in response to evolving family needs. In any event, the deployed person should remember to go slow when adjusting to reunion with their family. Integrating back into the family is a process, not an event that can simply happen at the front door of your home by your announcing, in essence, "I'm home and I'm in charge." To take that approach is to invite arguments and hurt feelings.
One of the first changes that the newly returned person is likely to notice is that their partner has become more confident in his/her ability to cope with whatever hand life deals. Notice how this makes you feel. Are you proud of him/her? Hopefully so. Be sure to express your appreciation for his/her valiant efforts to independently cope with the complexities of family life in your absence. Do you feel a little threatened? Not sure exactly where and how you fit into the family now? These are very normal concerns.
Trust / Fidelity
How would you characterize the trust level in your relationship when the deployment occurred? To what extent did you trust your partner to handle finances? What was your trust level in terms of your partner maintaining sexual fidelity? What do you think his/her trust level in you was in these and other key areas? Worries about a partner's unfaithfulness are much more common than the occurrence of infidelity. It is wise to assume you've both been faithful to one another unless you have strong evidence, not merely suspicion, to indicate your spouse has been unfaithful. After all, accusations of infidelity are very serious and strike at the very core of a relationship.
If your marital relationship was an overall respectively satisfactory one before the deployment, it's unlikely that any infidelity has taken place. When infidelity does occur, deployment notwithstanding, it is almost always a sign of much deeper relationship problems. Accordingly, these underlying issues must be addressed, perhaps with the help of a professional counselor, for the marriage to become healthier. If problems are left unresolved, acts of infidelity may become a devastating pattern in the relationship.
Homecoming is the time we resume communicating "face to face" again. What will you and your partner talk about? Are you open to talking about changes that have occurred in each of your lives as positive experiences that can promote growth in your relationship? Are you willing to really listen? Your partner may want to tell you many things that happened while you were away. Even though you may have been fortunate enough to have frequent phone contact, letters, and perhaps e-mail and video teleconferences, your partner needs your undivided attention, face to face.
If you are the military member, how will you respond to the way your partner has handled things in your absence? What about decisions he/she made that you question? Will you second-guess your partner, or will you recognize that he/she was operating in a stressful environment and made the best decisions he/she was capable of making? It is helpful to remember that you were not there and you do not know all the factors that went into decision-making. If you choose to criticize your spouse, what do you hope to accomplish? Anyone can criticize. But remember, no one ever erected a statue to a critic! If you choose to criticize of your partner's judgment, you'll be doing damage to your spouse's self-esteem and ultimately to your relationship. So, it's in everyone's best interest for you to accept the decisions your spouse made, acknowledge that he/she made them under difficult circumstances, and move on.
As we've previously discussed, you can expect your partner has developed heightened self-confidence, especially in the area of operating the household. Hopefully you're proud of him/her and will openly express that. In any event, although your partner may be anxious to return many responsibilities to you, this is area that you'll need to negotiate, and maybe transition some roles and responsibilities gradually. As an example, if you usually managed the family finances before, but your partner has been doing so in your absence, you'll need to get a thorough understanding of what has transpired. As finances can be an emotionally laden area, communication will shut down if you become critical, judgmental, or angry. In short, you and your spouse will need to negotiate a mutually satisfactory "transition plan" for you to reassume your roles within the household. Also, remain open to the possibility that the previous "division of labor" may need to be modified. Use the reunion as an opportunity to take a fresh look at things and make a fresh start in those areas where it makes sense.
You, as the military member, have received ribbons, medals and awards for doing a good job in the military. The only appreciation you spouse receives for supporting your decision to be in the military is the appreciation she or he receives from you. Many military spouses feel that without that emotional payoff, going through deployments and other military-related disruptions of family life is just not worth it.
Avoid getting into the "who had it worse" game. The truth of the matter is that the separation was difficult for both of you. But, it was probably more difficult for the family member who stayed at home, shouldering responsibility for the entire household and often worrying about the safety of the deployed member.
Intimacy / Sexuality
Intimacy and sex are not the same thing. Hopefully you and your partner have maintained a solid sense of intimacy, or "emotional connection", during the deployment through frequent communications. What you have not been able to maintain, as you and your partner are no doubt acutely aware, is the sexual component of your relationship. Since sex tends to be prominent in the thinking of both spouses during deployment, it tends to become a key focus of reunion. Given sexuality is a highly personal aspect of your personal and marital lives, you need to deal with this area with patience.
Although sexual intimacy can resume instantly, and this may well be your mutual desire, the level of overall emotional intimacy and comfort with one another that you experienced before the deployment may take awhile to regain. Keep in mind that for over several months you've only been able to communicate with each other, at best, a few minutes a day, and that you've had no face-to-face contact. Again, go slow.
Considering you've both experienced personal growth while separated, it makes sense to take some time to get to know each other again, not unlike two friends who haven't seen each other for awhile. Build upon the intimacy you shared. Recognize you and your partner are "out of practice" in terms of sexual contact. As a result, it's not highly unusual after lengthy separations for temporary awkwardness to arise. Also, you may feel a bit uncomfortable together initially. If you have such experiences, do not make too much of them, as doing so only heightens anxiety, which in turn can set you up for a negative cycle of sexual problems. Simply relax, take your time, and let your sexual relationship resume in a way that is gratifying for both of you.
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