Military Family Systems: Understanding the Separation & Reintegration Process | #PTSDchat
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Military Family Systems: Understanding the Separation & Reintegration Process

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Military members are constantly faced with separating from their families because it is within the nature of the profession. In any given moment we can be summoned for a mission and leave our family shorthanded. Because of the way our societies are structured systematically, having one less member to assist with the daily activities can create additional stress and leave families struggling to make it through their time apart.

Families can often be described in Social Work as a group made up of various individuals situated in certain descriptive relationships. Each family system accounts for its own set of roles and rules that need to be followed in order for it to maintain functionality. If these are not properly set in place, when one of its most important pieces is missing the family tends to get disorganized. In a situation where we are called upon such as a training mission or deployment, our families have to restructure some of the roles to ensure that things go as smooth as possible. But how does the system make the appropriate adjustments without any conflict?

Making the Adjustments

For some families this is not a cause of concern because they may have taken the time to talk about this previously or perhaps have dealt with the situation before. The families that often struggle with making these adjustments are those that were accustomed to having the service member making all the important decisions. During that time apart the spouse has to take responsibility of all major situations such as financial decisions and parenting. This sudden demand can be very overwhelming for the spouse and may cause additional stress to the system.

Another reason that families struggle to make an adjustment is because it is very difficult for the service member to stay on top of home front issues while they are away due to the communication barriers that exist (i.e. remote locations, bad internet service, long missions). Also, dealing with home front issues in a naturally stressful environment can cause more distractions while they’re away from home. When these issues are brought to our clinic, I strongly suggest that they maintain their focus on what they can control and deal with certain situations upon their return.

It is important to point out that upon return service members may have trouble with the way every one transitions back to their previous role. For instance, the parent that stayed behind making all the financial and parenting decisions might not be willing to relinquish some of their newfound responsibilities because it may have given them a sense of purpose within the family dynamic. Doing things the way they were done before may be looked as taking a great step back. Also, the likeliness of the service member “falling” into a role of subordination may not be to go well for someone that just returned from an environment where they were constantly receiving orders (or giving orders to others).

Nothing Is The Same

Time does not freeze while we are gone. A year is full of so many opportunities that growth is inevitable in that period of time. There are developmental stages that our kids go through and like so many other life changing situations the time that we are away alter their thoughts and their emotions. It is hard to embrace change but we have to make the best of it. Just like family members shouldn’t expect us to come back the same, we shouldn’t expect them to be the same either.

Lower Expectations

I’ve mentioned before in several posts that the expectations that we have when we are far away from home are very high. This is mainly because we still believe that situations will be better than they were before we left. There is an idea that all of the problems that were unresolved somehow disappear during our absence and we don’t have to deal with them anymore. These unrealistic expectations are one of reasons that many fail to regain their place amongst those they love.

Emotional Maturity

It is hard to imagine that with all the military training we receive that transitioning back to civilian life could become such an issue. After all, we already operate in a rank structure and have been trained efficiently on how to react in hostile environments so we should be used to constant change. The reality is that so much emphasis is put on “being a soldier” (or, airman, sailor, marine, coast-guardian?) that while we’re away we bottle up our emotions and do very little to ease them out before we return.

Talking about these issues offers an opportunity to sort out some of our thoughts and feelings. Also, we need to be mature enough to understand that if things are considerably better than when we left, we should encourage our family members to continue to evolve. Each member of the family needs to be afforded the opportunity to develop as an individual so that when they have their own families (or in this case when another member is not present) they can excel at their roles.

Easing Back Into the Role

In Iraq I was fortunate to have a Commander that often stressed the importance of easing back into our roles once we returned to our families. He strongly emphasized that coming back from a hostile environment and jumping into our “normal” lives would not be an easy transition. It is understandable that it has been a tough year for the family and spouses may be eager to relinquish some of their responsibilities. Take the time to discuss this with your spouse and your family and make them aware of the situation. Be assertive in communicating that what we just experienced does not take several days to shake off. Having mutual understanding gives you the chance to continue to grow together as a family.


If you are going through a similar situation and need assistance remember that there are many resources that are available for you and your family.

All of these organizations offer information on military counseling and healthy marriage programs for military installations and community based providers.

David J. Ortiz (MSW) is an Iraq war veteran educated in Military Behavioral Health. He is currently focusing his energy towards assisting service members in living well-rounded, productive lives. You can find him occasionally on Twitter as @balancedsoldier and if you want to read some of his past posts you can find them @ Also, checkout his Instagram page if you’re looking for motivational and uplifting content. Namasté

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