Recently, I heard from a happily married woman who eagerly anticipated her husband's imminent return from a military tour of duty:
"I'm frustrated with feelings of anxiousness and am getting easily irritated with my kids lately. I am having a day where I am actually looking forward to heading to the grocery store for a long shop-alone. This way I won't get upset with them. I am sure it has everything to do with my husband coming home."
Why would anticipating something she is actually eager for provoke her to become easily irritated with her kids? Consider the heightened state of 'arousal' we find ourselves in when something excites us. In fact, the feeling that we're so excited that we could practically 'jump out of our skin' is very real, because this level of arousal leads to increased heart rate, blood pressure and a general condition of sensory hyper-alertness as well as to heightened mobility and increased readiness to respond to whatever happens-whether it's spilled milk or good news.
Other extreme emotions, like anger, can inspire similar reactions. Ever been so upset about something that you came home and overreacted to a relatively minor incident? When this heightened state of arousal is left unchecked, it can 'leak' into other areas of our lives. There are, however, things we can do to minimize its negative effects.
This military wife was wise to recognize her need for a little respite. She solved her immediate concern, that she might overreact again, by planning to put some temporary distance between herself and her children. It's true that grocery shopping solo seems like a guilty pleasure once you have kids, isn't it? Also, since she has identified a pattern (for her, anticipating her husband's return creates heightened arousal, which leads to excessive reactivity), she can nip it in the bud before it gets the best of her.
I used to know a stay-at-home mom who swore that it was only by the grace of God-and the little glass of wine she consumed every afternoon before her husband returned from work-that his arrival, and the hours that followed, weren't peppered with arguments and power struggles.
If you find yourself in a similar circumstance, you could put the kids in the stroller and go for a jog to take the edge off your anxiety as you relish those free, stress-relieving endorphins instead. Or, maybe you could pursue regular time with people and activities that inspire good laughs and good vibes. You may have to experiment before you find a solution that fits for you.
Keep in mind, too, that no matter how glad and even grateful we are for our partner's return-whether it's from a workday, business trip or tour of duty-it's natural to feel some irritation that our routines are about to be upended.
We've found a way to manage-and even thrive-in this person's absence, and their return forces us to move over and share the driver's seat and collaborate as co-pilots again. Acknowledging that this dynamic is at play is a big step toward sweeter homecomings.
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia.
See more of Jennifer's stories here.