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My husband's long deployment makes rebuilding intimacy the name of our game

T. T. Robinson is a proud military wife, writer, speaker, and crisis management consultant - a skill that proves useful everyday as the mother of two young children. She is the author of the NYT's Deployment Diary, a political correspond...

I actually can't remember the last time we had sex

I can’t really remember the last time we had sex. I know it happened in the days leading up to my husband’s deployment, but those memories are fleeting at this point. We’re nearly six months into him being gone, with deployment preceded by 15 months of “work-ups” (travel for three weeks for training, come home for three days. Leave for two weeks, come home for one. Rinse, wash, repeat, for over a year). It’s been a tough two years.

So often we get caught up in solely relaying the day to day. We’re quick with the “I miss yous” and the “I love yous” and the “I can’t wait to see yous.” A little more effort and we have the “I did this at the office,” or “the kids did this in school,” or the “had the nicest chat with your mom today.” The closer we get to homecoming, the further apart the meaningful conversations occur. With young children, busy jobs and sporadic communication, how do couples keep the physical spark alive when their respective match is a world away?

More: How being married in the military is different than civilian marriage

Kelly Alcorn, Navy wife and licensed clinical social worker, addresses this issue frequently in her Growth Counseling practice. While sex is certainly a hot topic with her military couples (especially leading up to and following a deployment), it’s certainly not an issue isolated to service members and their spouses. “I see a lot of couples that tell me they haven’t had sex in months,” Alcorn shares. “Whether it’s because of distance or choice, we have to invest in intimacy.” As my husband and I are finally counting down the days to being reunited, Alcorn’s guidance is perfectly timed.

First, build anticipation

Whether you’re far apart or in the same town, it’s easy to fall into the predictability of a work-dinner-Netflix-sleep routine. I spent the early days of deployment writing long letters, mailing care packages and pining the nights away. Somewhere in the last few months, I shifted into survival mode. The letters were replaced by quick emails at the end of the day, the packages dwindled to belated holiday cards, and I’m still pining, but mostly for a nap.

Alcorn reminds me that when couples first start dating they can’t get enough of each other, but an actual chemical reaction takes place over time. She explains, “Our bodies wean the dopamine and epinephrine as the infatuation wears off.” Consequently, couples have to intentionally try to get back to those early days, and we can do so by building anticipation for being together again. It’s one thing to whisper sweet nothings into the phone, but how do you do it over email? Alcorn recommends starting a love story. Whether you are retelling your own (“remember when we did this?”) or foreshadowing, lay the groundwork that you’re anxiously awaiting your spouse’s return. Alcorn prompts, “You want to set up the beginning of a seductive evening together and make it a running dialogue. Ask ‘what would we do on a Saturday night?’ Start it off and then write the ‘dot, dot, dot.’ This back and forth is what keeps the fantasy alive. You have to build anticipation.” Taking Alcorn’s advice, I sent my first “dot, dot, dot” email yesterday. It may or may not have begun with the fantasy of taking a mid-day snooze, but it was definitely a start.

More: I'm married to a Marine, so why do I feel like a single mom?

Also, do your homework

Half a year into deployment and I can tell you it feels more practical to simply shut down the physical intimacy part of my brain than to dwell on it. Alcorn cautions against filing your sex life somewhere behind carpool and taxes, and instead recommends using the time to get smart on it. “Get each other a copy of Ian Kerner’s books, She Comes First and He Comes Next. (The New York Times bestselling author Kerner is a nationally renowned psychotherapist who specializes in sex therapy and couples’ therapy). Alcorn elaborates, “These books aren’t introducing anything crazy. They’re written from the perspective of getting to know anatomy. It’s finally giving you a blueprint for your partner.” I ordered the books, mailed my husband “his” copy and started mine. It’s an easy read, and I’m fairly confident that with the cover art of a papaya and a banana, I’ll never approach fruit (or that of the looms) in the same way.

Finally, manage your expectations

Not only is Alcorn qualified (and licensed) to offer advice, she’s also been through five deployments with her husband. While chatting for this post, I admitted that somewhere buried in the myriad of emotions of preparing for homecoming, was a feeling that I couldn’t quite remember from our previous separations: nervousness. “That’s so normal,” she reassures me. “You essentially have this stranger that comes back into your house after being gone for so many months. Sometimes it takes a few hours before you have that ‘oh there you are’ moment. Sometimes it takes days or even weeks to reconnect.” Alcorn encourages couples to discuss those emotions and any expectations before reuniting. She tells me, “I’ve had women tell me that they couldn’t hold eye contact with their spouse. It was too awkward for them. So they’re not going to want to jump into bed right away, and that is OK. You have to normalize that.”

To get past that, she recommends doing something you know you’ll enjoy together first. “Get a babysitter for the day, and get out just the two of you. If that feels like too much pressure, do a family outing. More than anything, give it time.” There are so many things I’m looking forward to, and not just a nap. From outings with the kids to an overnight for just the two of us, to something as simple as watching our shows that I’ve faithfully saved on Netflix, reintegration may take time, but it will be so worth it.

More: 10 signs you're raising kids in a military family

Counting down the days is the easy part. Making sure the days count takes a little work. Through building anticipation, reading up and managing expectations, I’m hopeful that the time apart will have brought us physically and emotionally closer than we’ve ever been.

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