By Katie Symansky Hunter. October 2023
Among the countless challenges faced by former wrongful detainees and hostages upon their return home, is the process of becoming a member of their own family again. It can be jarring to realize that while away, your family has changed. Children have gotten older, spouses have taken on more responsibilities, and extended families may have a more active role in your home life. What has turned into their new normal is anything but normal to the person coming home, and many former captives find themselves more lost than they could have thought possible.
Meanwhile, families must adjust to having their loved ones back. No doubt everyone is thrilled to be reunited, but at some point, life continues and family dynamics, which can be challenging under the best circumstances, become everyday obstacles that the entire family must navigate.
One former detainee said, “At one point after returning home, I was so overwhelmed with everything, that I actually wished I could go back to jail!” While this is a bit of hyperbole, the sentiment is not. Former hostages and wrongful detainees have been living a life where they weren’t allowed to make decisions, weren’t allowed to move freely, or to speak without restraint. Once they return home, they are asked to problem solve at a high level, reemerge as a leader in the household, and come to terms with their own new identity both professionally and personally.
Every household is made up of a team of people, each of whom have a certain level of responsibility for the family’s overall functioning. At the most basic level, the adults in the family earn an income, pay the bills, and are responsible for the welfare of the children. The children in the family generally have peripheral roles, which help lighten the load for their parents. When one member of this team suddenly disappears, the remaining players must pick up the slack, which inevitably leads to changes in the everyday functioning of the family. Sons and daughters, for example, whose biggest responsibility had previously been to feed the dog while planning Saturday night outings with friends, suddenly take charge of picking up their younger siblings from soccer practice and getting them fed before helping them with their homework. Spouses who once relied on their partners to deal with plumbing mishaps or electrical outages, now find that they must do it themselves, while also taking care of their other responsibilities. Children take on the job of parent, and parents take on everything else. Life continues like this for however long it takes to get their loved one back home, and then one day, the captive returns home and the whole structure that has been built in their absence, shifts once again.
This shift is a huge challenge, not only for the returned captive, but also for the family. All parties must understand that while things have changed, they will almost certainly need to change again. Communication, acceptance, patience, and understanding must all come into play before a family can find its footing again.
Finding your way back to your partner
For former captives who have been gone for a long time, stepping back into their home can be a jarring experience. They’ve imagined this moment a thousand times, tried to conjure the smell, the warmth and comfort of their bed, the strength of that first embrace. While many of these expectations may be met, or even exceeded, we also know that things rarely unfold the way that we envision them. Everything has changed for everyone, and coming face to face with that reality can be extremely stressful.
Based on conversations with former hostages and wrongful detainees, we have a few tips for each spouse that will ease the stress of the reunion and help build a solid foundation from which both partners in a relationship can move forward.
What the spouse at home can do:
Plan for your partner’s return by taking care of yourself – Planning isn’t easy under the best of circumstances, but in the case of a returning hostage or wrongful detainee, it can be even more challenging. In most cases, it is unknown when a loved one will come home and often the time between learning that they are coming home and their actual return, is counted in hours rather than days, giving family members no time to prepare either mentally or practically. For this reason, it’s a good idea to plan for your loved one’s return on an ongoing basis, so that when the phone call comes, you’re prepared. To do this, be sure to include routines in your day that optimize your own well-being, whether that is through exercise, meaningful conversations with friends, or simply taking 30 minutes to relax with a good book. If your mind is in the right place, you’ll be better able to adapt to the changes that will occur when your loved one comes home.
Try to avoid major changes until you are both ready – For many families, fighting for their loved ones’ freedom has taken precedence over everything else in their lives. Careers, hobbies, friendships, and personal well-being may have taken a backseat while they have poured all of their energy into getting their loved one home. Now that they have returned, it may be tempting to immediately start doing all of those things you weren’t able to do while they were away. While you should pursue your passion, be sure to give it some time before jumping into anything big. Moving to a new house, accepting a new job, or taking on new commitments will be stressful for you, and that stress can boil over to added stress on your loved one. If possible, try to delay any big changes until your loved one is feeling stronger. Any changes in your life that do happen should be done incrementally, and in such a way that the stress doesn’t become overwhelming.
Talk, listen, and try to understand – No doubt, a lot has changed since your loved one was first taken hostage or wrongfully detained. Depending on how long the captivity was, the daily routines that have been adopted in their absence may throw them off balance, making them feel like a stranger in their own home. Be sure to talk openly with your partner so that they understand why things have changed, and acknowledge that things will change again now that they are back home.
The Returning Spouse
Seek Support – It’s common that returnees brush aside the need for help when they first come home. They’re eager to move on with their lives, and many times, don’t know that the experience that they have just endured will eventually impact their daily life in ways that they cannot foresee. We have spoken to returned hostages and wrongful detainees who can’t understand why they are having a hard time concentrating, communicating in social settings, or sleeping soundly through the night. They don’t understand that these behaviors are all perfectly normal under the circumstances. Instead, they harbor feelings of loneliness and isolation as they find that they no longer recognize themselves anymore. Accepting assistance from friends, health professionals, and organizations such as Hostage US, will allow former detainees to better understand why their minds and bodies are reacting the way that they are, and reassure them that no, they are not going crazy, rather, they are healing.
Be patient and take your time – Returnees may come home and immediately feel the need to get back to work, pick up responsibilities they once held, and carry on with their lives; however, it’s important to heal before embarking on the next chapter of your life. Failing to do so can make it that much harder for you and your partner in the long run. Be sure to settle into a daily routine, regain your strength, and reconnect with your loved ones. Once all those pieces are closer to being in place, you will be able to find your new normal without the stress of having to return to the person you once were.
Listen to your family – Just as they will attempt to understand what you went through, try to do the same for them. It wasn’t easy for your spouse to carry on at home without you by their side. In some cases, partners are forced to live in a state of constant fear, unable to discuss their situation with their employer, their children’s school, or even their best friends. Try to imagine what that must have been like for them and try to accept the decisions they were forced to make in your absence. Listen to your parents, siblings, and friends, and try to understand that your family members were terrified for you, and the toll that may have taken on them may have been substantial.
Relationships are never easy, and navigating family relationships is always a challenge, but when you add into the mix a traumatic experience, such as a hostage taking or wrongful detention, the path forward is that much more stressful. Hostage US has a number of guides and resources that we invite you to explore on our website. Knowing what to expect, that you’re not alone, and that there is help available, will make the transition easier on both of you.
For more resources on how to navigate a loved one’s return from a hostage or wrongful detention situation, please visit our “Coming Home & Reintegration Resources” page on our website: https://hostageus.org/resources/coming-home/