Police Marriage and the Road Less Travelled.

A law enforcement career places unique stressors on marriages. I’d like to give you one tool for navigating them. However, first let me say there is a grand total of zero research within the last thirty years which concludes cops have a significantly higher divorce rate than the general population. Yet, if you checked the internet, you’d find there is a very popular misconception that we have outlandishly high divorce rates. In fact, we may...all I’m saying here is that there’s no research to support that claim. Okay, moving on.

Let’s look at two of the most common problems police marriages encounter.

The Problem:

The officer is exhausted and worthless as a marital partner.

Officer fatigue is both qualitatively and quantitatively different than the run of the mill fatigue others have at the end of their work week. It’s biologically based. So, the first thing to know is that it’s normal to be completely gassed after work. I learned about this by reading Kevin Gilmartin’s book, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement. He calls this phenomenon, the "hypervigilance biological roller coaster.” I had my wife read the book when I was done. I said, “see, it’s not that I’m just a lazy, worthless bastard.” In fairness, she didn’t accuse me of this, but it’s how I felt.

It’s important that both partners understand the physiological basis of officer fatigue. I’m not going to explain how this happens because it’s pretty involved and I’m, well, too lazy to get into it right now. The nutshell version is as follows: cops are always geared up at work. By “geared up” I mean your body is ready for action at all times, whether your consciously aware of it or not. Even if your eating lunch at work, you’re still geared up. Your sympathetic nervous system is activated. After prolonged periods of sympathetic arousal your body has a rebound effect. It’s the “what goes up must come down” principle. If it (your body) goes way up, it’s gonna go way down. There, I saved you all the five dollar words.

I wish there were a way to really fix this problem, but there isn’t. Drinking a lot of water and exercise seem to help. The impact of the problem is lessened by your being aware of it.

The Problem:

Lack of Communication.

Very few officers say they have a problem communicating with their spouse. What they say is, "my wife doesn't understand thus and such." While it's not the "presenting complaint" to therapists it is the cause of all kinds of other complaints.

Learn how to talk to each other. Yeah, that seems pretty obvious doesn’t it? It’s easier said than done though. Based on my experience as a therapist, my own life, and innumerable conversations I’ve had with co-workers and friends, I can say that most marital failures are ultimately the result of failures of communication.

Cops typically don’t like to hear this but egalitarian style marriages, in which both partners have an equal say in important matters, are less likely to fail than those in which one partner (usually the cop) calls the shots. Sharing power isn’t easy for many of us. The road most travelled by, is the one in which cops have a hammer and constantly seek out nails. Regardless of how horribly it goes, we still try and use that damn hammer. Like about half of all Americans, cops use that hammer all the way through divorce court.

I could blather on with a large laundry list of ways to help you improve your marital communication, but I’ll just give you one. If you learn this one technique well your marriage will improve. Guaranteed. It’s called “active listening.” Active listening requires we take the road less travelled by. A prerequisite is your willingness to put the hammer down and try and new tool.

Most of us have heard of active listening but few of us do it well. It’s closely related to a pearl of wisdom offered by Steven Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The “habit” I refer to is, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Again, easier said than done.

Okay, so pop any marital problem into the equation (financial problems, child rearing, how you spend your down time etc.). You and your spouse are struggling with a problem and you’re at loggerheads. For simplification purposes let’s say this is a traditional male-female relationship and the male is the cop. Well call him Jake. The wife is Cindy. Let’s say Jake has the “problem” that Cindy doesn’t understand his work pressures and jams him up at home about doing more to support her. Sound familiar? Cindy complains that she feels like a single parent and is getting washed out to sea with holding down the fort at home. Pretty generic but It’ll work.

Here’s what you do.

Ground rules: (a) No bashing. That means no statements like “you’re an idiot...you’re worthless...I hate you.” You get the point. (b) No generalizations. Stay away from, “you never” and “you always.” We can’t realistically address things we always or never do. We can address what I did or didn’t do this morning. This exercise is for specific problems. You can say, “I FEEL you’re never or always thus and such (as long it doesn’t violate the first ground rule). Feelings are never wrong. Just know that generalizations are never productive for resolving marital conflict.

  1. Sit down with your spouse in an environment in which you will not be disturbed.
  2. Cindy talks and Jake listens. Oh, but it’s not that easy buddy. There’s listening and then there’s active listening. By active listening I mean you hear Cindy’s experience on her terms not yours. You immerse yourself in her reality. Instead of forming your rebuttal after hearing her first complaint (one of many she’ll likely have), you sit with it. You can have any thought you want as Cindy talks (e.g., “that’s bullshit!”) but keep that thought to yourself AND don’t let that thought distract you from hearing Cindy. Why? ‘Cause there’s a test at the end. So, Jake seeks first to understand Cindy’s experience. Having done this many times myself I can tell you it’s not easy. You get hot in the face and battle defensiveness. You hear every single complaint Cindy has. You wait until she’s completely done. Jake does NOT interrupt Cindy while she’s talking.
  3. Jake tells Cindy what he just heard her say. This will be quite a challenge for Jake because he’s going to have a hard time concentrating. His mind will be filled with lot’s of vile thoughts. But Jake finds a way to spit out what he heard Cindy say. Hopefully, (though this isn’t required) Jake will actually feel some sympathy for Cindy’s experience.
  4. When Jake’s done articulating Cindy’s experience, Cindy has an opportunity to correct or elaborate further on what Jake said. Again, Jake listens only and then tries again to get it right. Jake can ask questions to ensure he understands what Cindy is saying. When he’s ready to go, Jake says things like, “I heard you say you felt blown off by me this morning when you tried to talk to me about...”
  5. It’s Jake’s turn. Cindy listens. Jake refrains from blasting Cindy out of the water because he’s pissed off at what he just heard. Rather, he sticks to HIS issues.
  6. Then, repeat steps 3 & 4. Jake corrects anything Cindy got wrong and Cindy listens.

That’s active listening. Rinse and repeat for future conflict. If done properly, it can be magical. Nothing takes the steam out of a problem better than having your partner “get it.” Think of how many problems have at their root, some sense of the other person “not getting it.”

Cops solve problems. Even if we have to make stuff up, we’ll solve the problem. It’s effective at work but makes for an epic fail at home. Problem solving and active listening are polar opposites.

Let me know how it goes.