Marriage hasn’t always been easy for us. There have been many periods where we really struggled, as do most couples, and even the traits that once attracted us to each other strained the bond. The differences that once seemed so complementary to make us stronger together became sources of anger and resentment and led to thoughts of how the other needed to change. Add in the stressors of the law enforcement life—shift work, sleep deprivation, days and holidays apart—and we even questioned being together at all. Sometimes we questioned if we really wanted to roll up our sleeves and fight for our marriage, or was it simpler to just bail?
It has been claimed that police marriages fail at a higher rate than those of the general public; some say the divorce rate among cops is 75 percent or more, although this is highly anecdotal. Tracking divorce rates by occupation is unreliable at best, and recording success or failure of long-term and committed, but non-marital, relationships is nearly impossible. But no matter the work each partner does I can tell you, as a therapist with 17 years of experience leading couple’s therapy, making a committed relationship work for the long haul is a formidable challenge. And having studied and worked closely with the LE community, individually and together with my husband Mike, who is a law enforcement officer, we know there are unique challenges faced by cops and their partners that require special consideration.
Through training, drills and experience cops learn to survive the street. Ever mindful of officer safety, most officers develop a hyper-vigilant, emotionally detached, even cynical point of view that helps protect and shield them from a frequently hostile—and often emotionally and physically dangerous—world. They develop a command presence that demands respect and gives situational dominance. The problem, we’ve found, is when officers leave work behind and head home, many cannot turn off the vigilance, let go the cynicism and connect positively with the people they love the most. Often they either cannot or will not relinquish control over others and situations, or, conversely, will detach so thoroughly they emotionally flat-line and withdraw into impenetrable shells.
Second, the very role of “protector” encourages cops to embrace a burden: I am the guardian; I get things done; I am the strong one. Police officers become extremely confident in their self-reliance, instincts and capabilities. And they frequently develop a sense of personal entitlement (insisting on what I want to do, when and how I want to do it) that bleeds into their personal lives from the autonomy they enjoy at work. The problem is the very skills and qualities that might make an officer so effective and safe on the job are destructive when they are brought home. The temptation to follow our own preferred trajectories without regard for how they affect each other is strong. Giving in to the temptation is destructive.
Third, it is sometimes common that officers build so high a wall between work and home life they exclude their spouse/partner from anything to do with the job. This is usually intended as a kindness, or to shield them from some of the harshness of that world, but it gets in the way of true intimacy. The person who loves you wants to know all of you.
Changing your point of view to one focused primarily on “we” (What we want, what we like, what we want to do) instead of “I” practically guarantees you’ll learn to view your partner with a more empathetic, selfless eye. Conflicts are fewer, and more easily resolved, and when you do disagree you will find your relationship much more resilient. Most importantly, you will begin to see love as a verb—something you do—instead of merely something you feel. Feelings are fleeting. Actions are within your control.
Choosing to roll up our sleeves and fight for our marriage led us on a painful yet rewarding journey. We continue to learn new survival skills and integrate those already learned for we know that is the success of a committed relationship.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Officer Mike Wasilewski, MSW, and Althea Olson, LCSW, a clinical social worker, have been married since 1994. As founders of More Than a Cop, they study, teach and write about the “Survival Skills Beyond the Street” every cop needs.
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