By Kelly and Tia DeVoll
When setting out to write about the subject of police marriage, we struggled with what we wanted to put on paper.
Police marriage. What is it like to be married to a police officer? What is it like NOT to be married to a police officer? It’s the only marriage we have ever known, as we’ve both only been married once. We can’t count the number of times we’ve heard, “I could never marry a police officer!”
Constant change is a normal part of any marriage. The law enforcement marriage not only features the struggles common to every partnership, but it must also endure the shift changes, unknown dangers, public perception, sleep deprivation, unstable political climate, trauma, trauma, and trauma; wake up, do it again, don’t talk about it, keep it in, remain strong and macho—what will the other officers think if I don’t handle my emotions the right way? How long is it okay to be sad? Am I sad at all? Do I have time to be sad? Oh—I have a spouse. Great! My spouse has needs! Do I talk with my spouse about my sadness? My frustration? The danger? Can my spouse handle my emotions? What are my emotions? Do I even have them anymore? Am I numb to trauma? How do I handle my numbness and be present for my spouse? I still have other responsibilities. I have to help around the house, coach my kids’ teams, pay the bills, and oh yeah…overtime.
Meanwhile, the spouse thinks, “I’m so happy to have more money, but I would rather have you here with us. I want you here with us.” Spouses of law enforcement officers have to be content with being alone. We must do everything every other partner has to do, but spouses of first responders must live with other elements as a part of their marriage. First of all, we must have the ability to find those little bitty pieces that attach themselves to their uniforms at all times. Does anyone else hate those little bitty pieces? We must be okay with going days without seeing our spouses—all while not even being sure of what they are experiencing when they aren’t with us. And, of course, we have to be Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy by ourselves.
The officer has learned that during their shift they are in charge when they show up to a scene. Arrive at a domestic disturbance and take control. Calm the situation—which may have been building for hours, days, weeks, or even years—in seconds. Get to the scene of a minor crash and take control of the drivers who are yelling at each other. Gain compliance in all settings—by force, if necessary. Even when we’re not on a call, there is constant hypervigilance. We’re always watching.
This behavior carries over into our off-duty lives. We go out for a nice dinner and insist on sitting with our backs to a wall. We must have a visual on the restaurant entrance. Eye contact with whomever we are dining with is out of the question! We have to see everyone in the place. Every time someone walks through our line of sight, we observe and evaluate their motives, movements, the direction of travel, and we establish an intent. Then, inevitably, the call comes in the middle of dinner. Short answers follow quick instructions, and in a flash, the officer jumps up and says, “I’ve gotta go!” The conversation is always short and always goes the same way.
“What is it, honey?”
“Some guy is barricaded with a gun. He’s threatening to kill everyone and himself. What an idiot! See you later.”
“Be safe! I love you!”
“Yeah…me too,” then gone for hours with no contact.
Needless to say, the law enforcement marriage has some unique challenges. When one half of the partnership is dealing with the stresses of the industry, the other half is tasked with helping to carry that burden. Oftentimes, the weight of the job is something that the law enforcement spouse may not even admit to. That is when difficulties arise.
The officer will often keep work details to themselves and leave their spouse to wonder about what has taken place. The day-to-day dangers officer spouses face are left unspoken about. When close calls occur, the officer may keep those details away from their partner in an effort to protect them from worry and fear. When the officer faces tragedy, such as the death of a small child or a gruesome scene that most civilians will never witness, there will be a decision to shield their spouse from the emotion of the event. Some officers may simply see no need to discuss work at home or outside of the “thin blue line,” but your best resource for mental well-being in a healthy relationship may be right in front of you.
For the non-law enforcement partner in this relationship, it may help to understand one particular characteristic of the police officer that is almost universal: the heightened sense of awareness. This quality is necessary in order to be an effective officer and it is unique when compared to other public safety roles.
Dr. Kevin Gilmartin explains this concept in his book “Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement,” which is a highly recommended read for officers and their spouses. Civilians typically operate at a normal sense of awareness and may only go above this baseline for a few seconds or minutes if something remarkable occurs during their day. Then, they usually go right back to their regular level of awareness.
Firefighters and paramedics do not randomly roam their jurisdictions looking for emergencies to address; they ordinarily have the benefit of a tone or alarm which tells them that they need to raise their sense of awareness and prepare for a particular issue.
The police officer, meanwhile, has to utilize that hypervigilance as soon as they walk out the front door, which cannot be easily switched off—even when off-duty. One never knows where danger is hiding. The officer feels an obligation to seek that danger out. The officer remains at that level for the duration of their shift, even when it ends without much happening. This heightened state of awareness takes a mental and physical toll of which the officer may not even be aware.
Once home, the officer typically deescalates. However, this decompression often skips the “normal” level of awareness and lands the officer in a state where he or she is tired, irritable, sleep-deprived, and cranky. In other words: mildly depressed. The next day, it happens all over again. This cycle repeats and repeats—while the effects go undetected—until a sudden emotional eruption occurs.
This crisis is common unless it is recognized and addressed early. Learning to share and talk about these unique stressors goes a long way to stabilize the relationship and help our spouses understand why we occasionally act the way we do.
Simply put, the marital relationship can be the greatest team you could ever be a part of only if those involved are willing to put in the work.
Make no mistake: marriage is work, and it takes two people eager to work in order to be successful. The most effective tool that has worked in our marriage is based on a spiritual principle. Spirituality is important for our marriage. Even if you would not call yourselves spiritual, please consider a similar approach involving happiness. Both of us are concerned about the happiness of our marriage, but not in the way it is typically approached. We try not to center in on our own happiness, but the happiness of our spouse. We both try to put aside our own desires, wants, and wishes to focus on our partner’s happiness. The benefit of this approach is this: we are both happy, but our well-being has not been at the cost of our spouse’s needs. Our happiness has been influenced by one’s effort to see that the other’s needs and desires are met.
This is not to say that we are perfect. We fail in this area from time to time! Everyone does. But this mindset helps us to overcome the obstacles we face as a couple the majority of the time. We are best friends. Even more important, we are best confidants. We talk! We discuss hopes and dreams, failures and successes, desires and needs, happiness and sadness; we talk about our days.
To succeed in the endeavor we call marriage, we must understand the stresses we face and the hurdles that will lie before us. Think about it: most of the arguments we have are not about life’s greatest decisions! Most arguments arise when we forget the one truth about the human-animal: all people need to feel significant, worthy, and important. We get into trouble when we make our spouse feel insignificant, unworthy, or unimportant. Then, we’re often unwilling to suck up our pride and say “I’m sorry.”
There will be disagreements. There will be arguments. But there will also be happiness and joy. There will be great memories to share. And—with some work—there will be a lifetime together, which we will consider to be our greatest success.