First Aid for the First Responder Marriage
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re a “man in uniform” or a woman who, at one time, found herself attracted to one – so much so that she married him. Hopefully that attraction (as well as your marriage) remains strong today.
If not, you’re in good company. First responder marriages, or marriages in which at least one spouse serves as a police officer, firefighter, emergency medical technician (EMT) or related public-servant position, are at high risk for marital disharmony, infidelity and divorce. First responders work long hours, face frequent danger, witness countless traumatizing events and are at a higher risk for mental illness, substance abuse and suicide.
If you’ve ever found yourself wondering why you’re lonelier in a first responder marriage than you were when you were single, this set of articles is for you. Contained within are practical tips, prayer points and glimpses of hope.
Your First Responder Marriage: An At-Risk Relationship
First responder marriages face the same challenges as civilian marriages, plus an entirely unique set.
There are several substantial plusses to a career in first response. Society will always have a need for firefighters, police officers and EMTs. The pay is regular and the benefits are comprehensive. But for every plus, there’s a minus that’s much harder to swallow. first responder marriages face the same challenges as civilian marriages, plus an entirely unique set.
You and your spouse can act preemptively by recognizing the stressors unique to first responder marriages. Are any of the stressors below plaguing your marriage? If so, pray together and brainstorm solutions. If not, ask yourselves how you would deal with these problems if they were to arise in the future.
- Long shifts, odd hours. Emergencies happen 24 hours a day, not just 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. In the field of first response, odd hours are often the exception rather than the rule. When a shift is over, a worn-out firefighter can’t walk away from a warehouse blaze. A bleary-eyed police officer can’t fall-out of a high-speed chase when the clock hits 5. As Murphy’s Law would have it, duty often calls during dinner, sex, a cozy date-night in, a birthday celebration – any time that’s disruptive.
- Increased tendency to become “lost” in work. The work of first responders is emotionally, physically and even spiritually consuming. Most first responders are passionate about their work and feel a sense of constant duty as a public defender. Consequently, it’s hard (and sometimes impossible) to say no to back-to-back shifts, overtime and bringing work home – possibly to the detriment of the family.
- Calamity one minute, calm the next. One minute a first responder is en route to his station; the next he’s involved in a hostage scenario, racing to save the life of a drowning boy or fighting for his life in a firefight between rival gangs. It may take a first responder hours, even days, to “come down” from the situation.
- Increased susceptibility to mental illness. National studies have found that first responders deal with significantly higher rates of substance abuse, domestic violence and suicide. One study found first responders to be six times more likely to commit suicide than the average civilian. The job of the first responder is an emotional rollercoaster, and its nature makes veterans susceptible to emotional numbness, hyper-vigilance, insomnia, cynicism, isolationism, disturbing flashbacks, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a host of other mental and emotional issues.
- Stretched budgets. Civil servants are never paid as much as they’re worth. As a result, first responders are often on limited budgets, especially if the family is single-income. Monetary issues, along with sex, are the top catalysts for martial arguments.
Understanding Your First Responder
Most men have a natural bent towards challenge; most women have a natural bent towards relationships.
In February 2008, Sovereign Grace Ministries founder C.J. Mahaney blogged about a surprising example of Biblical manhood as displayed at an ice hockey game. His entry centered around a statement made by Russian Alexander Ovechkin, left winger for the Washington Capitals: “Today was special day. I broke my nose; I have stitches; I score four goals.” Ovechkin displays the kind of boyish fervor we so desire (albeit reluctantly) for our sons, yet find tough to cope with when displayed by our husbands.
It’s a syllogism common to the marriages of many first responders: She loves him. He loves the thrill of “battle” – be it running into a burning building, pursuing a wanted criminal in a high-speed chase or entering a hostage situation to provide first-aid to a man about to bleed out.
The conclusion of the syllogism likely depends upon your gender.
His conclusion? Therefore, I love both, and rightly so.
And hers? Therefore, he doesn’t love me.
Such misunderstandings plague far too many first responder marriages, says psychologist and author John Trent, founder of The Center for Strong Families. To him, the following Winston Churchill quote clarifies a lot: “There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result.”
“Battle, or the potential for battle, really trumps most of real life from an adrenaline standpoint,” Trent says. “God wired men to respond to challenge. The adrenaline produced by those challenges can become addictive to the point where all focus goes into occupational challenges presented instead of relationships.”
Most men have a natural bent towards challenge; most women have a natural bent towards relationships. According to Trent, while many women affirm their womanhood through marriage and childbearing, many men look to affirm their manhood through experiencing and surviving dangerous situations.
What is the key to building stronger marriages despite God-given differences and life-threatening situations? It lies in a shared walk with the Lord and frequent reconnecting, says Trent.
“Everybody’s great at courtship because we see it in movies, but so many of us don’t see the continuation of a great relationship lived out,” he says. “Men need to be challenged to work on their relationships. If they don’t, all women will see is their warrior picking up his sword and walking away to battle.”
TLC for the First Responder Marriage
All relationships take work, but your first responder marriage may make the Jones’ look like a coffee-fetching “internship.”
All relationships take work, but your first responder marriage may make the Jones’ look like a coffee-fetching “internship.” Judging by their house, Mr. Jones is paid lavishly for doing a whole lot of nothing at his corner office. He’s always home by dinner, always home on the weekends and never misses a birthday, anniversary or holiday. The seeming ease of their marriage makes the challenging aspects of yours all the more frustrating.
Below are some tips for easing the sometimes rocky road of a first responder marriage.
Tips for Her
- When you can, “wait up.” You can’t realistically stay awake through every late shift your husband works, but let him know he’s cared about and missed – even at 3 a.m. Fall asleep on the couch by the front door, and greet him when he comes in. Leave cookies and a short love note on his nightstand. Make a fun “Welcome home, hard worker” banner and hang it near the door. Set your alarm for the midpoint of his shift, and send him an encouraging text message.
- Give him space when he needs it. Though it seems so counterintuitive to many women, men often need time to decompress after a long day at work – no less a long day of dealing with a largely unappreciative public. Greet him when he returns home. Let him know you’re available if he’d like someone to talk to or sit with. Then, give him some space. When the time is right, ease into communication through nonverbal interaction (perhaps flirting, giving a reassuring touch or goofing around) and lighthearted conversation. If there’s an important, stressful topic that needs to be addressed that evening, make him aware of it and leave the ball in his court.
- Send him off with cookies. It’s easy to do when he’s headed off to shoot pool with the guys; tough to do when he’s headed to the station during an extreme fire-danger day or when a known cop-killer is on the loose. Show him you care about his safety and well-being and appreciate his provision and protection by sending him to work with some treats for him and the crew.
- Find a support group. The purpose of a support group isn’t to fix the problems you’re facing, though your fellow members may be able to give you handy tips and sage advice. Rather, support groups provide friendship, fellowship, prayer and a sense of belonging. Perhaps most importantly, listening to the stories of others normalizes what you’re going through. You’ll realize you’re not the only one facing fears, concerns and marital spats. When you realize you’re not alone, you’re less likely to feel something is extraordinarily wrong with yourself or your marriage. You’ll learn your problems are surmountable.
- Be flexible. You might have a girl’s night out or relaxing bubble bath planned. But if your first responder arrives home earlier than expected, be willing to drop your plans to spend time with him. As you well know, they’ll be plenty of other lonely late-nights during which you can have your “me” time.
- Read up on terminology. First responders use a lot of medical and psychological terminology, as well as codes, while on the job. When your first responder shares stories with you, he’s likely to use the lingo that’s natural to him. The more you know what he’s talking about, the less explaining he’ll have to do. He’ll be less frustrated and apt to share more.
- Remind him you need him, not his life insurance policy. Many men in high-risk jobs ensure their family will be covered with a generous life insurance policy in case of their death. Since men are natural providers, it’s something they often brag about to their friends and attempt to reassure their family with. Express your appreciation for his forethought and provision, but let him know you really need him – not his generous life insurance policy – and in what ways you need him.
- Thank him for providing. Thank your husband for putting his life on the line each day to serve others and put a roof over your family’s head. First responders are underappreciated; do what you can to counteract this trend in his personal life.
Tips for Him
- Realize your career affects the family. Even if she “knew what she was getting into” when she married you or “gave the OK” for you to enter the first response field, she needs your support as much as you need hers. Ask your spouse what aspects of your career stress her most. If there’s nothing you can do to ease the stress, pray with her.
- Check your priorities. The nature of the first response career field often serves as a catalyst for fast friendships. The men and women you work with spend a considerable amount of time with you, and you often place your life in their hands. As positive as strong friendships are, make sure your strongest friendship remains at home with your wife. Be especially weary of friendships with the opposite sex that may become too close.
- Thank her for standing behind you. Yes, she promised you “for better or for worse.” Yes, she “signed up for the deal.” But it’s likely your wife loves and serves you in ways that supersede her call of duty. Just as you sacrifice sleep, safety, comfort and family time to protect the public and provide for your family, she has undoubtedly spent sleepless nights worrying about you and wishing you were by her side. She’s sacrificed emotional comfort as well as personal safety. Let her know how much she means to you. A little appreciation on both ends goes a long way in keeping your marriage happy and fulfilling.
Tips for Them
- Budget wisely. With long shifts and odd hours, it’s easy for both a first responder and his spouse to feel as if a “small” treat is justified – only, long shifts and odd hours are the norm, and many times you’ll both be treating yourselves. Create a budget in which every dollar earned is assigned to a category, including debt and savings. Plan for occasional splurges, but also pack meals and treats when you can.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. While under pressure at work, first responders often communicate directly, abruptly, succinctly and gruffly. In the heat of the moment, there’s no room to convey emotions and extraneous information. Many take this style of communicating home. When it doesn’t bode well with their family, they stop communicating all together. Assess your marriage for poor and/or absent communication.
- Find a hobby just for the two of you. Forge a bond you share only with your spouse by developing a shared hobby. Be it fishing, model-car assembly, woodworking – whatever hobby you choose, make sure it’s enjoyable to both of you. Research the hobby during time apart; new information can make a great conversation starter.
- Pray together. The strongest bond a couple has is prayer – communication with their heavenly Father. Couples tend to be more honest with each other when they’re praying together aloud.
Ben Woody: Firefighter, EMT and Husband
Marriages have tough times regardless of a spouse’s career choice.
When Ben Woody decided to become a firefighter, he and his wife Pam had been married for 10 years.
“I didn’t really anticipate that the career would be life-changing,” Ben says. “We were grateful to have a long-term plan for employment.” He looked forward to helping others through “some of their most painful experiences.”
Pam foresaw basic changes to the couple’s life together due to shift work and the critical nature of the field, but “there was no way to really understand how a job that dealt with crisis every day would affect my husband and ultimately our home.”
Fifteen years later, Ben is a seasoned firefighter and EMT. Some of his most painful and harrowing memories include experiencing a violent city riot and discovering the burned corpse of a 12-year-old girl at the scene of a house fire.
“There was a brokenness that took about a year to get over,” says Ben, referring to the house-fire incident. “I withdrew emotionally in order to process and protect all that I was feeling.
“I’ve dealt with depression. I realize that in running so many calls related to violence, addiction, broken families, pain and the suffering of death, my heart has become hardened to those kind of social issues.”
Watching Ben suffer emotionally has been no easy task for Pam.
“As a spouse of a first responder, I’ve felt the responsibility to help keep Ben grounded and his heart tender at times when it would be easy for him to just shut down and become cynical about people,” she says. “I often feel unable to help him wrestle with what he’s been through at his job.”
In attempts to help him, Pam has sharpened her listening skills. She’s also committed herself to “creating a peaceful home environment” so her husband feels “safe and secure” when he’s home. She does her best to let him decompress when he returns from a shift, and she attempts to stay involved with the families of his crew members.
The couple’s greatest lesson? Ben and Pam have learned the depth of God’s provision, protection and providence, as well as the power of prayer.
“Marriages have tough times regardless of a spouse’s career choice,” Pam says. “After 25 years together (15 years in the fire department) and exposure to national fears like 9/11, Ben and I continue to learn about trusting God with our lives and our family due to the threats that surround us both on local and national levels.”
Ben’s advice to first responders?
“Find people on your shift or crew that have the same family values so you can encourage each other,” he says.
Next Steps and Related Information
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