Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar: You get home from a long shift at work and your spouse is at the door asking you how your day was. Maybe you’re too tired to talk about it and just want to leave work at work, or maybe you don’t want to traumatize your spouse with the gruesome details of a bad call you went on. You say, “Fine.” Your spouse does not seem pleased with this answer but moves on to ask, “What would you like for dinner?” Since in fact you are happy to eat anything, love your spouse’s cooking and feel tired from a day of making decisions, you say, “I don’t care.” You are completely blindsided when after only a few minutes of seeing your spouse, having barely said anything, your spouse is accusing you of being “emotionally disconnected” and “never present.” You forget all of your de-escalation training and tell your spouse to “calm down” (which is the equivalent of inducing an emotional bomb to blow up in your face). Since that strategy didn’t work, you think to yourself that if you just don’t say anything, and in fact disappear from view, it has to be impossible to be angry at you. You try to leave the room, but your spouse follows you, now angrier than ever. You’re confused because you were trying to make it better by walking away. And so, you go around your house with your spouse following you and things don’t seem to actually get resolved. You do this dance again sooner than you’d like.
This type of communication breakdown is one of the most common reasons that couples seek counseling, and first responder couples are certainly not immune. In fact, the daily stressors of the job and shift work only contribute to the likelihood of potential miscommunications. Below, I will discuss three reasons for communication breakdowns in first responder couples. While this article is not a substitute for professional help, I hope it helps you get the conversation going with your spouse and opens new doors for better communication.
Because you have to be alert and vigilant on the job, the combination of mental and physical factors mean that you experience a type of physiological “crash” when you get home. It is almost impossible to override this “zombie-like” state — and what you need is rest and recovery. This period of recovery is the worst possible time to try to engage in any sort of emotionally laden conversations. While this does not mean you get to avoid these conversations altogether (in fact, the more you avoid, the more your spouse will want to pursue them), I do advocate for appropriate timing. Right after your shift and right before your shift — when your body is gearing down or gearing up for work — will not lead to productive or connecting conversations.
Intent vs. impact communication
Cops tend to be intent communicators: you say what you think, and you think what you say. You are direct and honest. On the other hand, impact communicators are more thoughtful of how what they say may make others feel; they think carefully about the impact of their words. Generally, intent communicators marry impact communicators.
Intent communicators should take a page out of the impact book. What I recommend here is to share more than just “the tip of the iceberg.” For example, in the above scenario, the conversation would have gone much better if when asked about his day, our officer had said, “I am tired and I don’t want to think about work anymore, I would love to talk about something else,” and when asked about his feelings on dinner, “I am happy to eat anything!” Oftentimes, if you reveal just a little bit more, it can go a long way in promoting clear communication. You can see how the above examples did not require deep emotional reveals but just a little bit more of your thought process.
While many of the above problems can be resolved through some tweaks in communication and psychoeducation, couples that get stuck in a more engrained pursue/withdraw cycle often need some external help to change their negative pattern. Identified by Dr. Sue Johnson, a prominent researcher and marital therapist, this pattern usually involves one partner who withdraws during conflict and one partner who tries to re-engage. It is not too different from fight and flight, and just as those survival drives, this pattern is often deeply engrained, becoming amplified as conflict grows in a marriage. Oftentimes, this pattern is also where the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (a term coined by another prominent marital expert, Dr. John Gottman) become activated. The avoidant partner may stonewall and become defensive, while the pursuing partner may engage in criticism and contempt. Both people may be trying to do what they know best and truly want to fix the problem, but the negative pattern often has its own gravity, pulling you into the argument. Here, I recommend you identify and name your negative pattern. It can be a funny or serious name, anything you both agree on. For example, couples have called their negative cycle “Pandora’s box” or “a black hole.” Once you have named it, try to identify it and unite against the pattern with clear communication. It is also OK to take space as long as you let your partner know that you will come back to address the problem.
If you believe you may need some outside relational help, it’s out there! Many times, problems that seem insurmountable can be addressed. Couples often leave therapy stronger, happier and feeling more satisfied about their relationship. Look into your current EAP to see if marital counseling is an option.