An essential pillar for officer wellness is meaningful support at home. Loved ones play a vital role in enabling officers to recover from work traumas, and their understanding support should be cultivated consistently. Each will need the caring support of the other for the relationship to survive your law enforcement career.
Why a lack of effective support at home?
Loved ones of officers typically have very little understanding about the debilitating nature of law enforcement’s daily traumas and critical incidents. They lack understanding of how an accumulation of work traumas can lead to a dysfunctional relationship, poor communication, disinterest and disengagement with the family, isolation and lack of interaction — along with a host of other relationship challenges. Officers tend to make matters far worse by rarely sharing how work may be affecting them.
Officers tend not to want to burden their loved ones with their traumatic work experiences. However, shutting down, repressing emotions and not expressing what is needed from their loved one causes officers to inadvertently sever one of their most critical lifelines of support.
Buried emotions of frustration, helplessness, heartache, fear, depression, disgust or shock will significantly inhibit an officer’s ability to communicate effectively. These suppressed emotions disassociate the officer from those closest to them and make it more difficult to connect and relate to loved ones. My ex-wife would say that I often talked in one- or two-word sentences. I certainly didn’t do that when we met.
Life partners don’t need to know the details of a traumatic call, but they absolutely need to know whether something disturbing is being experienced inside. Let them know you had a bad call and that you’re working your way through it … don’t just say you’re fine when you’re not. Then specifically let them know what you need, what they could do to be helpful to you in that moment.
Provide useful information to your loved one to increase their understanding and to provide constructive ways for them to support you and for them to cope. Helpful books are Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement by Kevin Gilmartin, I Love a Cop by Ellen Kirschman or Bulletproof Spirit by this author.
Ways to cultivate support from loved ones
Express understanding of what it’s like for them. No matter who your life partner is, it is extremely challenging for them to live with you. If you’re like most officers, you’ve likely never expressed to your life partner that you understand how difficult being with someone in law enforcement must be. Express to them your acknowledgment of how difficult your work, work traumas and stress, shift work, work demands and schedule is to them. Ask, “What do you need from me so that I can help you get through my career?” Take to heart all they tell you and commit to following through. This then provides the perfect opportunity for you to tell them specifically what you need from them. Open communication about what one needs and expects from the other is the first essential step toward maintaining a fulfilling law enforcement relationship.
Make up for past inattention. After attending one of my wellness and resilience training classes, a Nebraska officer approached me with tears in his eyes and said, “I now realize how terribly I’ve treated my wife and children.” I encouraged him from that moment on to try to do all he can to make it right. Have your daily actions prove to your loved ones that they are the most important people in your life. Consistently do things that cause them to feel your love and appreciation for them. Do things for them after work has kept you away from home — and continue to find ways to enjoy each other and to express kindness to each other.
Make your limited time together meaningful by focusing on the positive. Often, in law enforcement relationships, the limited time you do have together can be consumed with arguments, complaints or irritations either about work or other issues. Value your precious time together by being committed to remain focused on the positive. Use your time together to reconnect, remain active, and practice relationship support and care.
What loved ones can do
As best you can, create a supportive, stress-free home for your law enforcement mate. Refrain from bringing up issues with them at work, where their life depends upon them remaining focused, and wait until they get home to discuss. Listen to your law enforcement mate’s needs without neglecting your own. Allow your law enforcement mate to have some downtime, but then encourage them to re-engage with the family. Try to refrain from complaining or forcing your mate to talk — find ways to encourage them to talk. Let them know if you’ve noticed that they’ve changed in any way or that they haven’t been themselves. Let them know you are there for them in whatever ways they need.
What officers can do
Become more self-aware in your relationship. Consider what you may have done in the past that created distance or hurt the relationship. Think about practical ways you can improve the relationship and enhance positive communication. Ignore any perceived faults in your mate or what you believe they should do toward improving the relationship. Instead, focus on what you have control over — what you can do daily to enrich and enhance the relationship.
Strive to become more aware of your life partner’s needs and ways you can help support them. Do not discount their issues or problems because you feel you have it far worse at your job. Their issues and experiences are just as important to them as yours are to you. Work to maintain a positive work–life balance, with the emphasis on life. Find ways to involve your loved ones in your off-work interests and activities to reconnect with them.
Any law enforcement relationship can be meaningful and fulfilling — it just takes persistent effort, care and mutual support. Both partners in a law enforcement relationship are essential to each other to survive this profession. With honest and open communication while cultivating compassionate understanding of each other, your relationship can become your greatest asset in surviving this career.