As a police psychologist and LEO spouse, officers and their spouses have often assumed that my husband and I have a superhuman ability to communicate. I’m here to tell you that is absolutely not the case. We are both human and subject to the same relationship communication challenges as any other law enforcement couple. We had to figure things out over time, which included (lots of) trial and error along the way. Below are a few things I’ve learned — as a LEO spouse and as a police psychologist who works with officers and their spouses — about relationship communication challenges and techniques to facilitate healthy communication.
The relationship tactical disengagement
We all have our limits when it comes to how well we can actively listen and effectively communicate throughout any given day. Factors such as sleep deprivation, emotions, mental or physical fatigue, stress and hunger can impact how well we communicate. If you notice that you are unable to sustain communication or preoccupied with other things, it is 100% OK to let your spouse know. This is especially true when you come home after work.
Chances are that your brain and body will need some time to downshift from work mode. This is not a problem; however, you need to communicate that with your spouse. Years back, my husband and I came up with the “10-minute rule.” If either of us recognizes that we need some time to decompress before engaging in conversation, we say, “I need 10 minutes.” This is code for, “Give me some physical space to decompress for a bit.” It could take more or less than 10 minutes, so the exact amount of time does not necessarily matter. The point is that we are communicating what we need in that moment without making the other person feel invalidated or unwanted. If you feel that you need a bit more time (i.e., more than 20–30 minutes), do your best to frontload that information to your spouse before you get home. For example, you can say something like, “It’s been a difficult day. I’ll need some time to decompress when I get home.”
Additionally, when experiencing intense emotions, it is likely that our communication will suffer. Think about those moments when you have felt so angry, irritable or annoyed that you spoke in a certain tone or were unable to listen because you were too busy formulating your response or trying hard to defend your position. This often happens because intense emotions can hijack the brain’s resources that are needed to actively listen and effectively communicate. This is where relationship damage can occur because we can say or do things that emotionally injure our partner. Have a code word or phrase that you and your spouse use when emotionally activated and recognize when it is time to take a break from communicating with one another because of emotional intensity. The key here is to make sure that you return to the conversation. I’ve seen law enforcement couples “brush it off” or not bring the issue up again once the wave of emotion dissipates because they are worried about cycling up into another argument. Without correcting this behavior and properly healing the emotional injury, couples will inadvertently reinforce unhealthy communication and build resentment that can cause problems down the road.
Do you need me to help you or hear you?
Not surprisingly, cops tend to jump into fix mode when their spouse communicates an issue or problem they are having. I’m here to tell you that your spouse does not always need rescuing. Often, we just want to feel heard and validated. By jumping into fix mode, you will inadvertently invalidate and dismiss how your spouse is feeling. It helps to clarify what your spouse needs from you at the outset of the conversation. Saying something like, “Do you need me to help you or hear you?” can help to clarify what your spouse needs and expects from you during the conversation.
It is also important to remember that your spouse’s frame of reference for what constitutes a stressful day or situation might be vastly different from what you perceive as stressful. This is OK and entirely normal. Take care to not engage in competitive or invalidating responses when your spouse shares how they are feeling. Use your active listening skills and empathy to put yourself in their shoes. You do not have to agree with how your spouse is feeling or responding to a situation or issue. The important thing is that your spouse feels heard and understood.
You never told me we had to do that!
How often have you or your spouse talked about work schedules, appointments or family events only to have them insist that the conversation never happened? Rather than argue about who told who what and when, get ahead of things by sharing your calendar. Many cell phones have the capability to share calendars, and there are several free phone apps available to share calendars. Use this shared calendar to note work schedules (including those overtime shifts), doctor appointments, family events and special dates, etc. You and your spouse can also note “to-do” items to reduce feeling bamboozled by tasks during your time off. If you need a half day or full day to relax and do nothing, it is OK to note that on your shared calendar so that your spouse knows to not schedule anything during a time you had in your mind to relax on your day off.
Remember that everyone communicates differently
People have different communication styles. For example, it may be common for someone to frequently stray off-topic or discuss things in excessive detail when communicating. Cops are used to “just the facts.” If someone talks too much or doesn’t appear to directly answer your question at work, you may perceive that the person is lying or hiding something. This triggers your command presence and shifts your communication style (and behavior). Pay attention to this when talking with your spouse. If you are in command-presence mode when communicating in your relationship, your spouse may respond defensively or appear flustered because they are not used to this style of communication. You may also hear them say, “Don’t talk to me like I’m a suspect (or inmate).” If this occurs, take a moment to reflect on your tone and physical demeanor. Are you in “work mode,” or are you in “spouse mode?”
Healthy relationships include good communication
The goal of healthy communication is to foster trust, emotional security and safety within your relationship. You cannot do so if you attempt to avoid conflict or arguments with your spouse. Effectively listening and communicating with one another during challenging times will facilitate emotional intimacy and trust in your relationship. It is important to remember that you are both human and will not always be functioning or communicating at your best. Use the above communication tools or find your own creative ways to maintain healthy communication in your relationship. If you need additional tools or have questions, take the time to educate yourself about relationship communication. My personal and professional favorites are The Gottman Institute (www.gottman.com) and Code 4 Couples (www.code4couples.com).