7 tips for surviving your relationships

Correctional officers have a notoriously high divorce rate, but divorce statistics are only part of the story

By Sgt. Betsy Branter Smith

Correctional officers have a notoriously high divorce rate, but divorce statistics are only part of the story. Think about all the engagements, live-in boyfriend/girlfriend situations, or same-sex partnerships that don’t work out either. Let’s face it, we tend to be lousy at intimate relationships. 

In my Street Survival seminar, we talk about surviving this job not only physically and tactically, but emotionally, and a large part of our survival is dependent upon the success of our personal relationships. I can’t tell you how many officers have come up to me after a seminar and said “All this time, I thought it was all my wife’s fault that we don’t get along, but now I’m beginning to understand that it might just be me.”

The majority of the research and writings on this topic tend to focus on what our spouses can do to make our marriages better. If only our partners would change their attitudes, be more understanding, learn to communicate better, and deal more successfully with the day-to-day stressors that “we,” the cops, face we’d all be happier. I’m suggesting that those of us with the badge look in the mirror, look into our hearts, and try to figure out what we can do to improve our relationships; here are a few suggestions:

·         Watch how you talk to and treat those you love. Do you give orders or make requests when you get home? Do you work your tail off to help out a citizen while you’re on duty but when you get home it’s just too much trouble to help fold the laundry or take out the garbage? Sometimes we treat strangers, our co-workers, or the citizens better than we do our own families. I had a revelation a few years ago during a heated argument with my husband, a former police lieutenant. He said to me “Don’t talk to me like one of your officers!” And I spontaneously shot back with “I would never talk to my officers the way I talk to you!” Holy cow! I really like the guys who work for me, but I adore my husband, and yet here I was, talking to him like some incompetent rookie that was about to get terminated. Take a good, hard look at how you communicate with your loved ones. Pay attention not only to your words, but your gestures, your tone of voice, your general demeanor. Do you talk to them like the precious people they are, or do you need to do some work on your communication skills at home?

·         Have a “going home” ritual. It can be hard to transition from crime fighter to spouse, partner, or parent. I used to come home immediately after a twelve hour shift to my family who was waiting to have dinner with me. My husband would cook a great meal, hand me a glass of wine as I walked in the door, and ask me about my day. Sounds perfect, right? In reality, it drove me nuts. I’d arrive home still in “cop mode,” either wired or exhausted, and more than a little surly. All I wanted was to go through the mail, wolf down something to eat, and enjoy my glass of wine in total silence and solitude…not exactly the happy homecoming that my family kept anticipating night after night. I had to develop a new “going home ritual” before I no longer was welcome in my own home! Now, a couple of nights a week after work I go to the gym and on the other nights I at least take a shower at the department and change into my favorite sweats before I drive home. I get a home a little later, but my family agrees that I’m a whole lot more pleasant to be around, and I’m much more engaged from the time I walk in the door. 

·         Don’t get too caught up in your own self-importance. On average, less than two out of every one hundred applicants actually get hired, so by the time we get “on the job” we already feel like we’re pretty darn special. Add to that the public’s fascination with our profession, the danger factor, and the power and authority, and it’s easy for us to lose perspective. After all, how can anyone’s day compare to yours? So what if your spouse had to deal with 25 second graders on a field trip today, or your partner had an argument with her boss, or your teenage son got turned down for the freshman dance by his not-so-secret crush? That stuff is petty compared to the traffic crashes, the suicides, the child molesters, and domestic violence calls you went to today! Obviously, the family needs to get a little perspective! Or maybe you do? It’s easy for your family members’ trials and triumphs to get overshadowed by the serious nature of your profession. In fact, they may begin to trivialize their own issues because they don’t want to “bother” you with them. Take the time to find out about their day, truly listen to what they have to say, ask questions, show empathy, make them feel valued. They’ll be much more ready to listen when you’re ready to talk about your day, which brings me to my next point. 

·         Bring your family in to “your” world. Very often officers hide what we really do from our families. We don’t want to worry them or frighten them or make them cynical or paranoid, plus sometimes we just don’t feel like talking. But it’s a mistake to keep your family at arm’s length. Tell your spouse about your frustration with work; bend your partner’s ear about why your sergeant was such a jerk today, but try to find something positive to talk about too. And don’t forget your kids. Sharing your day with them in an age-appropriate manner can result in some great parent/child bonding. I use my work “stories” as teachable moments for my kids. In fact, my youngest daughter and I have developed a routine as we’re getting ready for bed when I tell her “Tales of Stupid Decisions by Teenage Girls.” I get to vent, she learns how to stay out of trouble, and we both understand each other’s world a little better. 

·         When you make a commitment to spend time with your family, honor it. Treat it like a court subpoena, a call-in for overtime, in-service training; or whatever mental game you have to play with yourself to make family time “mandatory." Yeah, you might be tired; sure, you’ve got a lot going on; but if it was the department telling you that you have to come in and do something, you’d do it. Consistently make your family a priority. Officers tend to put off family time until “tomorrow” or “my days off” or “when I’m on vacation” or even “when I retire,” and sometimes by then, it’s too late. Given the precarious nature of our job, time with your loved ones should rarely be put off until some other time!

·         Keep in touch. A “thanks for packing me a lunch” note left on the kitchen table, a brief text message to say “I miss you” or a quick phone call to say “We’re really busy out here tonight but I can’t wait to see you and the kids in the morning” are short, simple ways to stay in touch with your family even while you’re out protecting the public. Our families worry about us and miss us when we’re on duty, and it only takes a few seconds to let them know that you’re okay and that you miss them, appreciate them, love them, and can’t wait to get back home to see them!

·         Don’t be afraid to get help. Years of poor communication, job stress, resentment toward the agency or maybe even each other can leave a relationship badly damaged. The writings and teachings of both Dr. Ellen Kirschman and Dr. Kevin Gillmartin are excellent resources for police officers and their families looking to improve their relationships. And before you join the ranks of the 75 percent of us who gave up on a marriage, give counseling a try. You spend your time at work helping others, so let a professional therapist or your minister or your department’s employee assistance personnel give you a hand. 

Just like officer survival training has been instrumental in reducing police officer injuries and deaths, relationship survival can help our profession reduce that high divorce rate. Train for your relationships like you train for your survival, because both are worth fighting for!

About the author

Sergeant Betsy Smith has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience, retiring as a patrol supervisor in a large Chicago suburb. A graduate of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety's School of Staff and Command and a Street Survival seminar instructor for more than 9 years, Betsy is now a speaker, author and a primary PoliceOne Academy consultant. Visit Betsy's website at www.femaleforces.com

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