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Paul Clinton

Paul Clinton

As the POLICE Web editor, Paul Clinton contributes posts about patrol cars, motorcycles, and other police vehicles. He previously wrote about automotive electronics as managing editor of Mobile Electronics. Prior to that, he was an award-winning newspaper reporter.



William Harvey

William Harvey

William "Bill" Harvey is currently serving as chief of police in south central Pennsylvania. He retired from the Savannah (Ga.) Police Department where he worked assignments in training, patrol, and CID. Harvey has more than 25 years of experience working with recruits, rookies, and FTOs.
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Dealing With Police Stress on the Home Front

Lower stress on the home front with these suggestions if you're in a relationship with a police officer.

September 09, 2013  |  by Erica Dreadfulwater

Photo via Amy McTigue/Flickr.
Photo via Amy McTigue/Flickr.
Being a police officer has more than its fair share of challenges. Being the wife of an officer also has more than its fair share of challenges. I understand this in a personal way, as a law enforcement spouse and former dispatch operator. With a series of blogs, I will cover stress, shift work, and divorce. I will provide tips for dealing with or avoiding each.

Police work is one of the most stressful jobs in this country. Day after day, officers see the worst of humanity; absorb the world's negativity; and come home to us. How can we expect this to have no effect on their minds, bodies, and souls? The fact is it does.

The first thing to know is how the human body reacts to relentless stress. Men tend to regress to a more child-like state. As with an illness, the smallest nuisance can make them angry, whiny, complaining, and self-centered. They can behave like a sleepy child. It's not their fault; it's one of the body's warning systems saying "Hey! I need a break!"

In the face of emotional pain, fear or stress, humans tend to turn down their sensitivity dials to numb, reaching the point of functional coma. This means that your officer won't want to have any important conversations or emotional discussions, and one-syllable words may become his vocabulary. This is a warning sign. I imagine this was programed as a survival perk in the Stone Age, allowing our emotional self to take a back seat so the logical self can drive and make decisions the emotional self could not. In this century, it's more of a hindrance. Sleep patterns change; eating habits go wild; and video games or movies may become an escape. If these activities become all they want to do, it's a warning sign.

You may begin to see your previously social drinker having a drink every night, maybe two or three. Maybe he goes to the bar down the street every night after shift. Maladaptive coping skills tend to run rampant in the policing world for several reasons. Cops are tough and don't talk about their feelings. Cops like cops, so they hang around cops who are tough and don't talk about their feelings. Unless their spouse is also a cop or dispatcher, they're not in this group, which further pushes them away. With the other previously listed behaviors, it's no wonder the divorce rate in law enforcement has reached 80 percent.

His job may be to protect the community, but our job is to protect him, our children, and ourselves. I would never advocate staying in an abusive marriage. Short of that, a little understanding goes a long way. Knowing what he's going through is half the battle. His outbursts and any immature behavior or otherwise maladaptive coping mechanisms are not your fault. Say it with me, not my fault. Very good.

The most important thing to remember is, don't respond with anger because that only escalates the situation. A calm and soothing voice does wonders for anger and other outbursts. I call it my 911 voice. "I can help you," I will say. "Tell me what the problem is, and we will work together to solve it."  This works much better than calling him any name you could muster.

I and other spouses have found it helpful to be in the company and companionship of others in the same boat. Look for support groups in your area. If you can't find one, you could start one. Other wives may thank you. Always try to keep the communication lines open. Sometimes an "I love you" post-it note on his vest before duty can change his whole disposition for the day. Leave a note, voice mail, text, Facebook post, or anything sweet to get the conversation going. Men are more likely to talk to sweet than sour. Remember how you got him?

One way I helped lower the stress in our house was to find something in common with my officer. Before I met my husband, I had never been around guns. Suddenly, I'm living with a badge-carrying, vest-wearing gun lover. I was able to find a stress-relieving hobby by letting him teach me to shoot; buy me guns; take me to the range on date nights before dinner; and teach me useless gun facts.

It allowed him to open up to me about things at work—I now understood that part of his life—and our lower stress level has been thanking me ever since. And that's not the only benefit. You never know, maybe next time he will teach you how to clear the house and "pie" a corner.

Erica Dreadfulwater, a former dispatcher, is married to a police officer and lives in Muskogee, Okla. She is pursuing a forensic psychology degree.

Tags: Families of Officers, Handling Stress, Off-Duty Life


Comments (7)

Displaying 1 - 7 of 7

S.Roads @ 9/9/2013 12:08 PM

This sounds exactly like the relationship my officer and I are involved in. He has been on the force for a couple of years and I'm beginning to see a shift in his personality. I fear we are losing our connection. Its nice to know that I'm not alone and that it may not be me that is the problem. I suggested counseling, but that went nowhere fast. I don't know about shooting guns I'm terrified of them lol, but that is a good idea.

Jack Betz @ 9/10/2013 5:38 PM

A very long time ago, the best cop I ever knew taught me that a good officer needs to find interests outside of the job. THe job ends sooner or later. You do not need to end with it.

lodall @ 9/10/2013 9:11 PM

I cannot recommend strongly enough, Dr Kevin Gilmartin's book "Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement". It clearly explains the emotional roller coaster ride working as a LEO will take you and your family on: why it happens and how you can manage it. It truly is a survival guide that every officer, and every member of their family should read.

Jason @ 9/11/2013 2:17 PM

There is a book titled "Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement". It's good for the officer and significant other. My 1st divorce was final last week. I can't wait to retire from this profession. Too late for my first marriage, maybe my next if I ever marry again will be better.

Debbie @ 9/12/2013 8:47 AM

I've been the wife of a Law Enforcement Officer for almost 30 years. I completely understand the how the stressors of his job can wreak havoc on his emotional well being. What about the stressor we deal with as spouses? The support group can be an outlet. But how do we get our officers to understand our fears and the effect on our emotional well being? Sending him off to work every day, knowing in the back of our mind, there's a chance he won't come home; worrying about the horrible experience he may have had that day that will haunt him for weeks; We, as spouses, can't be the only one working on trying to make it work.

Jennifer @ 9/14/2013 6:05 AM

My husband has been in law enforcement for almost 2 years now. This just opened my eyes to what he's going through and how I should approach the things that I have not understood why are changing. Brilliant!

Laura @ 5/20/2014 9:44 PM

I have been in a relationship with an officer for 7 months now. I am finding it very hard to cope with the things he tells me he sees and deals with at work. We live in a very dangerous city (Detroit) I am glad that he shares with me, but I am struggling with how to cope. I am also struggling with telling him this. I don't want to make what he experiences out there about me after he has had a hard day at work. I thought that over time this would get easier, but it is actually getting harder. Especially the closer and closer we get. I love him and really see a future with him. I am just scared on how this will effect us especially after marriage and children. I am terrified something is going to happen. In a underfunded and dangerous the risk is so high. He also is currently stuck with a partner that has displayed not having his back. If anyone has suggestions on how to approach him with this or words of wisdom please share. Thank you

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