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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.


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