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Your family’s trauma-in-law: 5 ways to build resilience at home

Whether you tell your spouse or significant other a little or a lot about your work, the one secret you can’t keep is how stressed you are

Don’t think that mere disclosure is closure.

Dual first responder marriages may have the disadvantage of cohabitating two individuals under high pressure, but spouses of emergency workers who only live the first responder life vicariously have the disadvantage of often playing the role of a pressure relief valve in the relationship.

The process of sharing your work experiences with your civilian significant other is subject to negotiation. Whether you tell your spouse a little or a lot, the one secret you can’t keep is how stressed you are. Here’s why:

  • Whether you express it or not, your partner isn’t in a cave and knows how your work life is inherently stressful;
  • Your avoidance will never mask the cues in your voice and body;
  • They will remember who you used to be before cumulative stress took its toll and long for those days;
  • Your behavior speaks louder than words;
  • If there are children in the relationship, their behavior may be the most accurate reflection of tension between their parents.

A disconnection between the first responder’s experiences and the partner’s understanding of those experiences can result in a deepening emotional separation. Here are five ways to avoid this and build resilience in your family.

1. Reduce non-work-related stress

There are two major stressors in a marriage. One is raising children and the other is finances. Being intentional in becoming aligned with your partner on these issues will take the concerns out of the argument-during-a-crisis zone and into the togetherness zone. Avoiding and reducing debt is possible! Being an intentional, consistent parent is possible!

2. Partner in stress relief

Recovery time is essential to resilience. We know what research shows about reducing the potentially harmful effects of excessive stress. Physical activity, human touch, laughter, breathing and meditation, positive social interactions, and a coherent world view are shown to be as effective, or more so, than psychiatric medications. Sure, you need alone time and so does your partner, but doing these constructive things together is a powerful connector. And P.S. – watching television together doesn’t score many points for togetherness.

Be sensitive to gender differences – in general men process things internally and don’t use as many words as women. If you need quiet together time don’t neglect alternative activities that facilitate conversation. Remember if you disclose something that caused you some distress you’ve already been processing the event, telling about it likely provided some relief, and now you need to allow your partner time to process his or her own feelings about it at their own pace. Don’t think that mere disclosure is closure.

3. Avoid alcohol

Don’t be the person who only talks about feelings when under the influence or uses alcohol to avoid feelings and interaction. If you find yourself doing that regularly, you are, by definition, a problem drinker.

4. Seek raw time

We are now the most fractured and distracted people in history. When we think we’re spending time with each other we are often merely occupying the same proximate space. It seems very artificial and inconvenient to schedule time to focus on one person, whether it is a chat about your day with your kids, or to have physical intimacy with your spouse, but intentionality is the key. Let’s face it – we allow our digital devices to intrude on our time like an undisciplined, rude child, but we won’t tell our spouse that we need to leave our phones off, hold hands, ask “How are you doing?” and listen to the answer.

Your kids may have good memories from a trip to Disneyworld, but what they will really treasure is the time you went to Starbucks and told them over a mocha what was going on when you were their age. And, when you do take a vacation, let your brain come along with you, but not your job.

5. Know that they are worried

Your family is not only worried about you, they have their own worries. To show their love and respect, children and spouses may form a habit of hiding their worries from you. It seems noble, but it builds a wall brick by brick. Many first responders make the mistake of making their stressful work the king of their home. It becomes an excuse not to have to listen to the other family members’ concerns. Your spouse needs to know that his or her argument with a co-worker doesn’t have to be sublimated just because your day involved a nasty child-abuse call. It’s not a competition.

Next step

My final suggestion takes courage. I will give you the script. “I appreciate what you put up with because of my work. I want your honest answer. Do you ever walk on eggshells around me, or keep things to yourself to avoid burdening me?” The answer will be “Yes,” so your next line is “Thank you for telling me, I’d like to hear more about how you handle all that.” Then shut up and listen.

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.