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5 keys to keeping complacency from killing a police marriage

Knowing that the number one killer of cops is complacency, let’s apply the core value of law enforcement — keeping survival skills at the forefront — to a law enforcement marriage

Failure to recognize and appreciate danger — combined with a false security predicated on routine and overreliance on past positive outcomes — is the number one thing that kills police officers.

Ironically, it’s also frequently the killer of police marriages.

Let’s take this core value of law enforcement — keeping survival skills at the forefront — and apply it to a police marriage.

Five Traits of an Enduring Marriage
Most couples marry after an initial courtship because they have fallen in love and decide to spend the rest of their lives together. They take oaths about good times and bad, sickness and health, through financial ups and downs, all while vowing to love, honor, and cherish one another every day and in every moment. They know marriage can be challenging — that the giddy idealism of early love gives way to day-to-day reality, and all marriages face tough times — but somehow believe simply being in love should be enough to get through it all.

If only it were true. Many never realize that marriage truly is the hardest relationship we will ever be involved in, and that its survival requires acute awareness of relationship danger zones. Many underestimate — or choose to outright ignore — the reality about a new life with their “perfect person” requires hard work. Then, complacency sets in.

We all know the oft-told cop joke that by the second or third marriage, most cops actually get it right. There’s plenty of cynicism in that statement, but there’s truth too. Battle scars that come from a failed relationship help people mature, learn lessons, and make greater efforts “next time.”

Here are five traits to work on in order to keep marriage complacency at bay.

1. Embrace ‘we’, not ‘I’
Our natural tendency is to keep ourselves from being hurt emotionally and physically, but in marriage we need to embrace the that we will occasionally be hurt emotionally and learn to run toward it instead of away.

If a spouse runs away from emotional hurt by being guarded, avoidant, defensive, or offensive then they are only protecting themselves — which will only hurt the relationship. When one is protecting themselves (“How can I stay safe from this pain”) the other is left alone in their pain, marginalized, or viewed as a threat. This behavior does not benefit the “we” of being a couple.

Couples that endure a lifetime together put the health and longevity of the relationship before their own self-interest. Each person is willing to be vulnerable — to risk being hurt emotionally — so that the relationship will grow and flourish. In order for a marriage to work, self-interest gets put aside and an attitude of “what works for us” is a core value.

2. Check in with your spouse
Imagine asking your spouse, “How am I doing as a (husband/wife/ partner)?” Many people – and perhaps cops, in particular – cringe thinking about asking this question because they are afraid of the answer. They are afraid of the criticism and honest feedback they may receive.

But also imagine a marriage where honest and vulnerable feedback is never sought. It will become unsatisfying for one or both spouses, with the potential for severe dysfunction. Knowing the truth empowers the relationship to grow and endure. It opens the channels of communication and the ability to change the outcome of the future because it leads to finding solutions for the challenges you face as a couple.

3. Take ownership of your behavior as opposed to blaming your spouse
When a couple comes in for marriage counseling it becomes apparent whether or not the relationship is going to survive on that first session and it comes down to one behavior: blaming. Couples are headed for divorce if one person in the relationship has a laundry list of all their partner’s traits they believe are ruining their marriage, but are unable to acknowledge or take any ownership of anything they themselves are doing to contribute to the breakdown.

In couples that thrive, each is able to admit their flaws, faults, anxieties, and emotional wounds without blaming their spouse as the cause. Each person is able to take ownership of their own behaviors that hurt the other and make a commitment to change.

4. Hit the right ratio of negative to positive comments
Most of us learned as children that “if (we) don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.” We also learned that “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” was a load of BS. Words hurt and, once said, cannot be taken back.

Based upon the research of Dr. John Gottman, PhD — a noted relationship expert — couples headed for divorce will display the dynamic of eight negative statements for every one positive statement made to or about each other.

Among enduring couples the ratio tends toward about five positive statements for every one negative. Having provided marriage and couples counseling since 1996, we have found the primary reason for divorce and relationship failure to be the cruel, cutting, and careless words partners direct toward each other. Complacent relationships are careless in their word choices but a couple that endures knows their words are heavily weighted.

5. Accept influence from each other
Allow your spouse to affect and change you without having to force positive changes to happen. Know what is important to your spouse and let it affect you so that something in you changes to accommodate their needs and desires.

Show respect and appreciation by turning to and seeking counsel from each other when faced with a decision or challenge. And allow your horizons to be broadened by the things your spouse enjoys and values.

So many of us refuse to join with our partners in their hobbies, interests, pursuits, and passions — oftentimes insisting they get on board with ours — to the detriment of the relationship. If a couple does not accept influence from one another it is inevitable they will grow apart from not having any common interests.

There are many more traits that exist in a couple that endures, but the above are those we’ve found to be most common and important, especially for law enforcement marriages. It is easy for a marriage to become complacent instead of putting the work into ourselves and the relationship to make it one that endures. However, doing the work and being vulnerable is well worth your time.

Althea Olson, LCSW, and Officer Mike Wasilewski, LCSW, have been married since 1994. Althea is a social worker in private practice at Fox Bend Counseling in Oswego, Illinois. Mike works full-time as a police officer for a large suburban Chicago agency and part-time as a social worker with Fox Bend Counseling. They write on a range of topics including officer wellness, relationships, mental health, morale and ethics. Their writing led to them developing More Than A Cop, and they have traveled the country as police trainers teaching “survival skills off the street.”

Contact Althea Olson and Mike Wasilewski