4 questions (and answers) about failed off-duty relationships

The biggest cause and predictor for divorce are the words people use — hateful, contemptuous words can never be taken back and they are usually remembered

The traits it takes to have healthy relationships are actually pretty simple. Most of us learned “Basic Relationship 101” in kindergarten. Remember these? 

  • If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
  • Play fair with others and share your toys
  • Wait your turn, don’t hit people and no name-calling.
  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt someone.
  • Clean up your own messes and don’t take anything that is not yours.
  • Tell the truth.

Even though all of these rules of treating others fairly is common sense, let’s be honest: a lot of us have more failed relationships in our lives than others will endure in a lifetime. And if we look back on our relationships that have failed, it’s easy to see violations of these simple, common-sense rules. 

So, if you have had troubled relationships – or worry you might in your future – we invite you to consider some questions (asked with your role as cops in mind). 

1. Why are so many police relationships chaotic, destructive and filled with drama?

It really comes down to communication skills. Being able to “say what you mean without saying it mean” or speaking from the heart about your true vulnerabilities and fears while taking ownership of the relationship traits that lead to a breakdown are critical – but very rare – skills. Instead of exposing our hearts, we build walls around it to avoid being hurt and broken and, in doing so, we develop communication styles that often lead to the end of a relationship. 

Researcher Dr. John Gottman, Ph.D., calls these maladaptive “skills” the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse: Criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling.

Gottman’s four decades of research at the University of Washington, Seattle, has empirically shown that when a couple engages in one of these styles of communication, the relationship is ending or heading in that direction. To illustrate, please watch the following video. Also, pay attention to how he explains how relationships can be saved with simple changes in behavior.

2. Why do I keep breaking these common-sense rules and destroying my relationships?

For starters, we do this because it is often easier to choose a wrong behavior than the right one. Each of us comes into a relationship with our own baggage, including all the scars caused by our families of origin, past significant others and friends who betrayed us. Each scar comes with a story. We also bring the imperfect – often destructive – skills we learned to deal with it. Few couples learn how to unpack this baggage together and revealing the inner emotional pain they carry with them on a daily basis brings it uncomfortably to the forefront. 

But the process of unpacking our baggage together builds trust and emotional intimacy. It’s the telling of our secrets to a person we trust who will never hit below the belt with soul-crushing words, or use them against us. So share your baggage, choose to always keep each other’s secrets, and treat them like a valuable treasure during the best and worst of times. Vulnerability builds the loyalty and trust that are core to the endurance of a relationship.

Breaking the rules is human nature. Everything that is good and true takes hard work. Common sense rules still require a behavioral choice, so in order to follow-through, the brain needs to purposefully engage. Primitive impulses, on the other hand, are easy. Cruel insults in the heat of anger flow off the tongue like melted butter but land with the emotional impact of a rifle round. 

According to Gottman, a relationship at risk of divorce or in the process of dying has an 8:1 ratio of negative to positive statements between partners. A relationship that is healthy and functioning has a ratio of 5:1 positive to negative – five positive statements for every negative. 

The biggest cause and predictor for divorce are the words people use – hateful, contemptuous words can never be taken back and they are usually remembered. Do not use them! Instead, learn how to deliver feedback while protecting and valuing your partner’s self-esteem.

If you can think of nothing nice to say, then simply say nothing.

3. Why do I keep choosing people who don’t follow these common-sense rules?

Public safety responders often rescue those whose lives are chaotic and on a path of destruction – and in their personal lives, they frequently seek people in chaotic circumstances because it mirrors the type of people they encounter at work. But how often does this scenario actually end well? Too often that rescuer/officer winds up caught in their chosen partner’s chaos, eventually landing them in litigation, days lost from work, the butt of funny/sad locker room stories, and (once again) splitting their retirement benefits with yet another person. 

We teach using best practices when choosing a person with whom to have a relationship:

  • Go slow! It easily takes two years to really get to know someone. 
  • See who they are in conflict.
  • Observe them in their relationships with friends, family, exes, and kids.
  • How do they talk about others?
  • What is their work ethic?
  • What is their relationship to money?
  • Do they have hobbies or interests?
  • Are their stories truthful and trustworthy, or do they change over time?
  • How do they treat you when they are angry? Do they build you up and honor your self-esteem, or try to tear you down?
  • Do you like who you are when you are with them? Or do they bring out competitiveness, anger, defensiveness, and/or anxiety?
  • Do you share a lot of common interests?
  • How did their past relationships end and have they given themselves time to mourn, or are they serial daters/monogamists? 
  • Do they have a history of affairs?
  • Have they ever been arrested? 
  • Does trouble seem to follow them?
  • Do they make excuses for their bad behavior?
  • How do family and friends talk about them? Is it about their stellar character or stories of chaos and destruction?
  • True character is displayed when we think no one is watching. Give yourself time to witness firsthand who they are when no one is looking. 

4. As an LEO, why do I violate these common-sense rules even though I know them to be true?

Some of the biggest complaints marriage counselors hear from the partners of officers are that they are domineering. They may yell commands to the family upon arriving home and/or interrogate them over the simplest of actions or perceived failures (“why didn’t you have time to vacuum today? What are you up to all day that takes so much time?”) They may be emotionally guarded or disengaged from the family when they come home, and harp on how the job is so grueling and how no one else could ever understand what they go through – this implies, “I’m a hero and you’re just a _______________.” 

Many police spouses often act as if they get a free pass from their bad behavior because of the “stresses of the job.” In actuality, this behavior and attitude is contempt which, if you recall from the video by Gottman, is the number one predictor of divorce. 

This common core belief of the profession is especially troubling since it justifies treating loved ones badly. The fix is to develop better coping and emotional survival skills, to not blame others for tough days or get into the mindset of “specialness,” and recognize the value and challenges of everyone’s role and job. 

It’s important to develop personal ethics and a code of conduct as to how you treat others, especially those closest to you. Simply put, you must learn to bring your best self to every interaction so that they know how much they matter to you.

NEXT: 7 ways to sabotage your relationship

This article, originally published 07/01/2015, has been updated

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