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Cops & divorce: Third time is the charm?

It turned out to be my “magic number,” but it doesn’t have to be yours. Here are some simple ways to avoid becoming a divorced cop

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Regardless of whether the divorce rates quoted by my academy trainer were fact or fiction, success in marriage as a police officer is easier than you think.

Not long before I retired after almost 30 years in law enforcement, a new acquaintance asked me how many times I had been married. Note that she hadn’t asked if I was married, or whether I ever had been married. Nope, she wanted to know how many times I had tried, failed and started over in marital attempts.

Since I had only just met this person, I was immediately defensive. “Why would you even ask that?” I demanded. “What mark or brand or scarlet letter was I wearing to tip you off that I’ve stood before family and friends more than once to pledge that this time was going to be forever?”

She disarmed me with a smile and said, “I’m the third wife of a cop. Isn’t that the magic number? Third time is the charm?”

A reputation for divorce

I couldn’t argue with her logic. For most of my career, almost every police officer I knew was locked in the cycle of getting married or getting divorced on an endless loop. Those few folks who were lucky enough to have the enduring commitment last for decades seemed to fall into two camps. On one hand there were those who were sticking it out for the kids – while also sneaking around trying to find something better to eventually move on to. On the other hand were the select few who actually stayed in love and kept to themselves at cop social functions, hoping the discontent of other’s relationships didn’t rub off on them. I could count the number of these couples on the fingers of one hand.

What is so specific to law enforcement marriages that we have become a cliche of infidelity, broken families and serial ex-spouses? What’s the deal with cops and divorce? Is there something in the water fountain at the station? Is it the contagious nature of discontented lives? Or is it just a standard amplification of the normal evolution of relationships that is more noticeable within the law enforcement brotherhood and sisterhood versus among other friends and relatives?

When I was in the police academy, an instructor told us the divorce rate was 76% for male officers. The rate for female cops, he said, was closer to 84%. So, I had that to look forward to. The instructor didn’t give any references for these statistics, but I will venture to say they were probably inflated or anecdotal. The point wasn’t the actual number. Rather, he was trying to warn us recruits about the dangers of a police career on relationships. Since we were mostly 20-somethings who didn’t believe anything bad was ever going to happen to us, we pretty much ignored his warning.

I certainly wasn’t worried – at least, not yet. I had gotten married 30 days prior to starting the police academy. That marriage lasted 18 months.

Perception or reality?

In doing my research, I read one article that said the higher-than-average divorce rate for police officers was a myth. The article indicated the actual number of failed marriages has been on the decline in the last two decades. It was speculated that young adults were waiting longer to get married, were completing higher levels of education, were postponing marriage until they were financially stable, or were deciding to cohabitate and never tie the knot, thus never needing a divorce. All these factors together, or separately, could correlate to a lower number of marriages ending in severed ties.

I am not a statistician, nor can I find a causal relationship between the theories provided and the outcomes given. What I can offer is a realistic look at what could be giving credence to the old adage, “Never marry a cop.”

Marriage as a dictatorship

More than 40 hours a week, month after month, year after year, police officers race into chaos and attempt to restore order. We bark orders and demand compliance because lives depend on our ability to control the actions of others. We get used to laying down the law and bending others to our will.

The moment I tried to tell my first husband to sit down and stop talking so I could explain my side of an argument, the relationship became turbulent. I had been trained to force my way into difficult situations, to be the sole decision-maker on how to fix any problem. In case you’ve have ever tried this technique in a marriage, it doesn’t end well.

Marriages are about trust and learning and compromise. If you are unyielding, critical and impatient, any relationship you have is bound to falter. This goes for parent and child relationships as well. No one likes to be ordered around or have unreasonable demands placed on them – especially not those you vowed to honor and cherish.

Sleep deprivation

When my first child was born, I was into my second marriage. My daughter was a toddler when I lateraled to a police department two hours away and dragged my family along to unfamiliar surroundings.

At this new agency, I worked the graveyard shift on weekends and watched my child while her father worked normal daytime business hours. I was only managing two naps a day during my work week, and doing my best to adjust to a standard family life on my days off. As you might expect, I was frazzled, short-tempered and constantly sick.

My spouse tried to be understanding, but his patience eventually wore thin. The strain of him being a mostly single parent took a toll, as did two years of missed family events and holidays. Hardly anyone was surprised when that marriage ended in divorce.

The other woman

As a female working almost exclusively with men, I eventually discovered just how much my colleagues’ wives and girlfriends disliked me even though I had never even met them. It took years for me to figure out my beat partners would go home to their families after work and talk about our calls for service together. How I said something funny on our shared lunch breaks, or the hours of talk in the middle of the night as we waited for a call to come in.

In hindsight, I now understand why those wives and girlfriends saw me as a threat. As a fellow officer, I shared comradery and friendships with their men on levels their significant others would never achieve.

Of course, I was also blind enough not to see the same jealousy unfolding in my own home. I spoke without filter about the heroic actions my partner had performed to save victims in danger. I went on and on about the brave arrest of a felon, or the hilarious jokes my coworkers told. It never occurred to me how my close work friendships could feel emasculating to my spouse. I’m sure my husband thought I enjoyed my male coworkers’ company more than hanging out with my own family. This wasn’t the impression I intended, but that didn’t soften its impact.

Silence is not golden

Although I worked in moderate crime areas, there were shifts that seemed to be pulled straight out of a movie script. One memorable call involved an elderly man with dementia who chopped up his ailing wife and then casually sipped a cocktail in his backyard while she lay in pieces in a wheelbarrow. The trauma of that call made a lasting impression on me, haunting my days as well as my dreams. And that was just one of many disturbing scenes in a career full of them.

There was no way I was going to share those images with my husband, the academician. So, I stayed quiet. I held in the anguish of SIDS babies and suicides. When he asked how my night was, I responded, “Fine.” I never told him when I was named in a lawsuit for a call that ended in our department K9 ripping most of a man’s arm from his body. I tried to protect and shield my family. I was going to keep them safe with my silence.

Of course, the distance I created by placing that protective bubble around them all also kept me away.

Type A personalities

Controlling. Manipulative. Perfectionistic. Precise. Inflexible. Dominant personalities are practically required for a successful career in law enforcement. Unfortunately, the qualities that make a good officer often make a lousy domestic partner. To make it through a busy shift, a cop needs to suppress emotion and maintain efficiency. Facts and order reign supreme and leave little time for anything less than stoic action.

Ask anyone to describe the perfect spouse and you’ll hear terms like patient, compromising, persuasive and eager to please. But seriously, how many cops do you know who fit that description? To be sure, it certainly didn’t describe me.

How to avoid becoming a statistic

Regardless of whether the divorce rates quoted by my academy trainer were fact or fiction, success in marriage as a police officer is easier than you think. The key to reversing the damage you may have already inflicted is to give grace.

The first step is recognizing that what makes you a great and intuitive street cop can also make you a difficult spouse. Learn to be responsive to the needs of your loved ones rather than dictating what you think they need. Stop trying to control their moods and behaviors. Understand that hearing about your job is stressful to them, but not hearing anything can also put a strain on your marriage. Finding a balance between not enough and too much communication is critical. Finally, give your husband or wife the grace you want to receive from them. In short, work at the relationship relentlessly.

Shutting down, not prioritizing quality sleep and controlling behavior will undermine your goal of keeping your marriage strong.

Asking for help is easier than ever, with remote counseling, peer support groups, employee assistance programs, chaplains and clergy as options in many agencies. A regularly planned tune-up for married couples – even without a precipitating tragedy – is a healthy option for checking in with each other every few months. Many law enforcement departments or insurance plans will even pay for professional marriage counseling. Ask for help well before you find yourself asking your peers for divorce attorney recommendations.

Time is also the relationship’s friend. Make time for each other. The morning hour after a graveyard shift, before your spouse takes the kids to school, is a perfect time to reconnect. Weekends don’t have to be a production of events and extravagant dinners. Instead, make a point of listening to your partner’s thoughts, daydreaming together about retirement, discussing your shared ideals, or taking walks while silently holding hands. To be a good significant other, you’ll need to learn to listen, relent to your partner’s needs, and incorporate self-care.

If you have made it this far, you may be wondering why this topic has my interest. I have been with my husband for 20 years now. It took a failed marriage, becoming a widow, trying again, and eventually listening to a professional sit me down and tell me I was acting like a fool before I corrected my own marital path. The other thing about cops is that we are stubborn and self-righteous. But hey, third time is the charm right?! It turned out to be my “magic number” after all, but it doesn’t have to be yours.

Missy Morris started in public safety as a juvenile probation worker after graduating from University of California Santa Barbara in 1991 with a degree in behavioral psychology. She moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to work in probation before quickly transitioning to police work. She spent three years with the Palo Alto and Mountain View police departments as a patrol officer. She spent the following 22 years of her 28-year career at the City of Roseville. Missy worked in critical incident negotiations, eventually becoming the multi-city team leader and serving seven years on the state board of hostage negotiators. Missy feels her greatest assignment was a five-year stint as a traffic motor officer riding a BMW and working fatal accidents. She held several special assignments before retiring in 2020 as a lieutenant. Missy now works with the Lexipol Professional Services Team, working closely with Cordico wellness solution.