How police spouses can manage stress (and why they need to)
To simply expect the stress of policing to subside at home on its own is unrealistic
By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University
Being married to a law enforcement officer usually starts with a sense of pride. But over time, stress begins to set in because of the physical dangers inherent in police work and the personal challenges officers face from frequently experiencing traumatic events. Police spouses cannot help but be affected by this stress as well.
How Police Stress Impacts Officers Over Time
Law enforcement is one of the most stressful occupations in existence. Officers are commonly exposed to fatalities, domestic abuse, crimes against children, internal problems in the police department, and the ever-present danger of personal injury or even death on duty.
Over time, these daily occurrences result in physiological, psychological, and even mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress (PTS), which might not be fully understood or addressed by the officer’s family. Often, the civilian spouse suffers too.
How Stress Influences Police Marriages
After a shift that might have lasted 12 hours or more, officers return home carrying the burden and heightened emotions of their work. For example, a spouse might notice that an officer will react more harshly when their teenage son stays out too late. Also, the officer may be taciturn, gloomy and non-responsive because of some unpleasant or disastrous experience while on the job.
If police officer stress is not managed effectively, it can lead to substance-abuse problems for both partners. Substance abuse can have an adverse effect on the marriage, especially on children.
Stress Management for Police Spouses
Spousal stress can also result from media criticism of police actions, an apparent rise in violence against law enforcement officers, and the fear of the ever-present dangers their officer partner faces on duty. Communication is one of the most effective ways spouses can reduce their own stress and the stress within the family unit.
Officers and their spouses should communicate regularly and talk about the specific factors that cause the stress. Perhaps it is the shift the officer is working or the area the officer covers?
Communication with other police spouses is also important. Similar to the police culture that fosters trust among officers, spouses need to get together to talks about the common challenges police families face and possible strategies for reducing household stress.
Strategies for Helping Officers Reduce Stress
To simply expect the stress of policing to subside at home on its own is unrealistic. Instead, stress in police marriages should be addressed so that both spouses take steps to cope together. In addition, they and their family members should participate in off-duty activities together.
It is equally important to encourage officers to develop a life and identity away from the police station. It’s often helpful to develop friends in other occupations to lower stress levels as well as those of their partners. These friendships open them to hear ideas about family life without a law enforcement perspective.
Such friendships bring police families into contact with people in other professions who have different interests, experiences and hobbies. Enjoying the company of civilian families frees officers and their spouses from routine “shop talk” and helps to create personal identities not associated with law enforcement.
Stepping out of the police role when off duty and maintaining a personal identity that is not associated with policing is important in reducing stress within the police household. Utilizing peer support following critical incidents that are experienced in the field is also an important way to manage police stress prior to the end of shift, which can have a positive impact on police families.
Finally, sometimes officers need to seek professional counseling in order to help them manage stress. If spouses notice significant behavioral changes in officers, they should encourage their officer spouse to seek professional therapy. It may also be beneficial to seek counseling as a family. Talking to a therapist as a family can help open up new channels of communication and help all members of the family who may be struggling.
Being a law enforcement family is difficult. It is important that both spouses and officers take steps to mitigate the impact stress has on everyone in the family.
About the Author: Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an adjunct professor with American Military University. He has spent more than two years studying police stress and its influence on the lives of police officers. Jarrod conducted a review of approximately 300 peer-reviewed scholarly articles that focused on topics associated with police stress and officer wellness. He interviewed veteran officers who have served in domestic and international law enforcement. Based on his research, Jarrod is currently writing a book on effectively managing police stress through a successful police career, which covers in further detail the physiological effects of police stress and how stress can be managed. He has 20 years of policing experience between both federal and local law enforcement. To contact him, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.