A cop's conundrum: What do I tell my spouse about my day?

Learning to manage what and how you share can have a huge impact on the intimacy necessary for a healthy partnership

When and what should you share with your spouse or domestic partner? While relationship experts talk about being honest and transparent, those whose lives are dedicated to shielding citizenry from the world’s evils may not be so quick to spill their guts.

Here are five reasons to not share the details of your day-to-day on the job – and five strategies for sharing what you can when the time is right.

5 Reasons Not to Share

1. Protecting your family from the job’s gossip can protect a case. Everybody wants the insider scoop on a juicy case. My wife once came home from a police wives meeting asking about a murder case. Another spouse had told her about specific piece of evidence in a rape case. I had to explain that in addition to protecting her from that image, the existence of the evidence was confidential and that only the investigators and suspect should know in order to help during questioning of the suspect.

Remember that your spouse or partner may be asked about a case, so enable them to honestly say “I don’t know anything about it.”

2. You may not be ready to talk about it. Although sharing traumatic experiences can be helpful, feeling forced to regurgitate the sights, sounds and smells of an event can just as easily cause the brain to replay and re-experience the trauma.

3. You may not get the response that you want. If your partner does not have a background in the realities that you face, he or she may not be able to offer the support that is best for you. This may leave you with an empty feeling or sense of disconnect that hurts the relationship.

4. Your shared trauma may resolve while your partner’s remains. Chances are, you’ve developed coping mechanisms to mentally handle the traumatic experiences that come with your job. Because what you may share is outside of their experience, they may lack the contextual framework to process your shared pain. Your experience may trouble them longer than it troubles you.

5. By sharing, you set expectations that you’re going to share everything in the future – and you won’t. Even if you typically share everything, there will be times when you don’t want to share, or you may not have the words to speak to capture the depth of what you experienced. Your partner will wonder what you’re holding back, leading to distrust and suspicion.

5 Ways to Share

If you do have one of those relationships where your inner life is transparent to your partner, there are some ways to navigate the emotional land mines that are inherent in sharing traumatic experiences.

1. Share feelings, not details. They may not be able to understand what it’s like at a calamitous scene, but they can relate to fear and sadness.

2. Announce the boundaries. Your partner needs to respect your personal and professional space when you say, “I can’t talk about it right now.” Communicate with them that it’s too soon and that there are some things that won’t help either of you to discuss.

3. Respect their experiences. Sometimes when you work a multiple fatal incident, your spouse may want to talk about frustrations with a coworker. If you are thinking internally that this is trivial compared to your life – or if your partner thinks they have no right to share their experiences because they are insignificant – one of you is going to shut down.

4. Timing is everything. Unloading at the end of a shift can mean re-experiencing the stress of the day and delaying your ability to engage with your family. Let them know that you’ve had a difficult shift and may be willing to elaborate later, but that what you need most to recover now is to spend your time focused on something else, like your family.

5. Accept their ministry. You may want silence or isolation, but your partner wants to connect with you. Their efforts may be clumsy or annoying, but they are well-meaning attempts to help you feel better. Be grateful that they care.

Keeping Balance
Do not make your spouse or partner your only counselor. We are all wounded by the cumulative attacks on our psyche. A positive, healing conversation with a compassionate friend, chaplain or counselor can help maintain your physical, mental and spiritual health without burdening your spouse. 

It is no secret that relationships are subject to strain in law enforcement families. Learning to manage what and how you share can have a huge impact on the intimacy necessary for a healthy partnership.

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