In his book Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement Officers, Dr. Kevin Gilmartin describes the highs and lows of what he calls the hypervigilance rollercoaster. To be vigilant is to stay watchful and alert to danger or trouble. But because our men never know what will come at them on any given call, they maintain a state of hypervigilance throughout their shift. They are programmed for survival to overcome whatever they deal with while on duty, and that requires much more than just a pep talk to themselves as they go out the door.
Their bodies and minds sustain this level of hypervigilance throughout the shift. But what goes up must come down, even physiologically. After his shift is over, he retreats home to you and your family, but his mind and body are exhausted from maintaining a high level of watchful intensity. Rather than returning to a normal level, his mind and body go to a place below normal to recuperate. The next day it’s repeated. And the next. Eventually, this wears him (and you!) down. If you ignore this rollercoaster, it can lead to a breakdown in his emotional health, which will have a huge impact on you and your marriage.
If you have an understanding of what is going on inside his body and mind, the good news is you are a big component of helping him through it. Dr. Gilmartin says,
…[T]he rollercoaster sets up officers to think, act, and live like victims, to not invest their energy, emotions, and sense of self in the phase of the rollercoaster that they do in fact control, the bottom or off-duty phase. It’s a clear catch-22: Officers must maintain hypervigilance to perform and survive on the streets and practice good officer safety, yet it is this same hypervigilance that can cause officers to relinquish control of their personal lives. They cannot lower the upper phase of the rollercoaster. They must maintain the elevated physical state of heightened awareness of potential risk while functioning as officers. Without training and awareness of the rollercoaster, officers return home and experience the pendulum effect… Ironically, it is the nonpolice support systems that, when they remain intact, determine if the officers remain good cops for the duration of the entire police career… (emphasis mine)[i]
You are the first and foremost non-police support system. Understanding this process gives you a chance to deal with it. You can help him maintain balance by creating balance. Things like exercise, vacations, hobbies, and activities will pull him out of that below normal level his body wants to retreat to. Take time to rejuvenate as a couple and as a family during his off-duty time, keeping this phenomenon in mind.
[i] Kevin Gilmartin, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, (Tuscon, Arizona: E-S Press, 2002) pages 89-90.