It isn’t a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. Stress can create police marriage problems but you can be prepared.
Because my husband has PTSD from his deployment to Iraq, the Fourth of July is now about renting loud movies, closing all the windows and blinds or praying that he gets called into work so he can be barricaded behind the prison walls where the outside can’t come in. I don’t fully understand it all, but that’s what we have to do now to make him feel better. We help relieve some of his anxieties and reassure him that while he will never forget what he went through,. God is still taking the time to heal his heart and mind. We do it one day, one step, and one prayer at a time.
Renee, wife of former National Guardsman and current sheriff’s deputy
You may have heard the tongue-in-cheek phrase about motorcycle cops: “They say there are two kinds of motors: those who’ve gone down and those who will go down.” It’s a little along the lines of a law enforcement career in general: those who have had some kind of difficulty on the job and those who will. In a twenty-to-thirty-year career, your man will suffer something. Injuries, long-term effects of hypervigilance, supervisors who don’t get it, burnout, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), grief over fallen comrades and other difficulties will at some point take a toll. How will you maneuver through these challenges together?
There are three kinds of stress that law enforcement officers experience. The first is general stress, the day-to-day things that life hands us. There are varying levels depending on the seasons that we go through—illness, death of a loved one, financial pressures, and so on.
The second kind of stress that your spouse may go through is cumulative stress. Dr. Ellen Kirschman describes cumulative stress as “prolonged, unrelieved wear and tear that results from having more demands than a person can respond to.”[i] This is also called burnout.
The third kind of stress is critical incident stress. This develops when a specific event happens that overwhelms the officer’s ability to cope effectively. Examples would include accidents that have multiple fatalities or that involve children, a mass casualty incident (like 9/11), a shooting, a suicide of a co-worker, and other disturbing incidents.
Some of the symptoms of critical incident stress are physical. These include chest pain, trouble breathing, trembling, high blood pressure, stomach issues, headaches, fatigue, and poor sleep. Emotional symptoms include denial, fear, depression, feelings of helplessness or feeling overwhelmed, anger, and excessive dwelling on the event. Other symptoms of critical incident stress are cognitive. These include disorientation, hyper-alertness, issues with concentration and memory, nightmares and flashbacks, and assigning blame to others. There are other responses reflected in behavior. [No comma needed in previous sentence.] In addition to some that I go into a bit more below, you may see changes in eating habits, crying spells, and unusual spending.
As wives, we need to be aware of the ways our men respond to stress and learn to recognize problems. It’s not an if; it’s when. Life happens. I’ve provided information on some responses to job stress. It is not an exhaustive list. If you suspect that any of these areas are affecting your guy, I would suggest you do a little extra research of your own so that you can support him in an educated manner.
[i] Ellen Kirschman, I Love a Cop (New York: The Guilford Press, 2007) page 89.