By Police Psychologist Laurence Miller, PhD
Q: I’m not mentioning any names here, but a lot of cops have ample opportunity to cheat on their spouses while on duty. Sometimes, it can be a struggle to resist almost daily temptations. And some cops have actually cheated on their spouses and now don’t know what to do about it. Any advice on how to resist sexual temptation while on duty? And what should an officer do if he’s already stepped over the line?
A: Not to sound too clinical about this, but the answer to this query actually involves several aspects: diagnosis, prevention and treatment. I haven’t come across any scientific studies that address this issue directly, but my educated gut sense is that the rate of infidelity among police officers is not that much different than in the general working populations whose jobs combine features of: (1) long shifts with considerable time away from home, plus (2) daily exposure to many different types of people. This would include truckers, traveling salespeople, firefighter-paramedics, airline personnel, night-shift nurses, soldiers, and others.
Law Enforcement Infidelities: Causes and Reasons
It’s probably not that the police profession turns every cop into a philanderer, but rather that those who are looking for ways to cheat will find ample opportunity in the complex environment of police work. The bottom line is that if you steadfastly choose to be faithful, no one job and no one temptation is automatically going to “make” you cheat. At the other end of the spectrum, if you have no qualms about breaking your vows to get a little on the side, the police profession offers ample opportunities for dalliances of convenience.
The gray area arises in the case of all those officers in between: neither saints nor sinners, but only too human. In these cases, the usual risk factors for infidelity – family conflict, career disappointments, low self-esteem – operate on the vulnerable officer, just as they would for anyone else.
It’s usually not the case that an otherwise true-blue officer wakes up one morning and decides to start catting around. The more common pattern is for these infidelities to evolve slowly and gradually. Maybe it’s been too many late evenings chatting up the night shift nurse at the local medical center. Or a female suspect is all too willing to trade favors for a break on an arrest, and it’s late, and you’re tired. Or it’s a female cop in the same or different department, and you seem to have so much in common. Or that cute little firefighter-paramedic looks so hot in her bunker gear. And so on.
The trouble begins when your hormones start making the decisions, and then you never seem to think ahead to the time when the love affair may be coming to an end. That’s often when the real problems start, especially if terminating the relationship isn’t something that’s mutually agreed upon.
All moralizing aside, a purely practical reason to resist sexual temptation on the job is the potential for severe career repercussions, and this involves the issue of professional boundaries. A seemingly harmless sexual dalliance with a citizen while on duty can come back to haunt you in the form of a harassment complaint or even sexual assault charges. It might lead to otherwise righteous arrests and criminal cases being thrown out because of contaminated evidence or testimony. That’s definitely a nightmare you don’t need.
So when faced with temptation, remind yourself that maintaining a certain degree of professional detachment and decorum is part of your “mental uniform.” It doesn’t mean being cold or aloof with citizens, just not becoming either inappropriately angry and hostile or overly charming and flirty with them. Even if someone “throws herself” at you, either to curry favor or just because you’re naturally irresistible, be prepared to courteously but firmly decline the offer. A simple “No, ma’am” stated in your official cop voice will usually be enough to discourage such advances, without seeming like a stinging rejection.
But a lot of sexual affairs don’t start that way. Often the temptation comes from someone you already know, either from your patrol area, a local hospital or business, or even your own department. Maybe you had a friendship with this person for years and now one or both of you is considering taking it to the next level. You and that nurse may never have intended to one day be doing the wild thing when you first started sharing stories about your kids and commiserating over the hassles of work and the oh-so-lonely night shift. But such harmless little intimacies have a way of escalating into sinister longings, and then it’s sometimes devilishly difficult to maintain the boundary between the personal and the professional.
In these cases, only you can decide if you want this to go further. If not, be up front and let the other person know that moving on to the horizontal bop would only jeopardize an otherwise good friendship. If the would-be paramour is persistent, you may have to make yourself scarce until she gets the message.
The Done Deal: Finding Your Way Back
But what if it’s already happened and you want to change your ways and undo or at least minimize the damage? The million-dollar question is whether or not the officer should tell his mate, and then the answer is, “It depends.” That is, while honesty is almost always the best policy, it’s not invariably so. Remember, we’re dealing strictly with practical reality here and, if you believe that only the truth will set you free, far be it from me to presume to trump someone’s religious or moral convictions.
But if you’re looking for another way that spares everybody unnecessary pain, and if you have truly resolved in your own conscience to forgo all others and work on your primary relationship, then the decision to tell or not to tell depends on a few important ifs:
If you truly believe the affair was a mistake, and if you are as close to 100 percent certain as anyone can ever be that you will never again let this kind of thing happen, and if there is no credible way your mate could ever find out about it unless you told her, and if it would cause immeasurable pain to your mate should she learn of it, then you may be justified in keeping the episode to yourself – not just to let your own sorry ass off the hook, but to spare your mate unnecessary agony and preserve an otherwise good relationship for both of you.
Before you take this route, however, ask yourself how you would feel if the situation were reversed, and realize that if your mate does discover the infidelity and your subsequent concealment, it may ruin any chance of trust between you ever again. Remember, the function of this “don’t ask – don’t tell” policy is to spare your mate unnecessary pain and preserve the relationship that you’ve recommitted yourself to in your own heart.
But, again, if you have moral or religious beliefs that impel you in the direction of the truth at any price, or if you truly believe that the highest form of respect for someone is to grant them honesty and allow them to deal with that truth, however unpalatable, then you must follow your conscience. If this comes from a sincere place in your soul, then bless you for accepting the full consequences of your actions and your mate for seeing past the betrayal and accepting the sincerity of your recommitment.
In many cases however, this will be moot because your spouse, in all likelihood, will have already discovered the affair, or at least strongly suspect it, and now she confronts you and wants answers and a pound of flesh. Even if the confession has come from you, and you express your sincere desire to get the relationship back on track, absolution will rarely come at so low a price as a simple apology and the promise not to do it anymore. In addition, both the offending officer and the spouse often ask me: what’s a sure sign of proof that the erstwhile strayer has truly changed his ways and what is an appropriate period of time to wait before resuming normal relationships?
The answer here is another, “It depends.” Once again, only if you yourself have truly resolved in your own heart of hearts that such infidelities are a thing of the past, can you expect your mate to believe it and to try to work her way back to trusting you. But be prepared for a probationary period, during which you may have to be extra-considerate of your mate’s coldness, moodiness, and other hurt reactions as she works her way toward feeling safe with you again.
At the same time, your probation shouldn’t be endless, and by six months or so (up to a year, if certain anniversary dates must be passed), if you spouse is still strongly ambivalent about accepting you back into her heart and you’ve both done everything you reasonably can to make it work, then it may be time to make a decision. Professional help may be useful, but don’t rely on a counselor to fix what the two of you (or one of you) isn’t willing to work on. In all honesty, not every story has a happy ending, but if the changes are sincere, then many couples do manage to move past the affair and rebuild their lives together.
NOTE: If you have a question for this column, please submit it to the Practical Police Psychology Column.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice.