P1 First Person: The myths and realities of cops and divorce
By Ofcr. Jeff Shannon, LMFT
The popularly-held belief that cops get divorced more than others is not supported by research. This fact does not mean we don’t get more divorces, only that there’s no good science to prove it. Policing does involve unique stresses and strains on marriages that we should be aware of.
Many conscientious young people considering a career in law enforcement want to know about the divorce rate of cops. Police forums are consulted, and internet searches performed with the simple question: What’s the deal with cops and divorce?
Let’s start with the Internet. God bless the Internet. Really. When I was in college two hundred years ago I couldn’t use the Internet for my school papers. I had to go to the library and then type the damn thing out with my typewriter. Man, was I excited when they came up with the auto-erase function (fewer bottles of white out).
But the Internet is also known for spreading myth like wildfire, which brings us back to the topic at hand. A quick check of the Internet would have us believing cops have a ridiculously high divorce rate. If you want to take Sheriff Ray Nash’s statement that the divorce rate for police officers is 20 to 50 times that of the general public, or police psychologist Goldfarb’s ominous and authoritative sounding statement that “All research shows police suffer a substantially higher divorce rate with estimates ranging from 60 to 75 percent,” you go right ahead.
When I looked into this question I wanted to know what researchers had to say. My answer: not much. As much as university professors and masters thesis writers love to study us cops, there’s a real gap here. However, a breath of fresh air can be found in Professor Michael Aamodt at the University of Arkansas. He isn’t interested in perpetuating myths of how screwed up cops are and then making money fixing us. He’s interested in the truth.
Aamodt was kind enough to forward me an advance copy of a project he did with Shawn P. McCoy, called “A comparison of law enforcement divorce rates with those of other occupations” which will be published in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology. McCoy and Aamodt did two things. First they reviewed the research (not opinion) on police divorce. What they found was that existing research on the topic is old. Really old ...like from the 1960s. Then, they looked at census data to take a stab at divorce rates of cops compared to the general public. They concluded that the idea that divorce rates are unusually high for law enforcement workers is unfounded.
Police officers may, fact, have higher divorce rates. McCoy and Aamodt just found that there is no research supporting that conclusion at present. They admitted using census data for their research has some problems.
To conclude from all this that you don’t need to pay careful attention to how your law enforcement career may be harmful to your marriage would be quite a mistake. A bucket load of other research has shown that policing can be bad for your coronary arteries, abbreviate your life, and spills over into your marriage.
In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman (another guy with solid research to back up his opinions) writes, “Statistically speaking, when a man is not willing to share power, there is an 81 percent chance that his marriage will self-destruct.”
As a marriage therapist, I can say the police personality (cynical and controlling) and the nature of our job (my way or the highway) are not compatible with egalitarian marriages.
So, leaving aside the exact divorce rates of cops we can say police marriages have unique challenges. Like so many other threats to the wellness of law enforcement professionals, these challenges are manageable if we ask for help when we need it. If your marriage is going down the toilet seek help. Marital counseling is a good investment and one well discuss in the future.
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