4 tips on making your police marriage work
After 23 years of marriage, this police couple shares the lessons they’ve learned to strengthen their relationship
More relationships fail than will succeed. This is true for romantic relationships, as well as those with our families, friends and even our “Family in Blue.” Some will disintegrate dramatically, while others simply fade away, dying of neglect or growing apart. They fail because relationships require time, effort, attention and are messy.
It is well known that law enforcement can be hard on relationships and especially marriages (or similar primary “significant other” relationships). It is debatable whether the divorce rate among couples where one or both are officers is higher than that of the general public. But we do know many officers who have been married multiple times, with the accompanying joke being that by the third or fourth wife the officer generally gets it right.
This year we will celebrate 23 years of marriage. The first two years we were not a law enforcement couple as Mike became a cop later than average at the age of 30. And those first two years were not easy. We were both in graduate school, working difficult jobs with long hours in mental health, and struggling with financial and family issues that threatened our young marriage. We realized we needed help so, rather than letting the pain push us apart, we headed into marriage counseling.
What we learned led to an ongoing dedication to reading, researching and implementing skills and behaviors that ultimately got us through 21 years being a police couple. We learned marriage takes a commitment to wake up every day and say, “I’m going to honor my marriage vows through my words and my behavior, even when I’m tired, pissed off or hungry, and I’m never going to let resentment take the place of love.”
We thought it would be fun for each of us to offer our point of view as to how we make our marriage work.
Althea’s advice for the spouse/partner of a police officer
Embrace the loneliness
As some readers may know, I did not want to be married to a cop. I didn’t want the lifestyle and I feared the loneliness I knew would follow. I’m an extremely extroverted person and had grown up with a very dysfunctional family life. One of the things I desired in my marriage was someone who would be there on holidays, weekends, evenings and who could be my “partner in crime.” But watching Mike go to a job every day that he hated began killing my soul. His unhappiness became a greater pain to me than the loneliness I feared, so I gave him my blessing to begin testing. He was hired within a year and what I feared most became my reality.
My biggest battle in being a police wife is embracing my loneliness and not letting it define me or who we are as a couple. It’s still there, 23 years later, but I take comfort in the knowledge that the honor of my husband’s career and the willing sacrifice we make together outweighs any personal pain I carry. In the dark times, this knowledge is what gets me through, so I lean into the pain that allows me to move onto the next moments in time because, while the loneliness visits, it doesn’t stay for long.
Expand your identity to be more than a police spouse
We’ve long used our writing to urge officers to be “more than a cop,” not because there is anything wrong with that identity, but it is an easy identity to get lost in and so is that of spouse or partner. Policing can become all-encompassing, not just for the ones wearing the uniform, but also for those who love them. The lifestyle can become “who you are” instead of just a part of who you are.
Being married to someone who goes out and makes a difference every day – serving the public and being the peacemaker so our communities are safe – takes a special type of person. It’s easy for a police spouse to put their identity on hold when we see our loved one risking their lives and personal safety to help others.
But remaining multifaceted is critical. I have maintained other identities, some of which don’t include Mike and of which I have sole ownership: golfer, therapist, runner and volunteer, and I have some amazing friends. It helps fight the loneliness, for one, but also strengthens the relationship, our many other roles, and physical and emotional health. I know that I am more than a police wife and more than Mike’s wife, however, even with all that, he is still my No. 1 person.
Mike’s advice for officers
Don’t put too much stock into the mythology of our “specialness”
There is an enduring mythology about our “specialness” embraced by a lot of cops and citizens alike (which a great many of us eagerly and humbly embrace, by the way). The myth perpetuates the idea of each cop as a noble, self-sacrificing, intrepid crime fighter standing bravely along the thin blue line, lonely and misunderstood but for our brothers and sisters in blue.
I think it’s all a bit … overblown.
I love being a police officer. I’m proud of what I do, my department, the profession and the countless honorable cops across the country and world. I’d do this career all over again, and recommend it to young adults looking to make a difference in the world. I also know courage, a willingness to sacrifice everything at a moment’s notice, a sense of defining honor, and an overarching drive for justice are at the core of every good cop. I’m not knocking us. I just know we all – and I am including myself here – would do well to embrace humility, for our own sake and that of our relationships.
A lot of advice is given to police spouses, and particularly wives, about how to take care of their officers and create a safe and supportive space to which they can retreat from the stresses of the job. Books, articles, talks and shared experience tell them it is their responsibility to take care of their officers without expecting much in return. I’ve even heard this expressed by fellow cops countless times: “Why, it’s the least they can do for their embattled, world-weary warrior!”
I realize there are a lot of demanding, high-stakes, exhausting – and even dangerous – jobs out there, many that strain emotional and relational wellness as much as or more than law enforcement. Admitting this doesn’t diminish policing. No matter what we do for a living each of us is responsible for being present and engaged with those we love away from the job without excuse or sense of martyrdom.
Accept influence from your spouse
Police officers are necessarily decisive and firm when it comes to making decisions. The potential for decisiveness is a large consideration when hiring police officers and exercising it with confidence and accuracy is necessary for survival. But this same decisiveness can get in the way of successful relationships when we allow it to override consideration of your partner’s thoughts and desires about important decisions you’ll make as a couple.
Letting go and sharing responsibility with Althea, trusting her expertise and judgment, and seeking input into decisions that not only affect us but also me is both liberating and healthy for our marriage. Including your partner in decisions, or even deferring to their preferences with little or no debate, is known as accepting influence and is a critical component of successful relationships. This can be difficult for a lot of us in policing – who are often the most strong-willed, Type-A personalities – and requires deliberate effort. Put the effort in, be willing to compromise and even lose once in a while, and see if it doesn’t help your relationship in the long haul.
We wanted to offer just a couple of personal tips specific to the law enforcement life, on top of the usual relationship advice that’s ubiquitous in books and on the web. These tips have worked for us, are common to successful law enforcement couples we know, and should help you, too.