How self-awareness can improve a police officer’s personal relationship

Seeing the good in a relationship is extremely important to maintaining positive feelings toward one another, but awareness of problem areas is just as important


The dawn of the New Year is traditionally a time for critical self-reflection. Along with the hope that accompanies it, we pause to assess the past, plan the future and reflect on needed changes and how to achieve them. Healthy self-awareness means knowing both where we excel and all the ways we fall short. It is our efforts to correct past failings that form the foundations of serious change.

Most of us tend to focus on areas of life we are able to fix through the simple addition of good behaviors or subtraction of bad – our diet, health habits, exercising more– or deciding to take on new experiences and greater challenges to enrich our lives. There is nothing wrong with any of these types of resolutions. Encouraging positive change in these areas is a staple of our column and we know how important and difficult it is to sustain them. But sometimes the areas we need to examine and work on are deeper and more important than whether we get to the gym enough or choose healthy lunches over the convenience of fast food. Sometimes self-reflection needs to be more about our character and habits toward others, and in particular, those with whom we are closest.

Law enforcement can be hard on relationships and this is especially true between you and your significant other. The demands of a challenging career on any relationship are tough. But the demands and stresses of the law enforcement profession creates peculiar – if somewhat predictable – difficulties. No matter how tight your bond, how long you’ve been together or how successful the relationship, its quality and strength can suffer when bad habits, complacency or the changing pressures of life overwhelm good choices toward each other. So, going into 2017, we’ll focus on how to go deeper in our self-reflection and resolve to protect and strengthen our primary relationship.   

Go looking for trouble

Troubled and failing relationships hemorrhage negativity.
Troubled and failing relationships hemorrhage negativity.

When looking inward at our relationship(s) it is easiest to focus on what’s obviously working, rest on past success and assume all is well. Of course, that happens to be the essence of complacency. In order to accurately assess the overall health of your relationship, it’s necessary to look deeper, reflect on where you’ve slipped or gotten lazy, ask your partner for honest – even painful – feedback and uncover the uncomfortable. In a way, you have to go looking for trouble. 

Dr. John Gottman and his wife, Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman, are possibly the most respected and well-known experts in the field of couples therapy. At The Gottman Institute in Seattle, they have been researching relationships and what makes some work and others fail for more than 30 years. From these studies they develop tools for therapists. 

From their research, the Gottmans have identified several dysfunctions commonly found in ailing relationships. In examining your own relationship you’ll not just want to emphasize what you still do well but also where symptoms of trouble are starting to show. 

Low ratio of positive to negative interactions

Even in conflict, successful couples generally remain positive in how they speak and relate to one another; in fact, the ratio of positive to negative interactions in word, deed and reaction to each other will be at least 5:1. Far better is a ratio of close to 20:1. Among couples in unstable, failing relationships that ratio has been found to be around 0.8:1. Successful couples know to isolate and manage conflict, maintain positive feelings about one another even when angry or frustrated, and work to exhibit kindness and concern. Troubled and failing relationships hemorrhage negativity.

Escalation of negativity

The Gottmans refer to the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” to describe four characteristics common to dying relationships. Being in conflict is normal, and feeling and expressing anger and hurt are a part of it, but the “Four Horsemen” – criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling – signal an often fatal escalation of the negativity. 

Are your fights civil, productive and with the goal of strengthening the relationship, or have any of the “Four Horseman” begun to make an appearance? If they have, it is absolutely necessary you oust them now and make efforts to make positivity your default position even in conflict.

Emotional disengagement and withdrawal

The absence of negative affect during conflict, or positive affect whether during conflict or not, is indicative of emotional disengagement and withdrawal. Being unable or unwilling to engage emotionally may mean you’ve already left the relationship, even if you still occupy the same space physically.

Do you still turn to one another emotionally with conversation, joking and laughter, seeking and giving support and making time with one another a top and regular priority?  Or have you withdrawn into yourselves, even if unintentionally?

Failing of repair attempts

According to the Gottmans, “The goal of therapy ought not to be helping couples to avoid fights, even ones that are painful and alienating.  Nor should it be helping couples to avoid hurting one another’s feelings… Instead, the goal ought to be to help couples process these inevitable fights… and to be able to repair the relationship.” 

All couples will have issues about which they disagree, and virtually all will argue and fight over them, but successful couples quickly repair the relationship, soothe any hurt feelings, and know that disagreements are inevitable and something from which to grow. But when normal repair attempts fail, the hurt is too deep, or efforts are no longer attempted, the relationship is in serious trouble.

Negative sentiment override

Negative sentiment override is a serious symptom requiring urgent attention. NSO is present when one or both of the partners “habitually perceive interactions with their partner with a ‘negative subtext.’” Neutral and even attempts at positive interactions are misperceived as negative or as an attack. This happens when at least one of the partners has come to see only negative qualities or intent in the other, attributing them to “lasting, negative personality traits or character flaws.” 

Once NSO has taken root even the most well-intentioned efforts will be seen in a negative or malicious light. Defensiveness becomes the default state of one or both partners as the relationship is increasingly perceived as emotionally dangerous. 

Chronic diffuse physiological arousal

Chronic diffuse physiological arousal is a condition with a wide range of general symptoms usually experienced when faced with a threat and experienced as a constant state of hyperawareness and anxiety. Our most important relationships should never be the cause, but often are.   

When attempts by one partner to raise concerns or introduce conflict are felt by the other as overwhelming or emotionally dangerous, they experience heightened physiological arousal common to maintaining constant vigilance against threats. Not unlike PTSD, this can lead to a fight or flight response contrary to a safe, happy, successful relationship.

You and your partner should be a source of safety to each other. Instead, do either of you live in fear of the next emotional attack, waiting for the next conflict and planning what to do or where to retreat when it comes? Such living is not only emotionally unhealthy, it also manifests itself in physical ailments, and no relationship can survive this level of strain.   

The failure of men to accept influence from their women  

This next warning is directed at our male readers, and all men should evaluate how they do. In successful heterosexual couples, women wield significant influence with their men, and the men accept and welcome influence from their women. Failing or refusing to accept influence from women leaves them feeling disrespected and eventually disengaged. A lot of men are quite comfortable with an arrangement where they hold the power, making decisions without hindrance or question or needing to weigh other points-of-view. Eventually, though, they are likely to see their partner emotionally disengage or rebel.

So men, do you accept influence from your women, or do you ignore or minimize her influence in favor of your independence? 

Seeing all that is good and working in a relationship is extremely important to maintaining positive feelings toward one another, but awareness of problem areas is just as important. When you go for a physical your doctor is looking not just for what is right but poking, prodding, and asking questions to find what might be wrong or need further examination. Looking for and focusing on symptoms is essential to catch problems early. The same applies to our relationships. Start 2017 by making sure all is in order at home.

About the author

Althea Olson, LCSW, and Mike Wasilewski, MSW, have been married since 1994. Mike works full time as a police officer for a large suburban Chicago agency while Althea is a social worker in private practice at Fox Bend Counseling in Oswego (Illinois). They write on a wide range of topics to include officer wellness, relationships, mental health, morale, and ethics. Their writing led to them developing More Than A Cop, and they have traveled the country as police trainers teaching “survival skills off the street.”

Contact Althea Olson and Mike Wasilewski

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Health - Physical and Mental Fitness

Sponsored by

logo for print