I gave up my longtime dream of being a cop. I took a deep breath and willfully surrendered it - a job I had felt drawn to and had dreamed about for years - opting instead to seek out a completely different career path altogether.
All for a woman who was emphatic she never wanted to be married to a cop!
As it turns out, that may have been the best decision I ever made.
Althea recently authored a pair of articles about marriage, written from the perspective of the spouse or domestic partner of a law enforcement officer. Both articles received a lot of attention and she got some great responses from readers, hearing from officers, the spouses of officers, and even officers married to other officers (Married to a Cop, WT..?! and Marriage Before the Job: Really?!). Out of the feedback she received came the suggestion I write something in the same vein, from the perspective of the one who wears the badge, to define my experience of how we have made marriage not only work but become even stronger despite - and maybe even because of - my working in a profession notoriously hard on relationships.
Fair enough. First, let me say this: LEOs have a notoriously high divorce rate, and are prone to experience issues and discord within their marriages at least as often as non-LEOs. Nonetheless, there is a multitude of cops who are happily married, or in long-term, forever ever after relationships, that could teach all of us a thing or two. There are others who are on marriage number two, three, or more who learned from past missteps and now enjoy smooth sailing. Believe me; we invite them or their spouses to share their experience and lessons learned if they feel inclined. This article is just my experience.
Althea likes to tell the story of how we met after we both took jobs at the same social service agency in early 1990, and how we started hanging out after I began following her around. The first part of that is true, but the second...? Nonsense! She clearly lured me. Besides, I had no interest in dating anyone and in all candor I was really bad at dating anyway (no use BSing in this era of social networking; if I tried to present myself as even halfway competent in those days I would be easily outed!).
Althea was equally uninterested in dating, having just moved back to Illinois from California and dedicated to mastering her new job, and I was not even close to being her type. We did become really good friends, however, despite our mutual disinterest in dating, and her subconscious luring of me continued. Even though I thought she was pretty cute and had come to think she would probably be a great girlfriend (if I was looking for one and I most definitely was NOT and I would certainly just screw it up if I was, anyway) I still was not her type. Besides, I had already told her of my longtime dream of being a police officer, and she made it quite clear she would never date or marry a cop because of the lifestyle, the hours, the absences, the danger, and the divorce rate. She just knew it was not possible for her. Cute or not, this was a no-brainer all around!
Naturally, we started dating. We kept on dating and becoming more and more serious. Things were not turning out as I had planned, and I liked it!
Now, I should point out that being a police officer was a big dream, but one I had very little chance of realizing. I had applied and tested for a few departments after college and, while my scores were generally pretty good, I ran up against a major hurdle: Every law enforcement agency I looked at was adamant about its officers being able to see. I was nearsighted, and not just a little. Without glasses or contacts, I was Mr Magoo! While most agencies might allow uncorrected vision of up to 20/100 or even 20/200, 20/(crashing into walls & tripping over furniture without my contacts) was a little more than they were willing to overlook. So even though Althea would never date or marry a cop, it did not look that would really ever be an issue.
Flash forward a couple years and we were still dating and closer than ever, and starting to think long term - about maybe even getting married someday - despite that being another item on my list of things not to do, when I learned of a procedure that had shown great success correcting nearsightedness. Radial Keratotomy, a precursor to the now-common Lasik procedure, was becoming more widely available and I set my sights (get it?) on being lens free for the first time in over twenty years! I somehow convinced my insurer to cover the procedure and, with seven surgeries in just over a year’s time, I was soon enjoying the world with 20/15 clarity! Life was great, but a reckoning was ahead.
With the sole hurdle to a career in law enforcement cleared, an inevitable conversation had to occur. Althea pointed out the obvious elephant in the room, asking if going into law enforcement was still a dream of mine. I had to admit it was, and it was something I wanted to pursue and hoped she would support, and I was not yet ready to choose relationship over career. She was still adamant she could not be a police wife and - very long story made very short - we broke up so I could pursue my dream of being a cop.
That breakup - the only one we ever had - lasted less than 24 hours. Not ready or wanting to throw our relationship away, I scrapped the idea of going into police work altogether and recommitted to making the relationship work. I was having fun at work, took on greater responsibility, and moved into management. In 1994, we married and I also began applying to graduate school, and was accepted into the same MSW program Althea had already begun. Neither of us made much money but we were working toward our future. Then things at my work turned upside down.
Two new directors were hired from a large state child welfare agency and came in with a carte blanch mandate for change, and change they did. I was restructured right out of my unique, self-designed-with-the-blessing-of-my-former-bosses, management position and relegated to the role of a glorified night watchman. Eventually, that too was eliminated but I was offered a consolation prize by the Wicked Witches from DCFS: an office job, licensing foster homes for special needs children, in a downtown Chicago high-rise. It was necessary and important work, and even offered me my very own Dilbert-hole to languish in, but for me it defined monotony. I was miserable and depressed but hardly in any position to make a career move in my chosen field.
Althea could see I was depressed and miserable at work and remained supportive and encouraging that things would someday change. At the time, I just could not see it. I enjoyed grad school but had no real idea what I would someday do with the degree. Then one day Althea shocked me with a wild idea: Would I consider revisiting my old dream of becoming a cop? I was stunned, and a little worried (is she really serious and am I getting dumped again?), but she was serious and had given the idea a lot of thought and could no longer stand to watch me be professionally miserable. With reassurances she was behind me and her increasingly enthusiastic encouragement as I went through the hiring process, I started testing everywhere I could until finally being hired in 1996.
Althea attended orientations, studied up on the departments and cities I was considering, and provided thoughtful feedback at all times. She was very scared about what she had signed up for; having willingly sacrificed a part of her own dream of what marriage would look like for my benefit, but pushed through her fear to lend encouragement. When the process paid off, and job offers started arriving, she was excited for me and jumped into the process of deciding where I should accept. In the years since, she has been a steady sounding board and encourager, becoming the steadiest of police wives in the process.
Probably what would be the most surprising to the woman I married in 1994 - the one who could never be the wife of a cop - is how embedded she would become in the police culture herself; counseling, training, writing for and about, and befriending cops from all over while becoming always more encouraging to me. Her decision to support me, despite all the fears telling her not to, has led her to a personal and professional place she could have never expected.
Our marriage has flourished since, but it has not been without give and take and occasional difficulties. We have faced all the challenges all police marriages face; the hours, missed holidays and special events, fear, family stress, and others. The key for us in overcoming them is this: I made a promise to Althea very early on in the process, knowing that these challenges would occasionally arise, that our marriage would always come first. If the job ever displaced it I would quit. To a lot of cops, that is unrealistically radical. Of course the job is going to come first, are you crazy?! We understand that work sometimes will come first, but its time in first place must always be temporary and the relationship will return to the top. That allows Althea to relax in the knowledge she is first in my heart, and gives me incentive to keep my priorities straight so I can continue working in the profession I love, with the wholehearted support of the woman I love.
It has worked well so far, and now we work together to support others in law enforcement. With faith in, hope for, support of, and devotion to love each other and your shared and individual goals, we believe marriage can not only survive law enforcement’s challenges, but be enriched by them.