Law enforcement affects an officer's personal life. This is especially true in reference to police officers' intimate relationships. "Police work is a lifestyle," 29-year veteran Betsy Brantner Smith says. "If you choose to be with someone in law enforcement you also choose that lifestyle." With the majority of officers being male, much of the dialogue and resources available to police couples revolves around male/female relationships. Although immensely helpful to the majority, the issues female officers face goes, many times, unacknowledged. Stereotypes and challenges abound in their quest for a significant other. Fortunately, with understanding by both partners, relationships can be healthy and gratifying regardless of occupation.
"There are two main stereotypes," Smith explains. "One, she is a short-haired, very manly, gruff-voiced woman who is just stomping around telling everyone what to do. Very masculine." Like all occupations, female officers run the gamut as far as personal attributes. Regardless, this stereotype is pervasive. Another part to this stereotype is the misperception a feminine, petite woman who can not do the job.
The other main stereotype comes from Charlie's Angels. Smith explains, "Ooh, is she hot? Does she handcuff you? A lot of sexual innuendo. Does she tell you want to do? Does she let you touch her gun? All that childish nonsense." This stereotype is built on fantasy and not reality.
In spite of the stereotypes, female officers seek and enter relationships. The occupation provides a myriad of challenges. "Just the mere act of trying to date is difficult," says Smith. "It is real hard to find someone who wants to go on a date with you when you get off at 7 in the morning." Sorting through all the physical and emotional issues the job brings to a new relationship can be difficult for both people. Mary (not her real name) explains a perception she faced, "That you're carrying a gun all the time, always eating at Dunkin' Donuts, that real lack of real understanding of what we do on a day to day basis." Unlike most occupations, police work often defines a person in the mind of a potential mate. I doubt going on a blind date with a woman who is an audio-visual specialist will set the same tone. "There is still an odd fascination with women in law enforcement," Smith states. "While you're dating you've got to kind of wade through that. It can be very intimidating for the person who is dating a female cop who carries a gun and has a constitutional authority to take a life."
A Cop's World
Once dating turns into a relationship, female officers continue to face challenges. The strong personality of many female officers and her existence in a cop's world adds complications. "You're going with this woman you find attractive and who's fun to be with. You're an accountant and you're telling her about your day and she's talking about the guy she tasered and the active shooting training she went to or she's talking about her new AR 15 and the training she's going to," explains Smith. "She's talking about things they don't understand and she sees it as fun. Normal people don't understand us and they look at us and think this girl is a little off. I'm not sure I want to be a part of this world."
The Boys' Club
According to Smith, women make up around 10% of law enforcement nationwide. Female officers are surrounded by men. That can be hard for a partner to handle. "One of the things, they're going to hear is, your girlfriend or your wife works with all men, aren't you afraid she's going to cheat on you? Do you trust her?" Smith explains. "That becomes a big issue in police relationships. There are huge, huge trust issues." Another part of being in the minority at work is the issue of equality. "As women, we are always trying to prove ourselves as equals," Mary explains.
"As we get into relationships, cops in general, are very used to giving and receiving orders and we don't deal well with non-compliance," Smith says. "We're used to telling people, Sir, Go stand over there or Ma'am, come here. Then we go home and instead of saying to our spouse, Can you empty the dishwasher, we say, Empty the dishwasher and do it now." Like their male counterparts, female officers need to learn and practice good communication skills. Treating your partner like a suspect hardly ever goes over well.
"There are many traits, both learned and natural, that make us good cops," Smith explains. "We are naturally suspicious. We are hyper-aware. We are taught from the very beginning that the world is a violent place and people want to hurt us. The problem is when you go home you have problems in relationships."
Being in a relationship with an officer, regardless of gender, can be challenging. Many female partners of male officers have found support in the company of each other. Unfortunately, those in relationships with female officers suffer from a lack of these resources. "There are a lot of groups and clubs and stuff for police wives," Smith states. "There aren't many police husband associations. It takes a strong, secure man not only to be with a female cop but to run around and brag about it. I happen to be married to one of those guys. He's my third husband and that's not untypical either."
How to Improve Relationships
As a female officer, the first thing Smith recommends is to understand yourself and the female brain. "This takes work," she says. "They need to learn and accept that there are differences between men and women. Women attach feelings to almost everything in their lives. A lot of women don't understand that if they do something wrong at work and their sergeant yells at them, a guy cop will generally say, Ok, Sgt. and learn from it or get angry about it, shake it off and move on. A woman will do those things, but she will also be hurt. That can be very frustrated especially if you don't understand why you have hurt feelings."
Smith's second recommendation is to understand your job. "One of the biggest problems cops have in general is we tend to love the agency," she explains. "We want you to love your brothers and sisters and love your job, but don't love the agency. It's not the agency's job to love you back and make you happy. Women have an especially hard time with that. If they understand what their job is and what their mission is, they will be better able to understand their personal relationships including those with a spouse, parents, kids and friends."
A Partner's Role
There are many things the partner can do to. Once again, Smith recommends he or she understand the officer and her job. "A partner of a woman officer needs to understand the female brain, communication differences, and understand that in spite of the fact it is 2009, in many ways, woman police officers are still fighting to have a solid foothold in the profession." Mary chose to date other officers because she felt they already understood her job and she didn't have to explain herself.
Another important task of the partner is feedback. "Women need feedback," Smith explains. "I would really encourage the partner to not allow her to view herself as a victim. Encouraging the officer to look in the mirror and see not a victim but see a warrior. You have to understand you have entered into a warrior class. You're part of a warrior family because you have chosen someone who is in a warrior class. That's something you have to accept and also embrace."
Like most, understanding and communication are keys to beginning and maintaining a healthy relationship with a female officer. Law enforcement is an occupation but it flows over into personal lives. The physical and emotional stressors of police work strain the best relationships. Those involving female officers are no different. In conclusion, Smith reminds the female officer, "Don't expect your spouse to make all the concessions. That's what happens a lot. You think, I'm the one out there risking my life everyday and what are you doing? You're doing people's taxes."