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Honoring Their Sacrifice

How often do you take someone for granted?  It might be your wife or kids, a favorite relative or best friend.  Perhaps you can honestly say you never take anyone for granted, least of all someone you love; that would certainly put you into an elite category usually reserved for those destined for canonization… or lengthy treatment for codependence. 

The truth is, we all tend to take those closest to us for granted way too often.  It’s easy, and relatively safe to do.  Those we love most tend to love us back, even when we’re not very lovable, and grant a lot of do-over’s whether we deserve them or not.  That extension of grace is one of the hallmarks of love, but we should never take advantage.  Not if you want your relationships to stay strong and mutually rewarding.  People have limits, mere mortals don’t possess unlimited forgiveness to dole out to knuckleheads who refuse to learn or change, and repeated thoughtlessness with the expectation to just be forgiven and allowed to move forward becomes rude over time.  Worse yet is calculated thoughtlessness, deliberately taking someone for granted knowing we’ll be forgiven. 

In our last column, Their Sacrifice (linked below), we looked at the silent heroism and sacrifice of the “ones who support the one who wears the badge.”  If you could look inside the heart of most of those closest to you – your husband or wife (or whatever domestic partnership you enjoy), the kids, extended family, and even your closest friends – you would probably find a lot of pride… and more than a fair share of pain.  How many broken relationships connected to law enforcement collapsed under a burden of pain caused directly or indirectly from the job?  How many are on their last legs?  The difference between those that are succeed and those that fail isn’t that there is a lack of pain involved -  and no relationship is completely pain free – but how that pain is alleviated, or at least honored.     

We’ve write a lot on relationships and honestly, there is a lot that can be said.  What we want to do here is present some tips uniquely centered on honoring the sacrifices of those closest to you.

Be grateful

The antithesis of taking someone or something for granted, simple gratitude is way too often overlooked.  We in law enforcement are great at heaping honor on other cops and fellow first responders, the military, or perfect strangers we see supporting us or the community in unique or above-the-call-of-duty ways.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with that whatsoever!  When it comes to rewarding the day-to-day giving, especially when it’s our partners or kids, we don’t always do so well by them.  The attitude of, “Why should I thank someone for just doing what they should anyway?  I sacrifice for them; I don’t think it’s too much to ask that anyone else pitch in, too, is it?  They know I appreciate what they do, I don’t see why I should have to keep saying it out loud” seems to prevail.

To be fair, these aren’t necessarily unique to law enforcement; Althea hears about ungrateful spouses and all the resulting rationalizations from LE and non-LE families alike, and when we used to lead marriage seminars I heard the same, too.  Ingratitude is a universal complaint.  But so what if it is?  If you’re a cop, your family probably sacrifices a little more than most, or at least in unique ways, and just because other husbands and wives, fathers and mothers can’t or won’t see the value of a simple “Thank You” doesn’t have a thing to do with you.  Make a point of noticing what they do to support you, how they sacrifice, what they tolerate with without complaint, and where grace is extended to you by those who don’t have to but do anyway because they love you, and just say, “Thanks.”

Open your world up to them

One of the most common complaints we hear from the spouses, and especially wives/girlfriends, is, “He refuses to talk about anything that goes on at work,” or “he tells me ‘you would never understand,’ when I ask him about his day,” or “he puts up walls to keep us separate from the work part of his life.”

Ironically, we hear form a lot of officers exactly the same but with the insistence that, “She doesn’t care to hear about that,” or that “she couldn’t handle what I do everyday” or that refusing to talk “is my way of protecting all of them from all the terrible stuff in the world.”

Guess what… if they are going to sacrifice for your career they want at least a peek into the window of what you do.  That doesn’t mean you need to regale the family with all the details of a grisly suicide scene:

Daddy, how… how did his eye get stuck to the ceiling fan? 

Well, Little Janie, when the superheated gasses driving the shot leave the end of the barrel they expand very, very rapidly and violently, exploding the head just every which way…

Ohhhhhh, I see, Daddy.  More spaghetti, please?

You can let them into your world as much as they want, and as is age-appropriate, in ways that they feel connected to and a part of who you are.  If anyone truly does want to be left out of it, that’s their choice and it may be a good one for them, but let it truly be their choice rather than yours.

Stay connected

Resist the urge to disconnect from those closest to you.  A lot of cops get into the habit of retreating to what Dr Kevin Gilmartin calls “The Magic Chair” whenever they’re not at work.  “The Magic Chair” is that special chair – or a metaphor for whatever your particular go-away-leave-me-alone escape from reality is – that so many cops adopt as their refuge from a harsh world.

There is nothing wrong with an escape, and having one can be healthy as long as escaping is done in strict moderation, but danger lies in the tendency to make it your second home (or, home-within-the-home).  When that happens it is inevitable that your loved ones will begin to grow distant, and form resentments.  Their willingness to sacrifice for and support you will also wane.

Instead, figure out ways to go the extra mile.  Strengthen old connections with those you love and build new ones.  Double down on your efforts to be with them when you’re away from work.  Sure, you need time to yourself – we all do and should make sure we get it – but they need time with you, as well.  Remember, this is about their sacrifice, not yours, and how you can honor it.  Being present is the sincerest way.  It’s also one of the hardest for an off-duty cop.  Get over it.

Make deposits in the bank

Relationship expert Dr John Gottman talks about the need for couples to make regular deposits in each others’ “emotional love banks.”  What this means, in short, is building up a repository of shared goodwill and good feelings.  Deposits are made when you spend time and share together, make sincere efforts to care for each other’s emotional wellbeing on a regular basis, give gifts (whether material gifts, spending time together, doing things for each other, etc) to show affection and concern, and generally put each other first.  The idea of a “love bank” is usually applied to couples but makes just as much sense with kids, extended family, and friends.

All relationships experience tough times but research by Gottman and others has consistently shown that those relationships with high balances in the “emotional love bank” are the ones that not only survive crisis, but emerge stronger.  Think of it this way:  If your partner can easily recall the 91% of the time you’re a great spouse – the selfless, eager to help, awesome parent, attentive lover, perfect-for-me you – then overlooking the 9% of you that’s a crabby, absent-minded, self-absorbed jag-off becomes pretty easy!  (and for the record, I was basing the 9% JO quotient on what I figure I routinely exhibit)

There will always be times duty calls and you have no choice but to answer:  a major investigation requiring all hands on deck, and forget sleeping anytime soon; that simple end-of-shift traffic stop that turns into a stolen vehicle recovery/out-of-state fugitive apprehension/retail theft ring capture all rolled into one – 45 minutes before your daughter’s big dance recital; getting called in for overtime again, because you have to grab it when you can even if it means more time away from home.  Making regular deposits into everyone’s “emotional love banks” increases the chance everyone will happily roll with the vagaries of living with a cop.

Join their world

As you open your world up to your family and friends, and are remembering to be grateful, stay connected, and make deposits into their emotional banks, the tie that binds it all together is to join their world

A lot of you already do this, and can probably attest to the benefits, but the reality is – in LE and non-LE relationships alike – very often there is one dominant partner who defines for everyone “what we’re into” whether consensus about that was ever really reached or not.  We can all think of the obvious stereotypes: the wife who has grudgingly spent every vacation for the past two decades trudging along on every hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, and extreme heli-skiing adventure vacation imaginable because outdoor adventure is what her husband lives for.  She’d kill for a week at a 5-star spa but knows he’d never go for it – because he’s dismissed it as “just not my thing” every time she ever brought it up; the husband who knows driven every back road and visited every Podunk town with a two-bit antique store in five states because he spends every weekend shuttling his wife and her newly purchased junk around.  She’ll tell you how much they “adore antiquing.”  He fantasizes about taking a 34” Louisville Slugger to a field of priceless figurines. 

Take an interest in what others like.  Push yourself out of you comfort zone and into theirs.  It doesn’t matter if you really don’t like it that much... it’s about sacrificing for them.  And who knows, maybe you’ll learn about something you enjoy you never thought you would.     

Honoring the sacrifices of those who have your back on the home front improves the likelihood they will continue to have your back, and to honor you and your profession with their willing sacrifice.  But more importantly than that, it is simply the right thing to do. 


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About The Authors:

Althea Olson, LCSW has been in private practice in the Chicago suburbs since 1996. She has a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University providing individual, couple, & group therapy to adolescents, adults, and geriatrics. Althea is also trained in Critical Incident Stress Management & is a certified divorce mediator.

Mike Wasilewski, MSW has been with a large suburban Chicago department since 1996. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University and has served on his department’s Crisis Intervention & Domestic Violence teams. Mike is an adjunct instructor at Northwestern College.

Mike & Althea have been married since 1994 and have been featured columnists for Officer.Com since 2007. Their articles are extremely popular and they now provide the same training and information in person throughout the United States. This dynamic team was recently featured at the at the 2010 & 2011 ILEETA Conference & Exposition.

Out of their success has come the formation of More Than A Cop where the focus is providing consultation and trainings on Survival Skills Beyond The Street.