Many times I have written about the stress of police work and how that stress affects the family dynamic. There is a reason for this. I can't stress enough how those in law enforcement and their families must be aware of how the cumulative affects of police work and training make there way into the physical, mental and social well-being of officers and their loved ones. One of my favorite books is Kevin M. Gilmartin, Ph.D.'s Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement. I refer to this book often for the optimism of understanding how demands of the job seep inside the workers. My love of this book was reinforced just last night while I was doing research at my son's hockey practice.
I was sitting at a table with four police related books in front of me; one being Gilmartin's. A few other parents sat in the other seats talking. One gentleman kept glancing over at me and the books on the table. Finally, he spoke. He grabbed Gilmartin's book and told me he had been working as a police officer for years and that they were all required to read it. It was one of the best things he had ever done, he explained. He also told me he had read the book with his wife. He had been happily married to the same woman for years, although, he said he wouldn't want to be married to himself. This conversation encouraged my faith in Gilmartin's message and how it can help anyone who is and who loves a police officer.
Gilmartin states police work is a culture of risk. Officers may not face dangerous situations at every turn, but they do face the possibility of danger with every move. This constant stance of mental and physical alertness on duty creates the biological state of heightened functions to ensure survival. Gilmartin explains these heightened functions as:
- Increased peripheral vision
- Improved hearing
- Faster reaction times
- Increased blood sugar
- Elevated heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- A general sense of energy to meet and overcome any threats that are challenging the body's capacity to survive
This hypervigilance keeps officers on duty, "Alive, Alert, Energetic, Involved, Humorous." The problem with this state is that it is cyclical. As they say, what goes up must come down. This is what creates many of the problems families see within their officers when they get home.
The Magic Chair
Many of those who love officers complain about how they become emotionally unattached and apathetic when they are at home. When you are looking for a warm, loving response from the person and they appear distance, doubt, fear and anger often results. Gilmartin describes how many officers spend their off duty time in "The Magic Chair." Gilmartin explains, "These are called magic chairs because as soon as officers sit in them, after returning home from work, by 'magic' all their blood instantly turns into lead. They can't talk, they can't answer even the most basic question asked by a family member - all they can do is sit and enter into a vegetative off-duty phase." Described as the opposite state from on duty, officers in the off duty phase of the Hypervigilance Biological Rollercoaster® are "Tired, Detached, Isolated, Apathetic." Understanding how this biological state affects officers and knowing what can be done about it can help your officer and your family remain healthy.
I am a cop versus I work as a cop
Most officers identify themselves with the phrase I am a Cop instead of just working as a cop. Phrases such as, it gets in your blood and it's what I am are common. As the loved one of a police officer, who loves the man or woman and not the uniform, you have an important role in reminding them that it is just an occupation. Help remind them that they play a multitude of roles, such as husband, father, mother, sister, brother, friend, leader, as well as, police officer. If they want, allow them to tell stories and identify with their police role, but encourage them to talk about their other roles as well. What are they doing as a father or a friend? What can you two do together to reinforce your roles as husband and wife? Communicate and help them explore their other roles.
I don't have control of my personal life
Police work often makes officers feel they have little control over their personal lives. They work funky hours, spend a lot of time working overtime and in court and often get called in during family functions. Unfortunately, believing, and allowing them to believe, they have little control over their personal lives lets them fall into victim-based thinking. This type of thinking leads to feeling apathetic and blaming others for their lack of control. Fortunately, officers do have control over their personal lives and working with their loves ones to identify their control and act on it can keep them from feeling like a victim. Gilmartin suggests the following:
- Practice aggressive personal time management and goal setting. Do this as a family. Have personal goals, goals as a couple and goals as a family. Show by example, but try not to alienate your officer by only having your own life. The goal is to encourage each other.
- Be proactive versus reactive. "A reactive orientation, which is essential for street survival, can be lethal to a personal relationship," says Gilmartin. Help your officer make decisions and don't make every decision for them. It's not that hard for them to figure out what, exactly, he wants for dinner. Not allowing them to fall into the role of follower will help them feel more in control. Encourage balance.
- Schedule the time and make the time. Instead of the just wait and see mode officers can fall into, use a calendar to put down those things you want to do, especially, that quiet, alone time each of you is probably craving. Then make the time. Unless there is some pressing emergency, view this time together doing those things both of you love as sacred. It could just save your love and his life.
Again, I can't say enough about Gilmartin's work. Officers are trained to survive on the streets, but too often, the training stops there. They're not offered the skills to survive emotionally or to have lasting relationships. This book can help. Together take control of your relationship. Neither you, nor your officer, is a victim. Be a survivor.