Early in our engagement, my husband and I found ourselves struggling with some issues we just couldn't seem to work out together. We didn't seem to have a problem communicating; we both are very articulate people. We seemed to have an issue hearing each other. We had a problem listening. I am fortunate to have a partner who didn't have an issue seeking help from a professional. After a few months of counseling, the third party perspective got us back on track.
My husband and I are not unique, either in our relationship struggles or in benefiting from counseling. A friend of mine who had been married to an officer for almost 20 years told me they had sought assistance three different times. Seeking counseling probably made the difference between being happily married and joining the sad statistics of law enforcement divorces.
Often couples seek counseling when their problems have mounted to the explosion point. Anytime you are in a relationship, you should keep in mind that counseling is not just to patch holes. Most couples can benefit from professional advice prior to and during their marriage. Seeking out pre-marital counseling can assist a couple in working on issues such as communication and addressing needs and wants you may have never thought to discuss. Many pre-marital counselors have questionnaires each of you fill out and then talk about. As scary as that is, it's better to know before you say, "I do."
Like premarital counseling, couples should be familiar with counseling during their marriage for maintenance. Dr. Lynn Mabe, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in law enforcement, recommends couples make contact with someone as a reference when things are going well. By doing so, if a problem crops up, the couple already has someone they trust. Also by having a few sessions while things are going well can assist in keeping lines of communication between the spouses open and helps each see the other's side of things. But, even when things get bad, there can be hope with the right counselor.
Law enforcement work is unique. This translates to specialized problems within their relationships. Due to this, an understanding of law enforcement is essential as the most desirable trait in a counselor. "There are parts of what they do that the police try to shut out and shut down," Mabe says. "Counseling opens everyone's eyes to different things." Understanding how many officers internalize their occupation can assist a counselor in creating a program which allows the couple to learn to communicate more effectively with each other. Some law enforcement couples are comfortable discussing every aspect of their job from the dirtiest, most dangerous call, while others prefer to leave work at work. The important thing is that each person has the same understanding so neither feels left out of the other's life.
The second thing a counselor can do for couples is normalize the law enforcement experience for both parties. "Coming to a dual understanding of each other's perspective and by merging the civilian and the sworn world can benefit," Mabe explains. With an understanding of law enforcement, the counselor can help the couple understand the unique emotional responses, such as hypervigilance.
When a law enforcement couple seeks a counselor, many options are available. Different types of counseling exist, including traditional face-to-face, telephone and on-line. Whichever type a couple chooses, there are several steps to finding a counselor each person is comfortable with. Some people believe counseling might actually hurt the marriage. When asked if it can, Mabe responds, "Sure, if you go to the wrong person especially in dealing with law enforcement."
Several things should be looked at when seeking a counselor. "The first and foremost, is a connection to first responders," Mabe says. The counselor must understand law enforcement and how the job affects people and relationships. One aspect of this is whether or not the counselor does fit-for-duty evaluations. Most officers do not feel comfortable going to someone who does these for any department. If one party is not comfortable, the counseling will probably fail. "If you're not aware of the fitness for duty issues, if you are just a general counselor, you are not aware of what you write down and the effect of the notes you take with a casual attitude," Mabe says. "A police officer can have much more serious consequences than, say, a computer programmer. You'd be hard pressed to end a computer programmer's career if he came in for counseling."
Other questions to ask reference a counselor are:
- Are they licensed?
- Do they belong to any professional organizations?
- Do they offer a sliding fee?
Unfortunately, the idea of counseling still conjures up images of weakness and unwanted personal exposure to many law enforcement personnel. If your spouse is reluctant to go to counseling, there are some steps you can take to try and ease the fear, including:
- Seek a counselor in a different geographic area. "Find someone who works with law enforcement and someone in another town. Find someone within a 25 minute drive, where they aren't going to run into their buddies," Mabe suggests.
- Try an alternative to department resources. "I would steer clear of department resources, sadly," Mabe states. "Not because they are bad but because the police officer is not going to be comfortable."
- Go to someone who does not do fitness evaluations. "It would be too scary for an officer to walk in and know," Mabe explains. "It doesn't feel good to them."
- Seek someone in a non-traditional way. "I would try and contact someone and see if they would do something online or anonymous," Mabe says.
If your spouse still refuses, hope is not lost. Reading books and journal articles geared towards assisting law enforcement couples can help you understand your spouse and he might also be willing to do the reading and homework included in some resources. Continuing to try and work on your relationship and encouraging your spouse to do likewise can strengthen your marriage even without traditional counseling. By addressing his fears and giving him information on the options, an agreement to seek counseling might be easier to get.
When I get frustrated in my marriage, whether it's related to his uniform or just his gender, I run a quote from the movie, The Mexican, through my head. "If two people love each other, but just can't seem to get it together, when do you get to that point of enough is enough?" The answer - Never.