DR. CHERYLYNN LEE
About two years ago, at Christmastime, he almost lost his marriage. He didn’t know it at the time, but he had reached his limit. He was going through the motions of father, husband, cop and friend but was more like a volcano on the verge of eruption than a fully functioning human. It wasn’t until he broke his daughter’s Christmas tree ornament out of anger (he threw a book at the tree during an argument with his wife, who had let the kids stay up past their bedtime again) that he realized that this — whatever this was — needed to stop, and the only person who could make it stop was him. He had seven years on, was in his second year as a major crimes detective and had been married to his high school sweetheart for 10. They had a 6-year-old daughter and a new son at home, born during the height of COVID. The stress and complexities of the time were compounding. There was the “defund” movement. COVID restrictions. The mandatory overtime. Cases, and more cases. None of it was fair, nor his doing necessarily (minus having the baby), but there was a lot going on he could not control. And you know how that made him feel? Angry.
Anger: the sugar in night shift’s tea. The yin to the yang of not feeling anything at all. The reason we don’t say good morning to that one guy until he’s had his fourth cup of coffee. Anger is both a common and a reasonable emotion in the policing profession, for many reasons. We get frustrated going to that house again, angry we have to pull paper on the other guy’s coroner’s report, irritated at the mentally unhinged caller who’s referencing gang stalking for the eighth time today… If we truly digested and felt the sadness of every TC, every infant death, every 5150, we would probably have a bunch of comatose, drooling, inoperable peace officers (insert joke about the “new generation of officers” here). It is truly a work of art and a skill to be able to push varying emotions down or away during a call for service. At times we have to be more Vulcan than human; it’s our job and an adaptive quality in police work. Over time, however, we get so good at turning other emotions, like sadness, despair and fear, into numbness or anger that it becomes routine, and then we find ourselves angry and numb at home.
Has your spouse asked you lately, “Why are you mad all the time?” or said, “You’ve changed”? Have your kids hid your work phone from you or stopped asking you to play with them? If these things are happening (at the risk of sounding like a shrink), how does it make you feel?
“I Don’t Know Why I’m Crying”
Fast-forward and now the guy, the one with the new baby whose wife has had it, is sitting across from me in my private office because his wife gave him the ultimatum of “Fix your shit or I’m taking half your shit,” and suddenly coming to therapy becomes his lifeline out of divorce. He walks in, shakes my hand, does a quick scan of the office. He sees the blue flag, the challenge coins, the fake tree and shrink-ey artwork and about .0003 seconds after telling me, “I don’t know why I’m here,” he sits down and starts crying. The conversation usually goes something like this…
Him: “I’m sorry, Doc, I don’t know why I’m crying. I told myself I wouldn’t.”
Me: “Don’t be sorry. When was the last time you cried?”
Him: “I don’t remember. I think I shed a tear at my dad’s funeral when I was in the academy.”
Me: “You don’t like to cry?”
Him: “No, of course not.”
Most cops I talk to don’t like to cry, because it’s uncomfortable and they think if they start, they won’t be able to stop. Some haven’t allowed themselves to feel sad for decades — and so, at even the slightest sign of what might be considered a “normal” feeling (sadness related to having to go hands-on with a combative dementia patient, for example), they think they are completely losing their minds. Rather than tap into the sadness, they tap into anger (“If only APS would do their effing job”), or they numb out (“Feelings are for the new-generation soft cops”). Again, this may be an adaptive way to navigate your calls or your workday, but it’s not so adaptive for when your spouse or kids are talking with you.
In a nutshell, one of the great policing paradoxes is this: What helps us survive in the field can be what breaks us at home. There is a lot we can unpack here — why we prefer anger over sadness, why we go numb. But for the rest of this article, I want to focus on just one aspect, the communication between you and your spouse.
Understand, Talk and Prepare
What would have been different if, when you started the academy, you were sat down and told, “When you find yourself mad at your spouse because they ask you what you want for dinner, or you yell at your kids for building a fort before bedtime, don’t fret — we know what this is and what to do about it!” If nothing else, when you broke the Christmas ornament, you could say to yourself, “Oh, I guess that guy was right … where’s his number again?” Another way to look at it is, you would know it’s not your fault, there is precedent for it, you aren’t alone and there is a way out.
For some, the way out is bracing for impact. It may be enough to know that what you are going through internally and in your marriage is not uncommon and doesn’t mean you’re crazy, and you can be coached out of the anger/numbness cycle. Some agencies have spousal support groups, hand out books like Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement in pre-academy or have psychologists proactively present on topics like emotions and how to navigate the hard stuff. Knowing what to expect gives you (and your spouse) a leg up on most situations. You can’t plan and prepare for contingencies if you don’t have a map of the house you’re going to hit. Same thing.
For others, the way out is counseling. Some agencies provide clinical resources for their folks, like one-on-one check-ins with clinicians or free confidential counseling with culturally competent therapists. Some even provide marriage counseling at no cost. The benefit here is that you, by yourself and/or with your spouse, can talk about the why behind the anger. Maybe you don’t have the words to explain it, but a good therapist can help broker the right conversation in the right way. Oftentimes, spouses are left thinking they are the reason you are upset and might end up asking, “Why are you mad at me?” (The only thing that makes me angrier than that is when my husband tells me to relax. I digress…) It becomes another question to answer, and puts us on notice that we’re about to be involved in an argument. The problem doesn’t get addressed.
And finally, there is the good old separate your “work you” from your “you you.” Easier said than done, easier if you’re not on call, but worth the effort regardless. I grew up in a law enforcement family and remember how, when my mom got home from work, the first thing she would say was “I need to go change into my mom clothes.” Much like a superhero, her outfit dictated her persona. How do you detach from work? What do you do that helps separate work from home? Having some structure and routine to the transition from cop to parent or spouse can go a long, long way — especially if you enlist the support of your spouse. Some days, that transition may not be easy, or even plausible. If you and your spouse have a game plan for when that happens, at least you avoid the “Why are you mad at me?” question.
Progress, Not Perfection
Look, the idea here is not to be perfect. Striving for perfection is not so different from setting yourself up for failure. If you could work toward understanding where your anger comes from and apologizing for when you don’t catch it until after the lava is flowing, that’s 100% better than feeling like you don’t know why you’ve changed or how you are going survive the career with your marriage intact.
About two and a half years ago, he saved his marriage. His wife cared enough about him to tell him he was screwing it up and he must go fix it. He cared enough about her to listen. After about six months of biweekly therapy, the conversation pivoted to this….
Him: “Hey, Doc, sorry for yawning, I’m a bit tired today.”
Me: “You work last night?”
Him: “Nope, the kids and I built a fort last night and stayed up way later than we should have. My wife helped, too. ”
Me: “You know what, I’m thinking our time working together might be coming to an end. How would you know if you were ready to stop coming in here?”
Him: “Huh, I guess I haven’t thought about it….”
It’s OK not to be OK. It’s not OK to stay that way.
About the Author
Dr. Cherylynn Lee is a police psychologist and works full-time for the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office as the Behavioral Sciences manager, overseeing the mental health co-response teams, CIT training and Wellness Unit, including Peer Support. As part of her duties, Dr. Lee is a member of the county’s threat management team and serves on the crisis negotiation response teams for both the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office and the Santa Barbara Police Department. Dr. Lee is the clinical operations director for First Responder Wellness, The Counseling Team International, for the Tri-Counties area. She has a private practice in the Santa Ynez Valley where she sees first responders exclusively, specializing in trauma, post-traumatic stress, mindfulness and job performance improvement. Dr. Lee has led many critical incident stress debriefings for OIS, LODD, natural disasters and as requested by both local and state fire and law agencies. Dr. Lee is also a subject-matter expert with CA POST on both officer and dispatcher wellness and has participated in several training videos and initiatives aimed at supporting and encouraging wellness for departments and their personnel. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.