Boundary Setting and Healthy Communication in Law Enforcement Relationships
Cops are generally proactive and enthusiastic problem solvers who thrive in chaotic situations, establishing order and fighting evil. Fixing problems is what you do. See a problem, solve it. Find an injustice, balance it out. Keep the peace. Check the welfare. Catch the bad guy, hook said bad guy, knock out your report and send it to the DA to file. (Bad guy might be out of jail before you get your report done, but it’s a mad, mad world.) Then you get in your car to head home to become dad, husband, brother, mom, wife, sister, friend or roommate. It is in those moments, on that drive between work and home, that the proactive enthusiastic problem solver can become a tired, detached and reactive individual who may or may not be able to problem solve his or her own relationships. Doesn’t it seem a bit unfair that we are so good at solving everyone else’s woes, but not our own? If only marriage had an ops plan…
I’m not a cop. Nevertheless, I am on two CNRT teams, I supervise a sworn unit and I see cops in my private practice. I love my job; it brings me purpose and passion. But if I’m being honest, this job has also brought challenges to my marriage. Being in this line of work has changed me and, by proxy, my relationships. You don’t get to hear about infant calls, show up to OIS’s, listen to the whistles of cadaver dog handlers (for hours) and then come out on the other side unchanged. My husband, however, is the same man he was 15 years ago. Do I tell him why I left the house to do a debrief on Christmas Eve? Should I talk about the call? Do I share with him what I know to be the truth living in the shadows of our city and our county or do I let him continue on believing everyone is inherently good and that bad people just come from bad circumstances? And what if he doesn’t want to know? What then?
I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you have had similar thoughts in your own mind about taking work home. Bottom line upfront, there is no right answer. Relationships are fluid — up and down — and talking about work at home may or may not be a good idea depending on the situation. For example, when the Tar Heels lose a game, it’s not the right time for me to sit down and expect my husband to hear me. If you’ve come home after work and you have a quick turnaround before you go back on duty, it may not be the right time to unpack your stuff for safety reasons. But how many nights turn into days that turn into weeks that turn into years? After three years of you coming home as a detached, uninvolved nuclear explosion waiting to happen and telling your wife or husband “I’m fine,” you might still have a wonderful, fulfilling marriage. After 25 years of telling your significant other “I’m fine,” you might not.
Being a cop is likely a large part of who you are. It may or may not be a large part of your relationship. If you’ve made the decision (consciously or not) to not talk about work at home, how are you supposed to be understood and loved? How is your partner supposed to care for you? I’m not suggesting you tactically debrief the SWAT call out, or tell your spouse exactly how much of the wall was covered in brains, but being open and honest are key components to a successful marriage. It takes strength to be able to talk about your stuff with vulnerability. Every secret you keep is a brick wall between you and your spouse. Choose your bricks wisely.
Side note: There are absolutely unequivocally bad spouses and unhealthy relationships where being vulnerable is not a good idea and will backfire. If that’s the situation you find yourself in, consider reaching out to someone you do trust. Also, “reaching out” is not code for “get yourself a Tinder account.”
Do you give your spouse permission to tell you when they think you’re not OK? The job is hard on them too (understatement) and they worry (understatement #2). Maybe they’ve noticed you’ve stopped working out or stopped hanging out with non-cop friends. Maybe they’ve noticed that you leave or change the channel whenever there’s a scene related to sexual abuse or rape. If you shut them down every time they ask a question, make an observation or verbalize a concern, they may stop asking. Not stop caring, but stop asking. I was with some friends of mine, a retired cop and his wife, and this question came up in our conversation: If you could go back in time and meet with your younger self, what would you say? Here is what he said: “Look her in the eye, tell her you love her. Tell her, I’m going to love this job and you have permission to remind me that you are my priority and our relationship is paramount to anything else.” His wife mentioned: “In the beginning of our relationship, I pushed too hard. He wouldn’t talk and I needed him to. It took me a while to understand there is a better and worse time to push.” When he came off duty and started his at-home commute from the beer fridge to the couch, she thought she had done something wrong. She thought she was the problem. In his mind, he was protecting her from the horrors of his day. In her mind, she was failing her husband.
Here’s the deal: Hard conversations are hard. (I should have been a poet.) What would a conversation look like between you and your spouse if you sat down and asked yourselves, “How is this working for us?” One reason (excuse) not to ask that question is fear of the answer. And if the answer is “it’s not working,” there is a responsibility or expectation to change something. I once heard a great quote: “There are two things cops hate, when things change and when things stay the same.” My want for you is to have those conversations early on in your career and relationship and check in with each other from time to time so that you don’t wake up six months from retirement with a “Welcome to Idaho” brochure in one hand and divorce papers in the other.
Here are some conversation starters you might want to think about:
• “It must be hard for you sometimes when I put on the uniform and leave, not knowing what is happening in my day.”
• “When I get off my shift, I need 30 minutes to decompress. It’s not supportive when you ask me how my day was 30 seconds after I walk through the door because I might not be capable of telling you even though I want to.”
• “When you want to know something, and I don’t feel like sharing, how can I communicate that I’m not upset with you and that I am open to talking about it at a later time?”
• “I’ll try to be more mindful of your needs, but I might need your help.”
Setting some ground rules, expectations and boundaries can be helpful. Try it. Let yourself be heard and loved. I know that can be hard. You fight evil. You bring balance to injustice. You see and hear things that are not normal, yet you don’t train for the effect that trauma has on your relationships. Maybe start here: Enlist the help of someone you love and give them permission to call you on your shit. As for me and my husband, I don’t have a crystal ball (I would like one if you know a guy), but I do have the wherewithal to know that this job is changing me and he didn’t sign up for that, at least not initially.
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 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. She is contracted with both 911 At Ease International and Counseling Team International to offer counseling and emergency response services across the state of California. 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.