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Communication in a Law Enforcement Family: Why it's Important Now More Than Ever

“The fifth time was the charm.” He said with a big smile looking at his wife.

Some in the room clapped, others smiled. It was clear they were meant to find each other.

“What was different this time?” Someone asked from the audience.

“I agreed to go to counseling, and I learned how to communicate.” he replied.

A newly promoted police lieutenant, (we’ll call him Lieutenant Bob) and his wife recently shared their story at one of our first responder family workshops. Up until his fifth marriage he said his job always came first. He never talked about what he did at work and his wives and kids suffered because of it.

He explained it this way, “I didn’t want to burden them with the things I saw.”

Many things have changed over the years when it comes to being a law enforcement family. What used to be a supportive spouse at home, making sure the kiddos were cared for and dinner on the table each evening has turned into a family that serves right alongside of their law enforcement partner. Gone are the days when an officer could keep the “really bad calls” from their family, stuffing down emotions with a drink when they got home. Thanks mostly to a twenty-four-hour news cycle and social media, a law enforcement family usually knows the bad calls before our shift ends. Which means when we get home, the worry and concern is in the form of a million questions. Does the law enforcement brain interpret these questions as a nagging inquisition or is your significant other just trying to help?

What law enforcement officers learn to do over the years is to compartmentalize. To break down the bad calls into manageable chunks they can suppress or even stuff down with a few drinks and move along with their evenings. Our law enforcement families have not been trained like we have. They do not understand what it is like to go on call after call without downtime. And when one or multiple of those calls involve violence or death, they do not understand the smells, what we truly see or the ability to tune everything out and operate in a calm and collected manner to get the job done. That ability is probably our best attribute. But being calm and collected, like a robot as some spouses have described, at home, does not work when our family wants to make sure we are okay. They need some of the details, they need to see that they are needed, and we need to learn to lean on them.

“When a spouse wants to help their significant other, they may to subject themselves to the secondary exposure to trauma. The reason for this is because family members influence the quality of family relationships. Spouses endure the challenges that comes with a significant other that works in a highly stressful profession. Behind closed doors, spouses are the ones that see their professional spouse through it all, mental breaks downs, anxiety, distancing and much more.” Secondary Trauma: Spouses and Couples of Law Enforcement

So, what is the solution? How do we break through the wall of protection we created because we believed it would keep our family safe? Lieutenant Bob went to counseling. Lieutenant Bob learned to communicate. “Open communication about the traumatic event exposure and the pressure of the trauma appears to be a very important coping mechanisms for a couple’s relationship. By taking on LE (law enforcement) family or spousal health it illuminates the importance of the supportive role that they play.” Secondary Trauma: Spouses and Couples of Law Enforcement.

We need to realize that our family is our biggest asset. They are our biggest cheerleaders, and they want to be part of what we do. And we simply need to let them in.

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