A Love Letter to the First Responder Spouse
Dear Mrs. First Responder,
So, what’s it like being married to SuperMan?
Everywhere you go people are thanking him for his service. He gets discounts at Home Depot, is the star of every Career Day, and even gets applauded at the Florida Panthers game.
You pack the lunches, check the homework, and kiss the boo boos but they draw pictures of him. And what happens when the cape comes off? Underneath it all, he is human; flesh and blood just like the rest of us. But with the combined pressure of the expectations placed upon him coupled with the trauma he is exposed to, he’s exhausted, irritable, detached, maybe even depressed.
As the plight of the first responder comes into the spotlight with a much-deserved emphasis on mental health and well-being, who is checking on Lois Lane?
As unique as the role of the first responder is, so is that of their spouse. Marriage is never easy, but being married to a police officer, fire fighter, or other emergency worker comes with its own unique set of challenges. As a partner, you always want to feel that you are number one, the top priority and most important person in your mate’s life.
Well, as every first responder spouse knows, the job will always come first. Even though the pursuit is noble and you are well aware it is out of their control, that knowledge doesn’t make reality any easier to digest. It takes a tremendous amount of humility and self-sacrifice to serve this role, which unfortunately, does not come with the same fanfare and accolades showered upon the one in uniform.
In addition to the fact that your needs will not take precedence over the call of duty, another common struggle that faces the first responder spouse is the experience of feeling like a single parent. You often sleep alone, attend parent/teacher conferences solo, and run the household routine from wake-up to bedtime all by yourself.
You got into this together, but nothing could have prepared you for being in the household trenches all by yourself.
The holidays present a whole other conundrum. Have you ever had to pretend that Christmas was on a different day, or bring an entire Thanksgiving feast to the firehouse? And Valentines Day or your birthday… are they even on the calendar anymore? Though the shift schedule does come with perks, holidays are another thing that most families take for granted but fall by the wayside in a first responder home.
However, anyone living the first responder lifestyle knows what the biggest struggle is: having no choice but to stand by helplessly as you watch what the work does to them. Seeing your starry eyed probie ready to change the world slowly morph into a cynical, negative, hater of humanity. This is of course, a generalization and doesn’t apply to all. But any first responder spouse will tell you that they have witnessed this painful chipping away at the spirit in their circle of friends to some degree, if not in their own household.
The biological process that occurs in the first responder’s body often has them feeling energized, enthusiastic, and social at work. Then as the body desperately seeks a return to homeostasis, when they arrive home, they are the exact opposite: lethargic, despondent, and disconnected.
Because the first responder often attributes this dip in mood to their environment, they can mistakenly blame their marriage, family, or home environment for their depression. The secondary effect of this can be escapist behavior like excessive scrolling, drinking, overspending, recklessness, even infidelity or domestic violence. Because the first responder mentality still assumes a tremendous stigma with seeking out mental health care, these habits go unchecked leaving the spouse powerlessly watching as their beloved mate slips further and further away from them.
Despite this we fight tirelessly to get our partner back. Remind them of the beauty in the world or that they are surrounded by limitless love and support. It is here though, that you must remember… the only person you can control in this life is you. It is one thing to support, and another thing entirely to sacrifice yourself.
In fact, one of the best gifts that we can give our first responder spouse is to take good care of ourselves.
Leaving us behind with the knowledge that we are in a good headspace and able to function effectively without them, allows them to put their focus where it really needs to be, fulfilling their sworn duty and staying alive.
So how can we acknowledge the tremendous demand that is on our partner while also putting ourselves first?
Seek support in the community of other first responder spouses. Just as police, firefighters and other emergency workers feel most comfortable with people who “get them,” so may you. No one can appreciate the life of a cop or fire wife like another cop or fire wife. Share your struggle and allow others to share theirs as you validate and affirm one another. Be cautious not to slip into a pattern of ruminating or spouse-bashing though as this can be counterproductive. But certainly, consider seeking solace on the shoulder of another sister-in-arms.
Though first responder spouses can be an important support system, also make sure to maintain friendships and interests outside of this group as well. Balance is the key to life and cultivating and maintaining connections with people who have other occupations and lifestyles will help you manage your perspective and remind you that there is a whole other reality beyond the narrow lens of the first responder world.
Educate yourself! Look for information on the science behind first responder work which will help you understand the psychological and biological processes at play in your partner. Two excellent books on this very subject matter are “Hold the Line: The Essential Guide to Protecting Your Law Enforcement Relationship” by Cyndi Doyle and “I Love a Firefighter: What the Family Needs to Know” by Ellen Kirschman. This may not excuse everything you are experiencing, but it sure will explain it and that can go a long way in helping you to not take things personally and carry their trauma with you.
Prioritize your own physical and mental health. When the shift work is erratic and your mate’s needs are so important, it can be easy to allow your self-care to fall by the wayside. Remember, taking care of yourself is taking care of your relationship. Carve out time to exercise, socialize, explore your interests… without guilt. Just because their job is incredibly noble and in high demand, does not mean your life is any less valuable.
Get therapy! Navigating the complexity of a first responder lifestyle can take a level of expertise not available in your friends or loved ones. Working with someone who specializes in this area can help to build insight and awareness into the dynamics at play in your mate, your household, and yourself. Learning coping strategies and how to provide support without being pulled under can equip you with the tactics and tools necessary to maintain a healthy relationship amidst often very unhealthy circumstances. This can be individual therapy to work on yourself, or couples therapy to work on communication with your first responder spouse, or family therapy for your kids (which is FREE through the First Responder Children's Foundation - apply here).
My name is Sara Speed and not only am I a Certified First Responder Counselor, I am a first responder spouse. My partner is a firefighter and Marine Corps veteran.
We have been together for eighteen years and though I will never assert to have all of the answers, I can tell you that I have been there.
Call me today for a free consultation at 954-391-5305 to see how you can be the superhero of your own life!