If you're reading this, chances are you're a "man in uniform" or a woman who, at one time, found herself attracted to one – so much so that she married him. Hopefully that attraction (as well as your marriage) remains strong today.
If not, you're in good company. First responder marriages, or marriages in which at least one spouse serves as a police officer, firefighter, emergency medical technician (EMT) or related public-servant position, are at high risk for marital disharmony, infidelity and divorce. First responders work long hours, face frequent danger, witness countless traumatizing events and are at a higher risk for mental illness, substance abuse and suicide.
If you've ever found yourself wondering why you're lonelier in a first responder marriage than you were when you were single, this set of articles is for you. Contained within are practical tips, prayer points and glimpses of hope.
There are several substantial plusses to a career in first response. Society will always have a need for firefighters, police officers and EMTs. The pay is regular and the benefits are comprehensive. But for every plus, there's a minus that's much harder to swallow. first responder marriages face the same challenges as civilian marriages, plus an entirely unique set.
You and your spouse can act preemptively by recognizing the stressors unique to first responder marriages. Are any of the stressors below plaguing your marriage? If so, pray together and brainstorm solutions. If not, ask yourselves how you would deal with these problems if they were to arise in the future.
In February 2008, Sovereign Grace Ministries founder C.J. Mahaney blogged about a surprising example of Biblical manhood as displayed at an ice hockey game. His entry centered around a statement made by Russian Alexander Ovechkin, left winger for the Washington Capitals: "Today was special day. I broke my nose; I have stitches; I score four goals." Ovechkin displays the kind of boyish fervor we so desire (albeit reluctantly) for our sons, yet find tough to cope with when displayed by our husbands.
It's a syllogism common to the marriages of many first responders: She loves him. He loves the thrill of "battle" – be it running into a burning building, pursuing a wanted criminal in a high-speed chase or entering a hostage situation to provide first-aid to a man about to bleed out.
The conclusion of the syllogism likely depends upon your gender.
His conclusion? Therefore, I love both, and rightly so.
And hers? Therefore, he doesn't love me.
Such misunderstandings plague far too many first responder marriages, says psychologist and author John Trent, founder of The Center for Strong Families. To him, the following Winston Churchill quote clarifies a lot: "There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result."
"Battle, or the potential for battle, really trumps most of real life from an adrenaline standpoint," Trent says. "God wired men to respond to challenge. The adrenaline produced by those challenges can become addictive to the point where all focus goes into occupational challenges presented instead of relationships."
Most men have a natural bent towards challenge; most women have a natural bent towards relationships. According to Trent, while many women affirm their womanhood through marriage and childbearing, many men look to affirm their manhood through experiencing and surviving dangerous situations.
What is the key to building stronger marriages despite God-given differences and life-threatening situations? It lies in a shared walk with the Lord and frequent reconnecting, says Trent.
"Everybody's great at courtship because we see it in movies, but so many of us don't see the continuation of a great relationship lived out," he says. "Men need to be challenged to work on their relationships. If they don't, all women will see is their warrior picking up his sword and walking away to battle."
All relationships take work, but your first responder marriage may make the Jones' look like a coffee-fetching "internship." Judging by their house, Mr. Jones is paid lavishly for doing a whole lot of nothing at his corner office. He's always home by dinner, always home on the weekends and never misses a birthday, anniversary or holiday. The seeming ease of their marriage makes the challenging aspects of yours all the more frustrating.
Below are some tips for easing the sometimes rocky road of a first responder marriage.
When Ben Woody decided to become a firefighter, he and his wife Pam had been married for 10 years.
"I didn't really anticipate that the career would be life-changing," Ben says. "We were grateful to have a long-term plan for employment." He looked forward to helping others through "some of their most painful experiences."
Pam foresaw basic changes to the couple's life together due to shift work and the critical nature of the field, but "there was no way to really understand how a job that dealt with crisis every day would affect my husband and ultimately our home."
Fifteen years later, Ben is a seasoned firefighter and EMT. Some of his most painful and harrowing memories include experiencing a violent city riot and discovering the burned corpse of a 12-year-old girl at the scene of a house fire.
"There was a brokenness that took about a year to get over," says Ben, referring to the house-fire incident. "I withdrew emotionally in order to process and protect all that I was feeling.
"I've dealt with depression. I realize that in running so many calls related to violence, addiction, broken families, pain and the suffering of death, my heart has become hardened to those kind of social issues."
Watching Ben suffer emotionally has been no easy task for Pam.
"As a spouse of a first responder, I've felt the responsibility to help keep Ben grounded and his heart tender at times when it would be easy for him to just shut down and become cynical about people," she says. "I often feel unable to help him wrestle with what he's been through at his job."
In attempts to help him, Pam has sharpened her listening skills. She's also committed herself to "creating a peaceful home environment" so her husband feels "safe and secure" when he's home. She does her best to let him decompress when he returns from a shift, and she attempts to stay involved with the families of his crew members.
The couple's greatest lesson? Ben and Pam have learned the depth of God's provision, protection and providence, as well as the power of prayer.
"Marriages have tough times regardless of a spouse's career choice," Pam says. "After 25 years together (15 years in the fire department) and exposure to national fears like 9/11, Ben and I continue to learn about trusting God with our lives and our family due to the threats that surround us both on local and national levels."
Ben's advice to first responders?
"Find people on your shift or crew that have the same family values so you can encourage each other," he says.