Rachelle Zemlok, PsyD
CAN I VOICE CONCERNS AND STILL BE SUPPORTIVE?
As the spouse of a police officer or firefighter we have to constantly be prepared to adapt our lives for the job whether we want to or not. Did they take on a new assignment or get handed one that takes more time, did they promote, is there just all of a sudden more work (fire season, low staffing at the department, a case that has become an immediate priority)? For all of these reasons and so many more we have to adapt our plans, our schedules, we might also be left with helping the kids adjust to the change. Sometimes it feels like there’s no room in there for our own feelings and reactions. Sometimes it might feel like being “supportive” to their career means you need to just adapt and move on. I want you to know that YOUR FEELINGS ARE IMPORTANT!
Actually, Our negative feelings can build up and come out “sideways” if we aren’t aware of them and acknowledge them. Yes, there is a way to communicate your concerns and also be supportive to your first responder’s career and goals. Here's how…
TAKE A MOMENT TO REFLECT. If we miss this step we might be reactive in the moment and say some things we might want to take back later. In general, that’s not helpful for us or our relationships. Instead, if you find yourself having a negative reaction… In the moment try to ONLY gather information. Reassure yourself there will be time for your feelings later. When you have a free moment to yourself. Try and consider the situation free of distractions and consider what’s going on for you. Most of us are usually terrible at this! We might “take time” in front of the TV or social media… Instead try to be intentional and allow yourself 15 or 20 min of quiet to reflect even if you’re doing something else (driving, showering, dishes). Be honest with yourself during that time. Are you frustrated, sad, relieved? Can you identify why? Make sense of your experience enough to be able to communicate it to someone else.
DECIDE WHAT YOU HOPE TO HAPPEN NEXT Do you just want to be heard? Is there a specific change that would improve the situation? For example, maybe managing the kids schedules lately has been really hard and knowing you’ll be on your own more is frustrating to hear. In this case, finding a way to increase help with scheduling and family responsibilities would improve your situation. On the other hand maybe you’re feeling worried about some of the new dangers that might come with a new assignment yet you’re supportive of the change. In that case, maybe there’s nothing to be done except expressing some of those fears to your spouse.
COMMUNICATE THIS TO YOUR SPOUSE. And please give them the tool you’d like them to use. Our spouses cannot read our minds, it’s more effective to give people the answer. First responders are often times fixers, do-ers, and helpers. You might find they immediately want to solve problems in the way they know how to best. So, it can be most helpful starting the conversation by telling them what you would like them to do with the information you’re about to give them. (click here for more tips on communication with a spouse).
IF YOU NEED THEM TO JUST LISTEN: “Hey, I want to just share with you how I’m feeling about the changes. I’m on board and supportive of the change and there’s nothing else I need you to do about it but listen and maybe reassure me things are going to be okay”… then go on to discuss your experience).
IF YOU NEED SOMETHING TO CHANGE: “Hey, I’m on board and supportive with the change coming up because I know this is something important to you. I was considering what challenges it might bring up for me and was hoping together we can think through and come up with some potential ideas on how to make things more manageable around here”... then be direct and specific about what the challenges are.
Communication is always best when we are thoughtful about how we’re coming off, we’re clear on what’s going on, and we know what might help improve it. This applies to anything: talking to a colleague, asking for a raise, addressing a child’s behavior, and especially our relationship. Strong communication skills can lead to a more resilient first responder family so keep working at it! If you feel like you could use some support in communicating your feelings and experience better to your spouse you can also reach out to me or a therapist local to you!