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  • Rachelle Zemlok, PsyD

WHY IS MY HUSBAND SO DISTANT?

If you’re the spouse of a police officer or firefighter you know they go in and out of two different worlds. You hear about work stories and the tragic stories from the news they are responding to. It’s hard to understand the mindset one needs in order to run into such scary and traumatic situations on a regular basis. To be honest, many first responders try their best to keep the worst stories far away from their family to protect them from the harsh realities they are faced with regularly.


A first responder’s emotions cannot outwardly follow the roller coaster of those they are responding to. They need to be the calm ones making decisions, gathering information, following protocols, and deciding what happens next. Then as soon as the call is over, move on to the next one, and repeat until the shift's end. Emotionally engaging in these calls might actually impair their judgement or prevent them from effectively moving on to the next one. Then their shift ends and they come home to all the day to day responsibilities we’re all faced with… laundry, dishes, family schedule, relating to their spouse, bonding with their kids etc etc.


Our first responders go in and out of these two worlds daily. It can be extremely taxing mentally to switch between such vast worlds and it’s unlikely that these two worlds will avoid influencing one another.


In psychology we have a term, “Compartmentalizing,” which can often be viewed as a negative thing, an unconscious defense mechanism used to avoid unwelcome feelings. However, when it comes to surviving a career as a first responder this might be a defense mechanism absolutely necessary for them to master. Using it might actually help them survive by making them more in control of their reactions and feelings on the job and in turn making them better at their job.


Imagine there’s a box inside their head. In it are all their feelings, emotional reactions, love for you and the kids etc. When they get on the job the lid goes on the box. All those feelings can get in the way of decisions and appropriate responses to handle the type of situations they are faced with. Now… over a career, it can become harder to really access those feelings freely because they spend so much time with the box closed on duty. Even more so for those that had a hard time accessing their feelings before they started their career. They might even lose sight over the years as to why it’s important to open the box. Yet they cannot forget to close it because keeping it closed keeps them safe and effective at work.


WHAT DOES THIS LOOK LIKE FOR THE SPOUSE LIVING WITH THEM?

1. First Responders can often show less emotion and reaction to situations we really wish they had a bigger reaction to. You might find the label “emotionally distant” very fitting.


2. We might find them to be pretty matter of fact or even harsh with feedback or when addressing situations. In the extreme it might seem as though they are no longer considering the feelings of others.


3. It can feel like they have gotten so good at turning “on” their work persona it’s hard for them to turn it “off.”


4. We might have a hard time getting them to connect with us while they are at work when it comes to discussions that require more attention such as frustrating topics, challenges with the kids, or re-hashing an argument.


Yes, there can be a balance found where feelings can be shut off at work and turned on at home. However, this takes great work and effort to figure out and expectations should be realistic. Though it is possible, it is not likely that someone that is required to be so unemotional and factual at work is then going to be completely attuned and in-touch with emotions at home. It might be more realistic to expect someone that detaches at work to then find a good way to transition out of that role mentally when arriving home. In addition, that person can learn to use some tools that improve their communication skills which will help their partner feel more understood and connected.


It’s important for both parties to see that emotional detachment AND emotional engagement serve us well in different situations. The trick is knowing when to turn one on and the other off and having supportive communication with each other on this topic. This is absolutely doable and so important to a strong foundation in your first responder marriage! If you feel like you could use some help reaching a better balance, find some professional help (ideally) before it gets to the point of taking a large toll on your relationship and family.


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