Among the well wishes that you will undoubtedly receive as a newlywed couple, friends and family are bound to ask you questions about your future life together. Where will you live? Will you have children? When? How many? What are your occupations? Upon learning that your spouse is a firefighter, you’re bound to feel a sense of pride when you receive accolades about your spouse having a career that is inherently chivalrous.
Firefighting is an important and necessary job. The U.S. Fire Administration reports that fires, cause of death or injuries from fire, and property loss due to fire are trending downwards since 2004. That is in large part to the training and commitment of firefighters and their mission to saving lives and protecting property.
The firefighting commitment doesn’t come without serious casualties to the heroes that are clad in fire-retardant gear. Firefighters are prone to stress-related disorders, addictions, physical injuries, and death. It takes a strong and sympathetic spouse to hold down the fort at home, support the partner, and work towards maintaining a strong marriage.
As a firefighter spouse, you’ll need to think about the effects of stress on your partner on a short-term and long-term basis. Stress causes a disruption in a physical, emotional, and cognitive sense. The body reacts to the disruption by stimulating many of the systems that our bodies need to function including the the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. Everyone has a bad day once in awhile and their behavior will reflect that. However, it’s important to be cognizant that firefighters are on the frontlines of making life and death decisions and facing tragedy up close. After intense fire calls, their bodies don’t normalize immediately once the danger is over.
You have a more intimate relationship with your spouse than anyone else, so you’ll need to be acutely aware of any changes in personality and behavior.
While firefighters certainly experience the short-term effects of stress, the long-term effects of stress are also building up. Your spouse may not remember the names or faces of the people at an emergency scene, but you should be aware that a firefighter’s body remembers it well. A sight, a sound, a smell, a taste, or a touch can trigger a past time of severe stress, which gets compounded by stress from a more recent call. When many years of stressors build, the stress is multiplied many times over and incubates in the firefighter’s body.
As the spouse of a firefighter, you need to be aware that firefighters have a disproportionate percentage of alcoholism and addiction problems as compared with other occupations. In the study “Sleep Problems, Depression, Substance Use, Social Bonding, and Qual...,” 80% of firefighters admitted having 1-2 drinks a day and 56% percent binge drank as a means for coping with job-related stress. This isn’t to say that every firefighter will become an alcoholic, but the numbers are strong enough to suggest that firefighter spouses should be aware of alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism for dealing with stress.
With every emergency call, firefighters on the front lines are exposed to danger and trauma. As their bodily systems automatically kick into gear to deal with fight, flight, or flee situations, expect to see changes in the ways they react that are very different than their normal ways of responding to other events. Here’s what to look for:
Emotional and Physiological
Traumatic experiences take a serious toll on your firefighter’s emotions. It’s important to recognize that normal daily activities can trigger intense emotional reactions. Look for increased anxiety or a heightened or unreasonable fear of death. You may also notice mood changes like irritability, overexcitability, sadness, or tears. Some firefighters feel numb and detached.
Take note of chronic physical changes like recurring headaches, migraines, stomach upset, and fatigue. Exposure to trauma on a regular basis can cause hypervigilance disorder where the firefighter feels a sense of being constantly on alert.
Firefighters have higher than normal rates of cancer because of exposure to toxins.
Watch for signs of changes in activity level, either too much or too little activity. Take note if your spouse becomes socially isolated or withdrawn. Insomnia and sadness upon waking are common signs of sleep disturbance caused by trauma.
Also be aware that many firefighters relax at a local bar after difficult calls to de-escalate their emotions. This practice sometimes leads to alcoholism or addiction.
Anxiety causes some firefighters to feel confused or distracted and have difficulty concentrating. Making decisions about every day activities may feel overwhelming. It’s not uncommon for firefighters to dwell on thoughts of death or people who have died.
Marriages where one spouse is a firefighter have the highest rates of divorce in the nation, which is second only to military spouses. In fact, firefighters are three times more likely to divorce as compared with the general population. Both spouses need to work together to set reasonable expectations and keep their marriage strong.
In addition to the exposure to trauma, the firefighting spouse typically struggles with striking a good balance between work and family. Having to work swing shifts or double shifts makes that all the more difficult. While the firefighter feels the need to relax and destress on days off, it’s important not to neglect duties and responsibilities that come with being a spouse or parent. At times, the firefighter’s spouse will need to adjust to the emotional needs of his or her spouse. Firefighters need to communicate their needs and feelings to their spouse, but also be aware of when their spouses are feeling overwhelmed by taking on too much of the burden for the home and family.
Prepare for Risks in a Practical Manner
In a practical sense, your firefighter is serving on the front lines as a first responder. The possibility of death is a reality. This is often a difficult discussion to have, but it’s important to have your last will and testament drawn up and keep your financial matters in order.
Firefighters can undo some of the damage that stress causes by taking good care of their mental and physical health. Encourage your spouse to get regular exercise, drink plenty of water, and socialize responsibly. Consider a physical activity that you can both enjoy doing together.
Be aware of the exposure to on-the-job toxins and encourage your firefighter spouse to wear protective gear to limit the exposure to harmful chemicals. Support and encourage your spouse to get regular testing for cancer.
If alcoholism or drug addiction becomes a problem, encourage your spouse to seek professional therapeutic treatment and be supportive.
Take Stock of Your Needs Too
It’s easy to focus your full attention on your spouse’s stressful occupation. Don’t let that overshadow your own needs. It goes without saying that you need to take care of your physical health, but be aware of any changes in your moods or behavior. If things get tough, consider seeing a therapist of joining a support group.
Become part of the firefighting family. Join in on public and private events. Because of the uniqueness of the profession, other firefighter families need support too and they will the most likely people to understand the stress and pressure that you are under. On holidays, join with other firefighter families in taking a meal down to the station for the firefighters on duty. In sharing experiences with others who live as you do, you will all feel supported.
Final Thoughts for Firefighter Spouses
If you are reading this, congratulations! You’ve already taken the first step towards building a healthy marriage and becoming a supportive firefighter spouse. Learn all that you can about the stressors that firefighters face and how to help them manage them in the healthiest way possible. Take care of your health and encourage your spouse to do the same. Don’t try to take on all the burden for both of you. Share it and communicate about it openly. Lastly, be willing to accept support from other firefighting families and your community.
Firefighter Family Support: http://firefighterwife.com
MARK W LAMPLUGH JR
Mark Lamplugh is a fourth-generation firefighter and former captain with the Lower Chichester (PA) Fire Company. He is the Chief Executive Officer with 360 Wellness Inc.(www.360wellness.org) Lamplugh is also nationally recognized in Crisis Stress Intervention through the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. He has helped hundreds of firefighters, police officers, veterans, EMS personnel, and civilians nationwide find help for addiction, alcoholism, PTSD, and mental health support. He can be reached for comment at email@example.com.