What is marriage? Webster’s dictionary defines marriage as, the legally or formally recognized union of two people as partners in a personal relationship. Partners, remember that. It also states that marriage is a combination or mixture of two or more elements. For example “a marriage of jazz, pop, blues, and gospel.” This sounds more like a marriage than anything else.
Marriage is a heart pounding, sweaty palms, adrenaline rush of love. Well, most of the time. Statistics show that first responders have a divorce rate significantly higher than the national average, and unfortunately, it keeps growing. Regardless of where the data falls, the reality is marital problems, and divorce are big problems in the fire service, and this stems from a host of reasons. Everything from lack of communication, absenteeism, PTSD, money(or lack thereof), and infidelity all play a part. The list reads like any other. The difference that is becoming more noticeable is why these problems begin in the first place. What makes being married to someone in this field so hard?
For starters, marriage is often a mixture of personalities. Add children into the mix and every situation becomes like a multiple alarm fire. Who’s got command, how are we going to handle it, and what do we do first? If you’re like me, your spouse and children play by a different set of guidelines than you do at the station. Maybe they don’t clean as often, or eat dinner together. Maybe they need 20(or 30) minutes to drink their cup of coffee in the morning, like my wife. You are probably used to a pretty strict routine at your station when it comes to chores and meals. You would never think twice about cleaning up the station for the oncoming crew, so why not do the same at home? It helps that at the station there are lists of check-offs, where as at home that is rarely the case. You are supposed to “know” what your spouse needs to be done, even though you may spend half the month away from home. Station life means something vastly different from home life, or does it? It is the mixture of these two elements that should give firefighters and their spouses a leg up on long term success. Firefighters should be able to manage the chaos of stress, reduced time, and other challenges that are common in all relationships, but are intensified with the demands of our job. And just like CISM, they should be able to talk to someone if they can’t.
Firefighters deal with stressors in every aspect of the job. The hours are usually long, and frequently consist of more than one job. As crazy as it may seem, their side job is usually another fire department. There is a reason people say “for the love of the job”. Firefighters miss birthdays, holidays, and other family events. In most cases, first responders of all fields spend as much time, or more with second “family”, than with their actual family. Their relationships at work, with their fire brothers and sisters, are forged through these shared experiences. Experiences made through blood, sweat, tears, and laughter. All the same aspects a marriage should be built upon.
Firefighters, when on shift, are a hero for another soul, listening to their complaints, offering solutions to their problems, being a friend and comfort to those in need, but what about the need of our own spouse and family? Why is it that there is no “training” for how to deal with these challenges at home? Why does it seem that our fire family complain to each other about something going on at home, and more often we hear the running joke of “you must be married to my spouse”, and not how can we help?
First responders need to take a step back and look at how hard any marriage is. Then, take into account all of the aspects that make our job unique, and ask “How can I make this work? Can my spouse handle this? If so, how?”. Triage your marriage to find out where there is weakness and fix what you can before the problems ruin your relationship. Give your relationship a rapid Head-to-Toe.
Start at the head: Are you still in this? Do you still want to be married? What about your spouse? Are you willing to put in the work?
Eyes: Are your visions still the same? So you see yourself together in 1 month, 1 year, 1 decade?
Mouth: How and when do you communicate with each other? Are you making it a priority? How can you improve on it? Are you speaking out of love or anger?
Heart: Do you still have love for each other? Are you willing to do whatever it takes to make thi work?
Arms: Do they still hold your pose? Do you still lovingly embrace each other?
Legs: Do you still “run” home? Do you still long to come home after work or do you dread walking in the door?
These are the questions you should be asking yourself. Then there should be along hard look in the mirror to determine if you are doing all that you can to improve this relationship and to improve on yourself. How much time is being centered on togetherness and how much is being centered on yourself? Are you being proactive to stay healthy both physically and emotionally? These are just starting places, and knowing you want to make a change is the first step toward a happier and healthier relationship.
Solutions for marriage are never a “cure all”. Nothings works for every marriage. For first responders though, it seems to be that, you need to treat your spouse like you would a patient. Work as hard at your relationship as you would any call, as hard as you have to become great at your job. Stop treating them like they are part of the job. You all know what I mean, have you ever been told “stop treating me like one of the guys?” Think of it this way, if you can’t answer yes to “would I say this to the next patient I encounter?”, then why would you say it to your spouse? Triage your marriage. Look at incidents you have had at home, honey do lists, what you do or don’t do for your spouse and your children, and yourself, then determine a priority level. What needs to be addressed now, to hold it together, or make it stable enough so that long term care can effect a positive change? Use CABC’s, communication, affection, being present, and care. Talk, and talk often, listen, give affection to your spouse and children, be active in their lives, and care for yourself. Decompress when it is needed but don’t become distant. Your family needs you and depends on you. Just like the next critical patient. Love fully and every second you can, because with this job, we are all too aware that, every second may our last.