Communication and Organizational Stress within Police Marriages

                                                                          By:  Kristi G. Wilson


    In an article written by Rochelle Distelheim, called “Police Wife”, Distelheim was interviewing the wife of a police officer who was killed in the line of duty. Erika Clark stated that the “central fact of her marriage was this: Her husband was committed to protecting other people.  At all cost.  He took and oath on it. Another fact: It was understood by everyone that one of the cost could be his life.”  According to the article police wives carry both these facts around in their head.  They don’t accept them in their gut (Distelheim, 1988).  In 2000, 51 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty, which was an increase of 9 from 1999 in which 42 officers were killed (FBI, 2001). 

    A career in law enforcement is both challenging and rewarding, and nobody knows this better than the spouse of a police officer. Cold dinners, canceled appointments, missed birthdays or anniversaries are all part of the world of being married to a law enforcement officer.  It is sometimes stated that the spouses of police officers walk a thin line between “civilian” and “officer”.  Not fully belonging to either group, spouses sometimes find themselves balancing the two.  The topsy-turvy lifestyle of law enforcement officers can place unusual stress on families and spouses.  Police spouses must often assume the roles of their absentee mate, rearrange agendas to fit offbeat duty schedules, or simply learn to function independently.  Spouses need to realize, being a law enforcement officer is more than what is taught at the academy or on the job.  The work has many effects that need to be overcome so as not to affect the officer’s personal life and victimize his/her family (Ryan, 1997).  Facing the fear and worry is just one of the many elements that encompasses a police marriage.    Research points to two main categories which frequently have a greater effect on police marriages: the first being stress due to the lack of communication between spouses, and the second is organizational stress that is placed on the officer.

    The fact is communication is the cornerstone of any marriage. Webster defines communication as: the act or process of communicating, fact of being communicated, the impairing or interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or sign.    There is not a police marriage, or in fact any marriage that at one time or another has not had problems with communication.  This particular category happens for a lot of quite different and rather ordinary reasons. Though not the focus of this research, lack of communication on the officer’s side of the coin is often associated with burnout from the job, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). By burnout, officers get tired of dealing with the same situations and people day in and day out, knowing full well that things are not going to change.  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on the other hand is a much bigger problem.  PTSD, which affects officers who have to confront dangerous and traumatic situations on a regular basis, (Came, 1997) tends to cause the officer to become less communicable with their family, along with becoming emotionally withdrawn and distant from them as well.

    While dealing with trauma, danger and violence on a daily basis, the officer must uphold his/her professional demeanor and stifle feelings of anxiety, anger and frustration, a technique that often trickles into his/her off-duty personality, causing inefficient communication.  A police officer’s exposure to violent crime may have an even more powerful effect on the police family, as family members are most likely to personalize the event and identify with the officer as the victim (Ryan, 1997).  Police officers must deal with pain and suffering constantly, and from the first day at the academy to the first day on the road, officers are told over and over again that they cannot get emotionally involved.   Janik (1995) found that in an attempt to protect their families from the ugliness of the street, police officers are sometimes reluctant to be candid with them, which creates significant barriers to open, trusting and sharing partner.  Further research has found that officers want to protect their spouses from the graphic realities of the job, often by shutting down certain lines of communication, excluding his/her spouse from that part of the officer’s life. But it is not just the officer shutting down their line of communication due to the “ugliness” of the job; research shows it is also due to the negative attitude and criticism from their spouses and family.  Family relations tend to suffer as officers gravitate toward spending more time with fellow officers who do not criticize them (Janik, 1995).   On the opposite side of the coin, spouses and family members work overtime to get the attention of their police officer. Most of the time spouses “feel a barrier going up that he/she can’t bridge, which makes him/her feel helpless, ineffective and alone” (Herrick, 1980).  

    Job commitments and pressures from other officers are also reasons that foster breakdowns in communication between spouses.   Experts say it is the breakdown in communication between police officers and their spouses that cause many marriage breakups. (Came, 1989)  Ryan (1997) points out, in no other profession can you save a life in the line of duty, exchange high fives with your peers, receive media recognition as a hero and then, almost within hours, have the aftermath of the events leave emotional scars on you and your family.  In an article “Taking the Job Home”, the author refers to a police officer’s actions, thoughts and emotions as “dispositions”.  He defined disposition as the patterned responses police officers develop to help themselves function in similar situations (Southworth, 1990).  Southworth (1990) uses the term disposition to explain that the actions that a police officer takes on the street are the same actions he/she displays toward their family.  Southworth (1990) states that occasionally, dispositions developed for a professional life transfer to personal situations in ways that are destructive, and that transferring professional dispositions is a serious problem for police officers, especially since most officers are unaware that it occurs.   The chronic communication conflicts usually occur from either spouses feeling stress and reacting inappropriately in a blind attempt to reducing the emotional pressure.   Elizabeth White & Audrey Honig, authors of “Law Enforcement Families” in Martin I Kurke & Ellen Scrivner, Police Psychology into the Twenty-First Century, stated the conflict comes about if the spouse (this being the husband or wife) feels they can no longer be human.  Many spouses report they feel they cannot bring problems to their law enforcement spouse because they are concerned about further burdening an already overwhelmed peace officer.  Research shows that when communication is performed properly, it reinforces trust, allowing partnerships to keep growing.  Also proper communication acts as a method by which a spouse (this being the police officer) can share problems, frustrations, fears, anxieties, hope and success. 

    Recent research investigating the overlap and interaction between occupational stress and family life has presented compelling evidence, which suggests that excessive involvement of husband and wife in demanding, or stressful occupational roles can have an adverse effect on the family Long & Voges (1987 in Burke, 1979, 1980; Sekaran, 1983; Cooke & Rousseau, 1984).  Organizational Stress is another factor that can have an effect on police marriages.  Although law enforcement officers deal with stressful situations in the normal course of their duties, excessive stress on individual officers may impair their ability to carry out their responsibilities not only at the office, but at home as well.  The impact on individual’s excessive stress on officers means that the law enforcement organization they serve suffers an admonished capacity to serve the public.  Therefore, in order to keep law enforcement organizations operating at optimal levels, administrators must be able to identify the cause of dysfunctional stress on individual officers and take effective action to ameliorate its effect.  But what is actual stress?  Webster defines stress: a specific response by the body to a stimulus, as fear or pain, that disturbs or interferes with the normal physiological equilibrium, physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension. Organizational stress is tolerated to a certain level.  These vary from officer to officer.  One officer’s threshold toward stress will be determined by that officers own internal representation of external events, which are more than likely based on their personality, beliefs, values, and previous law enforcement experiences.   As stated before, police officers experience stress on a daily basis, but it the organizational stress that causes the greatest harm.  All cops work in bureaucracies, and these bureaucracies can create stress that far exceeds the stress they experience in the line of duty (Kirschman, 1998).  Kirschman (1998) also points out it is hard for police officers to properly serve the public when they believe themselves to be poorly supported by their agencies.  Stress is the result of “demands placed on the system”, and need not be harmful unless it is mismanaged or presented in large quantities.  Organizations need to recognize that there is a limit to the responsibilities; pressures and workload officers can be expected to work.   One officer’s inability to deal with stress can also infect other officers resulting in pervasive problems for the entire department (Yachnik, 2000).

    Elements of organizational stress from an agency are things like: lack of training, pay, rotating shifts, equipment, promotions, supervisors, poor communication between officer and supervisor, and officer safety issues.  Spouses share their peace officer spouse’s concerns regarding workload, insufficient equipment, and decreased manpower, because it again raises the issue of officer safety (White, E & Honig, A 1995).  Research has shown that spouses are vicariously affected by organizational stress, discouraged by the impact office politics have on their spouses’ careers, resentful of the degree to which the organization intrudes into their family life, and angry that the organization seems to care so little about what families need in order to thrive (Kirschman, 1998).  So now that there is an understanding of organizational stress and the effects on the police officer and their families, what can the spouses and family members do to alleviate some of the stress?  Kirschman (1998) points out several factors, which should help if organizational stress ever hits home: Listen with empathy. Be proud of being a police family, but don’t over-identify with the police role. Be prepared. Pick your battles carefully (meaning don’t get between the officer and the organization), Join a support group or buddy up with a friend who can be there to support you while you support your cop. Know your legal rights. (civil suits can be costly) Expect strong emotions. Don’t be a willing target – meaning if your officer is displacing frustration or anger at the organization onto you or your family, be clear that this is unacceptable. Other examples that Kirschman (1998) mentions, wait until the dust settles, stay clam, avoid alcohol, and use your resources, meaning call a friend, family member, pastor, ect.  Yacknik (2000) states that, reducing officer stress is a priority for police executives, yet departments often deal with officer stress after it has become a problem, rather than before the problem occurs.

    In conclusion research has shown that police marriages have a high divorce rate, which is mostly caused by the stress associated with police work.  But marital problems and divorce doesn’t happen over night; find out why and where the stress is coming from is the key; most likely it is going to be some small factor that can be resolved if the couple sits down and talks about it. Another factor that will solve many problems is if the spouse that does not work in police work, try and rid themselves of the anger and criticism toward police work.  Unresolved anger will fester and grow until it erupts and spews poison on those closest to you. Spouses need to communicate with each other on a daily basis whether good or bad. 

    Remember, communication is the key to any successful marriage.  Both husbands and wives needs to understand that marriage is the most complex of human relationships and conflicts never develop without the involvement of both spouses.




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   Distelhem, R. (1988, July) Police Wife. Mc Call, pp.51-55

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   Janik, J (1995, January) Who Needs Peer Support. The Police Chief, pp.38-39

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