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Healthy Relationships in Policing


February 29, 2016
By Stephanie Conn

847 words – MR

Healthy relationships in policing

Why do relationships last for some people but not others? The many reasons relationships fail include poor communications, unhealthy role dynamics and failure to maintain connections between partners.

Police factors such as shift work, overtime and operational and organizational stress make it more difficult to maintain a healthy relationship. Statistics relating to divorce vary but there seems to be a higher rate in policing due to the demands inherent in the job. Fortunately, every risk factor informs us of how we can turn it into a protective factor.

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Protective factors are open and regular communications, paying attention to how you and your partner relate and the time and effort you each put into maintaining your relationship. I will talk about each of these, in turn.

I have seen many couples report withholding their feelings, thoughts or interpretations of events only to find themselves resenting the other for not recognizing what they are feeling. This resentment breeds passive-aggressive behaviours like subtle criticisms, which eventually lead to blow ups.

I have also marveled listening to couples reveal that they are each thinking and feeling the same thing but reluctant to speak to the elephant in the room. They could have saved themselves from a lot of misery had they just talked through what they noticed was going on between them.

{Relationship dynamics}

When a couple is engaged in the Distancer-Pursuer dynamic, one partner, the pursuer, is seeking more intimacy, connection or attention with the other and goes to great lengths to obtain this very healthy need – but in an unhealthy manner. This exaggerated pursuit behaviour contributes to the other person’s sense of being overwhelmed or flooded by their partner’s needs, causing him/her to distance from the pursuer. This distancing, in turn, creates more anxiety and hurt in the pursuer, resulting in more aggressive and desperate pursuit. The cycle continues and the couple suffers.

The “Overfunctioner-Underfunctioner” dynamic entails one partner assuming more responsibility for the relationship or family tasks based on the assumption they are more capable than the other. An example of this in the police context might be an officer dealing with a traumatic event at work and assuming their well-meaning partner is too fragile to deal with the demands of home, so she (or he) assumes all the responsibilities in the family. This kind and loving gesture might inadvertently create a dynamic where the overfunctioner carries too much of the load and eventually resents the underfunctioner.

The underfunctioner comes to believe he/she isn’t able to function because they haven’t had to and might come to resent the very person who seems to demonstrate capabilities they lack. A relationship that was once based on two people as equals now becomes more like a parent-child or savior-victim dynamic. A healthy relationship cannot exist with these unequal dynamics.

{Connection}

Another very common difficulty in relationships is lack of connection between partners. This can occur for a number of reasons but mostly happens when other demands on time or energy put our relationship with our partner dead last. For instance, we can become consumed with work, responding to work emails and calls outside of work hours, taking call out when it’s neither mandatory nor financially necessary (oftentimes referred to as “golden handcuffs”).

Another common occurrence is prioritizing parenting over the marriage. Kids, especially young ones, rely on parents for their needs but that does not justify neglecting the marital relationship. In fact, maintaining its health contributes greatly to children because they see you modeling a healthy relationship. They see the fondness and affection you display and it becomes the example for their future relationships.

Conversely, seeing their mother ignoring their father (and herself) to attend to them indicates that, when they are older, they should ignore their own needs in service of others. I don’t think this is the message intended by parents who focus on their children to the detriment of their marriage. Similarly, parents who are overcommitted to work model this behaviour to their kids, which will not be helpful when they are older and trying to navigate the work/relationship balance.

Changing these behaviours is not easy and requires deliberate efforts to revitalize the connection between you and your partner. Schedule “adult time” to relate as a couple – and this doesn’t mean going out to dinner and discussing parental matters such as little Johnny’s grades or work. Talk about your interests as adults and as a couple.

Not only do you have to attend to the quality of your interactions as a couple, you also have to consider the frequency of your adult time. It can’t be something that you do once a month, time permitting. It needs to be something you commit to daily, even if it’s just something simple like having a cup of coffee together when the kids are in bed.

Having a healthy relationship as a police officer might seem like a pipe dream but it is possible. Think of relationship health as you would officer safety: It requires daily commitment as if your relationship depends on it.