The topsy-turvy lifestyle of law enforcement officers can place unusual stresses on families and spouses. Police wives must often assume the roles of their absentee mate, rearrange agendas to fit offbeat duty schedules, or simply learn to function independently. Job commitments and pressures sometimes foster breakdowns in communication between spouses, often locking police wives out of the picture. Faced with these stressed, feelings of isolation and frustration often mount and set the stage for marital discord as police wives live the lifestyle of "married singles!"
Divorce rates among law enforcement personnel parallel those of other high-stress professions such as doctors and lawyers. Surveys of police officers continually reflect estimates of divorce rates as high as 75%!
"There's no question about it, this is a very difficult lifestyle", says police wife Irene Schreiber whose husband Paul is a detective in the Suffolk County Police Department. Mrs. Schreiber joined the Suffolk County Police Wives Association in 1979 and served as the group's president for three years, gaining insight into the problems that police wives face.
"There are a lot of stressed involved that families of non police officers are not exposed to. But, in general, shifts, overtime and holidays are amount the ones that bother wives the most", she has found. "In out house we refer to the 5-1 shift as the 5-whenever! And, I remember a friend whose husband had been working a lot of overtime. When asked how his wife Charlene was, he replied, 'Charlene who?' When my husband first went on the job, I had to learn quickly how to cope with his hours, or be alone!"
As the world around them functions "normally, " police families often find themselves unable to participate. Invitations must be declined, holidays are postponed, and family's divide when one member must work while the rest of the world plays. Child care, home and social obligations, and recreation may become solo activities for the police spouse, as she attends functions and makes household decisions while her mate sleeps off the effects of a midnight shift. Police wives learn to handle everything from childcare to auto repair�alone.
"When the kids were young I had to be both parents to them," says the wife of a recent retiree. "I even learned to play soccer and pitch a baseball."
"Special occasions are what really bug me," confides another police wife. "I hate sitting down to a Thanksgiving dinner or the kids' birthday parties without him. Sometimes I feel like I'm raising this family alone."
A third wife complains, "there are times when my kids don't get to see their father all week. He's home while they're in school and when they get home he's working a 4-12. By the time he's home again, they're sleeping. And so it goes, the next day and the next. They start to forget what their father looks like!"
Intimacy suffers, too. Warm embraces are replaced with a cold and empty bed when he's working through the night. Interludes traditionally reserved for moonlit eves, shift gears as shifts change and turn his circadian clock upside down.
"This week he's a 'morning man'," She complains, "but, there's just no privacy with the kids around and I really don't have time in the middle of the day. Then, when I'm ready, he's too tired or on his way to work! I know it's difficult for him, but I get lonely too."
The void can go beyond the physical, as well. Emotional distance is often a side effect of the stress he encounters on the job. While dealing with trauma, danger and violence on a daily basis, he must uphold his professional demeanor and stifle feelings of anxiety, anger and frustration, a technique that often trickles into his off-duty personality. Further, in an effort to protect his loved ones from graphic reality, he may shut down certain lines of communication, excluding his spouse from a large and important part of his life.
"After going through a difficult situation at work they may get very quiet and go off into a world of their own," Mrs. Schreiber says. "Or, they become super busy around the house to work off that nervous energy. I guess it's kind of therapy for them, but some wives don't realize that and start to feel left out."
On duty, the police officer, as guardian of the public, commands respect due his powerful position. However, that "hero" image may be hard to tone down when he returns home and is expected to take out the garbage, causing psychological adgita for his spouse. Additionally, overtime and extra-duty demands may monopolize the police officer's time and attention, giving his mate a sense of low priority or abandonment.
"They have to handle everyone else's major problems," mentions Mrs. Schreiber, "then when they come home ours seem so minor. It's hard for them to change from one world to another so quickly. I know they try, but some wives feel like the last one on the totem pole."
Additionally, with an escalating number of females joining the police ranks over the last several years, "some police wives were initially 'uneasy' about the possibility of infidelity on those long night shifts. However, fears of chivalrous behaviors possibly compromising their husbands safety or interfering with the execution of duties took priority over those concerns" recalls Mrs. Schreiber. She is quick to emphasize, also, that the outstanding performance and record of the Suffolk County Policewoman have allayed those anxieties.
Most police wives agree that though benefits are abundant, the stresses are profound. "There are proven coping strategies, however, that help alleviate the feelings of 'single parenthood' for police wives," Mrs. Schreiber says. "If we spend to little time working on our relationships, it takes it's toll," she cautions, "so it's important to keep at it."
- MAKE TIME; MAKE DATES TO BE TOGETHER. You did it before you were married, so just do it again. Reserve special times to be together. It could be exciting. And set aside a 'family day', even once a month, so that the kids can spend quality time with both parents.
- KEEP BUSY WHEN HE'S NOT AVAILABLE. Clubs, school, hobbies, exercise, rap sessions, visits, anything that interests you, can turn empty hours into positive time.
- TURN OFF THE BEDROOM PHONE AND TURN ON THE AIR CONDITIONER. White noise (the soft steady drone of an air conditioner for example) can serve to drown out daytime sounds while he sleeps, making you're job as keeper to the silence easier. Also, uninterrupted sleep makes him a happier mate, a benefit for you.
- HAVE SATURDAY NIGHT ON WEDNESDAY. Invite friends for supper or early evening coffee and cake midweek so you'll have a chance to socialize together.
- KEEP THE LINES OF COMMUNICATION OPEN BUT RESPECT HIS SOLITUDE. Remember that both may be therapy that helps to keep the marriage healthy.
- CELEBRATE SPECIAL OCCASIONS ON ALTERNATE DATES. Make arrangements to coincide with his schedule. Friends and relatives are often quite cooperative and supportive.
- JOIN A SUPPORT GROUP. Sharing concerns and ideas helps reduce feelings of isolation, increases coping skills, and can provide companionship at needed times.