Who are you gonna call? Not Ghostbusters. The first to respond are police, firefighters, dispatchers, and emergency medical service providers when people need help. These first responders deal with crises and emergencies on a daily basis. Often, they are not called on someone’s best day. Instead, they are usually called on someone’s worst day. This can cause a lot of worry and stress not only for them but for their loved ones as well.
Impact of the job on First Responders
Oftentimes as therapists, we see the negative impacts of the nature of the job on first responders and their families. Unique challenges therapists see are:
- Chronic stress
- Erratic/deprived sleep
- Caffeine overuse
- Chronic or complex PTSD
- Binge eating/drinking
- Social anxiety
- Sex, porn, or gambling addiction
- Chronic pain
- And suicidal ideation
These negative impacts of the job can bring challenges to relationships, such as outbursts of anger, unhealthy sleep and/or eating patterns, withdrawal from relationships, and feelings of no one understanding what they go through. These common issues can cause ineffective communication in a relationship, abuse, and divorce.
First Responder Relationship Challenges
Many traits are most admired and loved about a first responder. They are protectors, helpers, fixers, high energy, and passionate. But, these can also be the traits that can bring challenges to a relationship with a first responder.
Oftentimes families or loved ones can feel that the “job comes first.” This can stem from the demands of the job. For example, scheduling and missing holidays or big events can bring up feelings of resentment or anger. This can also stem from a lack of time spent with each other due to scheduling conflicts.
More Relationship Challenges
Many first responders tend to “stick with their own.” This means they turn to their coworkers when dealing with issues instead of turning to their family or significant other. As a result, this can lead to their loved ones feeling “left out” or alone and eventually to a lack of intimacy with their partner. Similarly, first responders learn quickly that compartmentalizing emotions is very helpful in their job. This learned behavior can also happen with loved ones. Thus, causing them to distance themselves on an emotional level from the ones they love.
By nature, first responders are problem solvers. Being a constant problem solver can lead to an increase in stress during the off-duty time and within their relationship. The best way to support a relationship is to express when you want empathy or listen to what is being expressed. This helps each person in the relationship to feel heard and understood, instead of solving a problem and giving feedback.
What can a spouse or partner do to support their first responder loved one?
The best thing a spouse or partner can do is let them know you are there to listen to them, not solve their problem. You are there to listen and gain an understanding of their experience. This provides a supportive space for them. So, be gentle with questioning. Attempt to convey interest and support for your first responder’s thoughts and reactions.
As a loved one, details are not necessary, supporting them in their emotions is priceless. Creating a plan with your loved one to cope ahead with any challenges that may occur can be helpful. This can be a discussion around:
- Consistent self-care
- How a loved one can point out noticeable differences in behavior that will be well received
- Time spent together outside of work
- And exploring types of support that can be called upon for both first responder and loved ones
How to best support yourself as the loved one of a first responder
As a loved one of a first responder, it is important to have your own support system. This can be in the form of family, friends, spirituality, and/or a therapist. Experience and time changes us over the years. As partners or family members, it is important to stay curious, ask questions, and continue discussions with your loved ones. Recognize changes within your own emotions and thoughts. Look for patterns that change due to stress, anxiety, or depression. Make time with your partner for the two of you to reconnect and maintain intimacy. Enjoy healthy leisure activities. Or, stay engaged in activities and with others. It is an important piece of mental well-being.