Relationships are hard in first responder life, but first responder marriage is on another level. The national divorce rate is around 50%, but around 60-75% of first responder marriages end in divorce.
No one goes into a relationship with intentions to hurt or be hurt. You want love, support, and companionship, but you’re a first responder (or your spouse is), so it’s not that easy. Several factors contribute to marital stress yet there are many ways to support your marriage. We’ll break some of them down here.
Want to fortify your marriage with the power to survive the storm? Let’s get to it.
The Breakdown in First Responder Marriage
In marriage, you want to grow old with your spouse. You plan dates, meals, and celebrations together. You share family and make memories of doing activities together and maybe even travel. This is ideal to many but far more difficult to those in first responder marriage.
For first responders, it’s hard enough to spend a meal together much less go on vacation or even attend family functions. Less time together leads to a disjointed relationship, less communication, and possibly fewer fond memories. The hours alone are stressful, then add the stress of the job. Meanwhile, your spouse is left dealing with household and family obligations without you. That’s stressful too.
If this part of the marriage isn’t figured out or addressed from the start, things can start to break down quickly. With less time for communication and less time together, the time you do have becomes crucial. You need to capitalize on that or risk losing what you have for a marriage. It’s difficult for sure, but it is possible if both of you are committed.
Tips to Build Up a First Responder Marriage
There are so many ways to build up a first responder marriage, but all involve commitment and communication, so we’ll talk about that first.
Remember learning to ride your bike as a kid? It didn’t happen without a few scrapes. You had to get back up and try again, figuring out where you lost your balance and adjusting your technique until it worked.
You had to be committed and you need that commitment in marriage. Both people declare a vow, a commitment to one another. They make a promise to see each other through thick and thin.
When things get hard, and in first responder marriages they will, you need to remember that commitment. You both need to realize this is the “hard” you signed up for, and decide how to deal with it.
Commitment doesn’t have to mean you’re in it alone. If you need outside help, get it. Commitment simply means not giving up. Something brought you together before your vows. What can you do to bring that back or at least see through whatever troubles you’re going through now?
Communication is vital to first responder marriage as in the job itself. You need to communicate when you’ll be home. You need to communicate when you need to be alone. And most importantly, you need to communicate when you’re not okay. Maybe you just need to vent or maybe you need to seek assistance. Whichever it is, communicate what’s going on.
If you think telling your spouse you’re trouble will cause a burden, remember that not telling causes more of a burden. Your spouse will bear the burden whether you say what it is or not. Communicate that trouble so you can face it together. This doesn’t mean you need to get detailed, but you do need to communicate that something is going on.
You’re not dealing with a Monday through Friday day job. First responder life is all over the place. Work out your schedule and how you’ll share it, especially if it’s not routine or changes happen. A shared online calendar is helpful and checking in before picking up overtime is both respectful and helpful. The at-home spouse has other commitments to plan around, so be considerate of your spouse with your schedule as much as possible.
Events can throw a wrench in anyone’s plans. Sick kids or vehicle trouble can mess up a well-thought-out schedule. Always have a contingency plan. Who’s the backup? Neighbors, family, friends? Who calls out when something happens?
Don’t forget to plan time together. You’re not just roomies; you have a marriage to nourish. Find time together and remember why you’re with each other.
The answers vary but have a standing plan for all the likely scenarios and be prepared to pivot. Things come crashing down sometimes, but your resiliency and ability to pivot make all the difference. If you survive the pivot, your marriage comes out stronger.
It’s the little things. A warm greeting, a loving goodbye, a quick text, or an unexpected treat in the lunchbox… Small things show affection and, more importantly, they show support. First responder marriage needs so much support. Know each other well so you can see when the weight of the job is too heavy, when the kids need to play elsewhere, or when you need a distraction. Help each other get ready for work, make the coffee, and pack a lunch. Show you’re waiting on his/her return by shoveling the driveway, having food prepared, or simply being at the door with a warm welcome. Know each other’s needs. Often responders need to decompress when returning home. Have a plan for that and allow those moments to happen. This allows responders to not take as much burden of the job to the family.
Sometimes the biggest need is space. If your spouse needs space (or you do), communicate that. But also have a plan for time alone or out with friends outside of your first responder marriage. Responders bond with other responders and you may need to unwind and vent with things you don’t want to share with your spouse. Respect each other’s boundaries and allow time apart.
It’s hard since first responder marriage already requires time apart. This is different than the job; this is personal time. Allow for space in and around the job and at home. When you are together, it becomes more meaningful, more intentional.
While you plan your lives around supporting one another, realize that you two are not perfect and you may both go through difficulties you can’t navigate alone. Be open to finding support both individually and together to make your first responder marriage as healthy as possible.
You or your spouse may seek coaching or therapy for separate needs. You may find value in marriage counseling or couples coaching. There are resources for first responder marriages or marriage in general where you can draw support and more tips to build a healthy marriage.
Don’t shy away from support. The worst outcome might be a waste of time, but the best could be a saved marriage. Be open to possibilities and try new things. You fell in love and committed to one another, but you could never know the way the road would go. Cut yourself some slack, accept assistance, and see what you can build when you have more support.
Stronger Marriages, Stronger Responders
Stronger first responder marriages make stronger first responders. Your marriage is its own being and it can carry you through difficult times. Feed it, build it up, and support it. It will reward you over time.
First responder marriage is different than any other marriage. You face challenges others don’t understand. With commitment, communication, and the necessary tools, you can build a strong, healthy marriage that lasts through the years.