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In his book Fit to be Tied, Sr. Pastor Bill Hybels speaks of a period in his life when he spent so much time in his career that his marriage suffered severely. At that time, Bill had encountered a surge of growth in his church from 15 high school students to a congregation of many thousand, a new building project that had intense complications, and was receiving increased national praise and attention. Bill had begun taking his eyes off his wife and began putting the majority of his attention into building this church, while his wife Lynne was at alone home raising their young family. Lynne would bring to Bill's attention how she felt neglected and was unhappy, but Bill would wonder, "How can my wife want more of my time when she knows I am being called to a greater good?" However, as their marriage continued to struggle and flail, Bill remembered his first vow was to his wife and not to his career and to the church. Bill knew he needed to refocus his attentions back to his wife or he would lose her.
The struggle of Bill and Lynne are similar to that of a police relationship because it is hard to know where your loyalty lies and how to juggle a life's calling that makes a difference in this world, against what may seem to be the mundane of married and domestic life. Although the story of Bill and Lynne Hybels is that of a pastor and his wife, there are certain parallels that can be drawn with the experiences of many law enforcement couples. There is a dedication of time to career over marriage until the marriage begins to suffer, confusion that a spouse does not understand or respect "the calling" and the purpose to serve a greater good, focusing so much energy into career that none is left over for home, and guilt felt by the spouse over competing for attention against something they know is such a large and important part of their LEO spouse's being.
When Mike began to pursue the testing process of becoming a police officer, he was in his late 20s and we had only been married for a few months. My anxiety began to soar and I was also very conflicted. As mentioned in an earlier article linked below, Mike was unhappy in his current career in social services as it was going nowhere without further education. It was also obvious Mike would never be happy if he did not pursue a life in law enforcement, a dream of his since he was a child.
So I proceeded to let Mike and the dreams of a nine to five husband with weekends and holidays off go, as he actively began testing for police departments. But we also had a series of very difficult conversations that mapped out our future responsibilities to each other so that we would not end up a statistic of yet another police divorce. It is no secret police work is hard on marriages. Divorce is already rampant in our national culture, and the rates are so much higher in LE marriages. How many of you are on spouse number two or three or more or know a colleague who is? How many conversations do you hear that begin, "My first wife..."? How many of you work in an atmosphere where the story rights would make a fascinating soap opera? For many of you, law enforcement is a calling, but if you are married you have a calling to your spouse, as well. How do you balance the two without neglecting either? Following are four basic tenets we have followed to protect our marriage:
- "Forsake all others"
This statement is a sacred vow taken in almost all marriages, yet is so easily broken when we take our eyes off our spouse and turn them to a distraction. How many LE marriages are shattered by infidelity? The temptations are ever-present with the job, and are not always about another person. Your spouse must come before the job, the team, choir practice, your boat, the union meeting, the hunting trip with the guys, etc. But here is the catch: if you put your spouse first and foremost in a mutually respectful marriage, you will be able to have time for the job, the team, choir practice, the boat, etc. Do not let the job become your mistress to where it affects your attitudes and behaviors at home. Forsake the job in your off time so that you are a spouse and partner first and foremost.
- Career decisions are team decisions
Marriage is most successful when you view yourselves as a team, rather than two individuals each trying to put his or her self-interest first. As such, we have made sure career decisions are team decisions, both in Mike's career as well as mine. Which shift to work, whether or not to seek a different position within the department, or if the time was right to take the sergeant's exam, among others, affect each of us and our marriage and have all been decided as a team decision so no one is left behind.
- Devote time to the marriage
I needed Mike to devote as much time and effort into our marriage as he did into his career. As a LEO it can become easy to put too much time into solving the latest crisis that there is not enough energy left over to put into the relationship. Over the years Mike and I have learned how to mutually devote time to each other to keep our marriage and friendship flourishing. We do this by scheduling time together every week that is just our time to catch up with one another and to see how the other is doing. We make a concerted effort to take an interest in each other's hobbies, friends, families, and careers. Another saving grace of our marriage has been volunteering together, which is a life we build outside our home. It is important for spouses to put time and effort into each other so that they know beyond a doubt that they are the most important person in your life. If your spouse feels they are competing for your time, you will then begin to experience your spouse as putting restrictions on you; if they believe they are first, they will give you freely to other pursuits.
- Checking in with each other
In reading the book Fit to Be Tied, one of the most profound lessons learned we have put into practice for the past fourteen years has been to ask each other "How am I doing as a wife?" and "How am I doing as a husband?" The simplicity of these statements rocks the core of our marriage because it opens us up to honest, vulnerable, and genuine conversation. Over the years these have been some of our most difficult and heart-wrenching conversations during the challenging times in our marriage, but we would also tell you truly listening to how the other responds to this question and discussing plus resolving the conflict has kept us out of divorce court.
In order for police marriages to survive it is imperative that LEOs put a diligent effort into protecting and serving the integrity of their relationships. You have as much a responsibility to serve your spouse as you do your community. We have offered just a few of the steps we have undertaken in our marriage. Ask your spouse what he or she needs from you and how you can best protect and serve them.