Of all the wide-ranging issues that have brought couples to my office over the years, the No. 1 one cause I’ve seen for the complete breakdown of relationships, almost always ending in divorce, are the words people say to each other.
Now, many people would argue other causes: affairs, whether emotional or physical; financial strains, especially in a time when personal bankruptcies and home foreclosures have become an accepted life event; differences in child rearing; addiction (too much “choir practice,” gambling, pornography or simply being unable to pull yourself away from the computer); not making each other a priority; in-law issues; shift work; depression or unresolved anger; and the list goes on and on. We recently asked the question, “What do you think is the No. 1 reason for divorces in law enforcement?” on our More Than a Cop Facebook page, and here are some of the responses we got:
- Jessica C: Perhaps it's hard not to think you are "right" all the time as the LEO.
- Dennis K: Quick courting periods (I've seen other cops marry in as little as three months after meeting their next ex).
- Laura O: But one I've seen a few times is where the job takes priority over the family.
- Amy W: Badge bunnies, stress, their "brothers" and alcohol, along with many others.
- Mike S: We need to bring things on the road under control quickly and then move onto the next crisis — not so good for interpersonal relationship building.
- Kerstin B: There are definitely threats to our relationship while he is at work though and then he thinks I can't handle his work conversations, so he builds strong relationships with these dispatchers or record techs. These threats have been the hardest thing on our marriage multiple times! This last time almost ended us.
- Tanya G: Separating the badge from real life.
I’m sure as you’re reading this you’re coming up with reasons. Some have applied to you personally and others you’ve witnessed through coworkers. I’ve seen each of these issues enter my office — many times for each, in fact — and many times have seen each one of these issues resolved with the marriage put back together stronger than it has ever been before as long as each spouse remembers the importance and strength of the impact of their words.
The reason words have such power in a relationship is the simple fact that, when in a healthy marriage, what opinion your spouse holds of you matters more than that of any other person in the world. The words we use, and how we use them, represent whether and how we respect each other. A relationship without respect is doomed.
This article isn’t merely about communication, a vague buzzword that always seems the obvious jumping off point in so many discussions, articles, daytime talk shows, and counseling sessions devoted to making relationships work. But just to get it out of the way, let us say this: Effective and open communication is essential to the success of any healthy relationship.
The Biggest Problem
The problem in most of the failing and doomed marriages and relationships is not lack of communication. They communicate, all right, sometimes with such vigor and enthusiasm you, as law enforcers, are invited to mediate (referee). Other relationships die quietly behind closed doors, with both parties communicating their hearts out trying to save it. The real problem is how they communicate, and the failure is exemplified by the words they use.
In fact, all those other things we mentioned before — financial strains, child-rearing issues, addictions, emotional distance and even affairs — although potentially devastating are ultimately survivable if both partners are able to master how they use their words during the difficult communications needed to battle back.
Psychologist, teacher, and author John Gottman, Ph.D. has, with his wife Dr. Julie Schwartz, extensively studied marriage and marital stability for more than 35 years at The Relationship Research Institute and turned their findings into the basis for training therapists at The Gottman Institute, both located in Seattle, Wash. Dr. Gottman has identified four negative behavior patterns revealed in the communication of failed and failing relationships, which he calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Their presence, individually or in combination, are Gottman’s identified predictors of divorce. They are (from The Gottman Relationship Institute website, with our comments in italics):
- Criticism: Stating one’s complaints as a defect in one’s partner’s personality (i.e., giving the partner negative trait attributions). Example: “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish.” Offering criticism can be a loving act, but only if it is given in the spirit of helping your partner improve, and stated in a manner that protects self-esteem and dignity.
- Contempt: Statements that come from a relative position of superiority. Contempt is the greatest predictor of divorce and must be eliminated. Example: “You’re an idiot.” Perhaps the reason contempt is so predictive of divorce is because it usually comes from a place where the partner(s) has/have already “fallen out of love.” If correction or change is what you seek, however, this isn’t going to achieve it, at least not for the long haul. Contempt, and the words that reflect it, must simply be removed from all interactions with your partner.
- Defensiveness: Self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victim-hood. Defensiveness wards off a perceived attack. Example: “It’s not my fault that we’re always late; it’s your fault.” Turning the tables is a great way to deflect that unwanted and uncomfortable critique! Unfortunately, it usually succeeds in either driving your partner to using contempt with you, or emotionally withdrawing from the relationship altogether. Instead, when you are feeling defensive is exactly the time to acknowledge it and consciously decide to set it aside.
- Stonewalling: Emotional withdrawal from interaction. Example: The listener does not give the speaker the usual nonverbal signals that the listener is “tracking” the speaker. Sort of a “non-verbal defensiveness,” this also effectively deflects awkward or undesired communication — and provokes either escalation or withdrawal in your partner. Use reflective listening — nods, gestures, words of acknowledgement and encouragement, etc. — to demonstrate you are present and listening.
Notice that criticism, contempt and defensiveness all involve active communication — not good communication, just active — but nonetheless are all predictors for failure and divorce. Of them, contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce but we need to be aware of all of them and how our own communication stacks up. Verbal abuse is very real, and very damaging. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is a very old, and very inaccurate, childhood chant that ignores a profound truth: for most people the wounds left by “sticks and stones’ will likely scar over and fade, their physical pain receding deep into memory until other more pleasant and current memories supplant them. The wounds inflicted by sharp and uncaring words, especially when wielded by someone we love and place trust in for our emotional well-being, remain open and fester. When those words are common and cumulative, their memory batters the recipient, crushing their spirit until fleeing the abuse is the only option.
Abusive words are certainly not unique to any profession. Both genders and all ages are equally capable of cutting to the soul with their tongue. But those of us who work in law enforcement, or are in a relationship with someone who does, need to pay special heed to our words.
Mike S’s comment above, “We need to bring things on the road under control quickly and then move onto the next crisis — not so good for interpersonal relationship building” sums it up very succinctly. Most LEOs are very good at getting to the heart of a dispute, resolving (or at least managing) it, and moving forward. In most cases, this works well on the street; the majority of conflicts have relatively simple answers — what is/isn’t legal, or is the matter even something for the police to be concerned with or should it be referred on to other, more appropriate and better equipped, alternatives — and you respond to them with the authority of law and the direction of policy to guide you. Not so the ambiguous and often messy matters of the heart! Attempts to quickly find resolution and “clear the call” only frustrate everyone involved. Unfortunately, when the LEO is frustrated and the issues don’t resolve quickly, that frustration can boil over into insolent or hurtful words.
Jessica C offers, “Perhaps it's hard not to think you are "right" all the time as the LEO.” People hired to work in law enforcement are specifically chosen because they’re confident and decisive. When someone calls you to their home or business, they expect you to be, and are assured when meet those expectations. LEOs are reinforced all the time when they achieve compliance from someone not naturally inclined to comply or play nice with others, receive praise or a “thank you” from a citizen for solving their problem, or sense the confidence someone has in their ability and office. Further, when their authority is challenged, someone refuses to comply, or it’s necessary to step up and take control, it’s expected they will take the steps necessary — including direct, and sometimes even harsh, words or force — to assert their authority. Again, this doesn’t work so well at home, at least if happy and harmonious are two adjectives you want applied to it!
There is an interesting corollary to this, as well, and one that a lot of people insist on believing even as they watch their partner walking out the door. It goes like this: “What I do and this way I talk? My spouse just needs to understand that this is how I am!” Hmmm … no they don’t.
LEOs must work hard to achieve, or perhaps maintain, a healthy dichotomy between their work and home identities. The verbal tactics and skills necessary to succeed and survive on the street — and we would never tell you to sacrifice your warrior skills on the job — might be the very thing that kills your relationship if you can’t leave them at the door at home.
Get to know Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” well. Evaluate the words you use and how you use them with your loved ones. Ask your partner (while steadfastly refusing to give in to defensiveness!) how you do with your words (you may be surprised at how differently each of you perceives them). And make the vow that the words you do choose will be used only to build up and edify your partner, even when you are angry, hurt, disappointed or reasonably critical.
Words can be weapons or instruments of love. It’s your choice. The reward of eliminating hurtful words and replacing them with compassion is great. But if you choose not to the harm is assured.
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