Psychotherapy with Firefighters, Spouses and Families
*Article Originally Published in The Advocate journal of the American Mental Health Counselors Association*
The divorce rate for firefighters is 50 percent or more. Mental health counselors who treat fire service couples can help them strengthen their relationships by understanding the particular stressors commonly experienced by firefighter couples, which may also be similar to the stressors encountered by other public saftey professionals.
As a firefighter and spouse , as well as psychotherapists, we have a unique perspective on the stress placed on fire service couples. Our experience as a couple has made us aware of trouble spots related to the fire service and how they can affect our relationship. Our experiences as psychotherapists has given us the ability to step back and notice what is pressing in on our daily life together and learn to recognize issues that may chip away at the foundation of our relationship.
Watch for these Factors in Firefighter Couple Problems
Four issues are typically pervasive in the conflicts that firefighters and their spouses as wella s other public-safety professions encounter: loyalty issues, spillover stress, schedule issues, and communication issues.
Loyalty Issues: Firefighters have several demands on their loyalties. Loyalty to firefighting comes with the job and is important because it may save the firefighter's own life or another's life. Some spouses may feel left out or excluded because the firefighter's loyalty to the job or fellow firefighters seem to be placed ahead of the needs of the family. Couples need to be aware if the 'loyalty pull' is taking a toll on their relationship.
Spillover-stress: Stress that travels with the firefighter from firehouse to home can take a toll on the firefighter's marriage and family life. Stress may stem from the contrast between the order and control of a firestation and the perceived chaos that an imperfect house might represent. Sometimes, long after a difficult experience on the job, a firefighter may be reminded of it and an argument that ensues about something unrelated. Other times, a firefighter's inability to control an unpleasant living situation at the firehouse makes the firefighter demand control of all aspects of his or her life outside the fire service. This need to control also results from the tragic situations they witness on the job. Seeing someone else's family destroyed instantly makes firefighters want to be sure their own kids and spouse are okay.
Schedule Issues: Inevitably, spouses find the fire-department schedule challenging at times. The schedule can create conflicts about household tasks and parenting duties. Often a child acts out or misbehaves when a mom or dad is at the firestation. As a result, the fire department spouse frequently faces the same challenges as the single parent. The firefighter and spouse can ease this burden by communicating feelings about these issues and by developing an equitable plan of action.
A fire service couple may also be vulnerable because of long separations due to special tours of duty. Most career firefighters work a second job. It is important for the therapist to assess how long the firefighter is out of the family environment. For example, some firefighters work an additional eight to 10 hours following the tour of duty (often 24 hours). Clinicians should evaluate these variables and their effects on the family.
Communication Issues: How does the fire department job influence the couple's emotional connection through communication? Does the job isolate the couple or bring them together? Clinicians should be sure to assess the family's reaction to this phenomenon. Also, how does the spouse learn about the firefighter's current mission and possible chance of injury? It is important for each firefighter to establish a protocol for communicating with a spouse. For example, how, when and by what means should the firefighter and spouse relay information to each other? In addition, what does the spouse want to know (and not want to know)?
Fire-service couples often wait for an alarm to go off in their relationship before seeking help. But by the time the alarm is sounding, resentment and hurt feelings make it too late for simple answers. In sessions with fire-service couples, many times when the spouse says, "I want a divorce," the firefighter says, "I didn't know she (or he) was unhappy."
Both members of the couple should be responsible for communicating more clearly. Spouses have responsibility to say that the troubles are directly rather than give hints and hope the firefighter catches on.
Responsibility for firefighters lies with listening and paying attention. Clinicians should coach firefighters to check in with their spouses to determine if they really understand the messages being sent by the spouse.
Following are more tips for therapists who work with fire service couples and families:
Ask the fire-department couple to conduct a "loyalty check." Are there unspoken resentments, or does the spouse wonder where he or she fits into the fire-department environment?
Help the couple assess spillover stress in their relationship or family life. Can conflicts that occur during times of high emotional stress be identified as spilling over from the job?
Help the firefighter strive to find out how his or her spouse is affected by the job and schedule. Try to have them go into depth and detail. What are the contrasts between how the firefighter and spouse see things?
Find out how the spouse wants to get fire department information (about potentially distressing things such as incidents in which the firefighter is involved). Some spouses deal with the dangerous aspects of the job by obtaining information, some by avoiding information.
Have the couple discuss household and parental obligations in advance. Does an equitable work/responsibility distribution exist? Is each doing enough?
Have the couple rate their communication. Are they communicating on a deep level or superficially? Do they discuss real issues?
Assist the couple in rating the level of intimacy in the relationship. Do they know what is going on in each other's life? What could the spouse be distressed about? How is the firefighter attempting to respond to these concerns?
Help the couple rate the trust in the marriage or relationship. Is the relationship built on honesty and integrity? Can the spouse count on the firefighter for support, respect and friendship? Can the firefighter count on the same?
Assist the couple in rating the level of cooperation in the marriage or relationship. Can the spouse cound on the fire-fighter for assistance, and vice versa? Where might each fall short?
If a fire has been burning too long without intervention, it will probably keep burning until great damage has been done. But if the intervention occurs early, the fire will be extinguished and the structure can be saved. Likewise, fire service couples can stregthen their marriages by seeking help before some typical trouble spots burn out of control.