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  • Writer's pictureShannon Johnson

For Our Military and First Responders Part III: "We Go Through a Lot of Sh*t!"

I always like direct quotes, and my brother-in-law titled this section for me. Hard to argue with this statement. In the last year, I have read the book Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement by Kevin M. Gilmartin, Ph.D. and On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace by Lt. Col. David Grossman and Loren Christensen. I wanted to access resources to better support anyone who was open to walk in my door. While I have grandparents who fought in World War II, and a father who is a war history buff, I do not have direct experience.

One of topics covered extensively in both books is how the training of both military and first responder personnel helps them respond to experiences most of us would run from. We don't exactly want these folks to go into flight or freeze mode when they are in the middle of their jobs. However, because they spend a great deal of the time in this fight stress response state, it can be difficult to restore to a “normal” state -- even at home.

Most of us do not have jobs that require a heightened level of alertness. We have moments where anxiety builds and then we calm. Sleep, mindful movement, nature, and deep breaths are ways to restore. However, the jobs that require individuals to stay “on” for hours at a time are extremely taxing. It is difficult for them to get enough restorative time to balance out the nervous system. Therefore, you see an increase in physical ailments and unhealthy coping in these groups.

Let’s go back to my Officer’s explanation for a moment.

A relationship requires the same, if not more effort than I put into my job.”

Our Protectors are so accustomed to dangerous situations, and their life-preserving training is so ingrained, that a work scene becomes easier to navigate than their home life.

There is a training manual for tactical situations -- rules, stipulations, and guidelines that keep a Protector as safe as possible. But, alas, there is no tactical training manual for relationships.

I have learned how this phenomenon plays out. For example, if your spouse is trained to deal with life or death situations routinely, and he/she keeps a calm demeanor regardless of what is happening, this may lead you to believe they "don't care" about what is happening at home. Or, maybe they respond in a very analytical way to emotions. This is exactly what makes them excellent at their job, but it can lead to tension at home.

Even vital career virtues such as quick decision-making under extreme pressure can make partnership frustrating. One couple I hear from often explained that in conflict, he wants no time to process or consider possibilities. He makes swift decisions and immediately communicates them, and she finds this overwhelming and aggressive.

There is also research that shows significant relationship distress in our military/first responder population -- namely infidelity and divorce. Many work night shifts or are gone for significant periods of time. In my practice, one dynamic I have noticed is that some try to shield their home life from the "dark and twisty.” They don't want to relay stories to their loved ones, which is totally understandable. Some significant others might be able to hear and support, but others may be really impacted. However, as humans, we need to process somewhere, and for some responders, that is with a person in their career field. When we feel seen, heard, and validated, this can lead to emotional connection. However, this connection can cross relationship boundaries, leading to emotional and physical affairs.

So after three blogs, where am I really going with this? First, I hope to create more awareness for this community. In my career, a primary goal of mine is to get people to look at things from different angles, because it fosters greater understanding. Without understanding we tend to get stuck in assumptions and judgement.

Second, I want to encourage the military and first responder community to seek support when they need it. There are mental health providers out there that are truly interested in helping. And finally, I want to invite anyone interested to join us for a relationship retreat. I believe a huge part of our overall health and happiness stems from our relationships and home life.

To find out more about retreat opportunities:

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