Ah, the fairy tale dream, you fall in love with a firefighter or first responder, the hero type that goes to work every day to help those people in their darkest hour. Why is divorce so common among firefighters? The divorce rate for first responders is nearly three times that of the general population, second to those who serve in the military, How could that be? Firefighters are not known to fail or give up on anything. Why is maintaining a well balanced work and home life a problem for our first responders? While many firefighters have very fruitful and thriving marriages, compared to those that have been divorced once, twice or even more, the thriving marriage is rare. From our experience, the following aspects of the job may lead us toward the reasons why so many marriages end in divorce.
Stress. Firefighters usually work a shift schedule consisting of a 24-hour work day. During this time, firefighters, are required to be ready at a moment’s notice to respond to an emergency. Regardless of the fact whether it is a true emergency, the body still responds in the same fashion. The tones go off, an emergency is reported, and the individual goes into a “fight or flight” mode which causes a chain reaction in the body beginning with the release of adrenaline. This prepares the firefighter to be in a state of readiness and be at full capacity to handle the rigors of the job. No matter the time of day, the body is not able to come to rest until the shift is done. Yes, firefighters do have beds in the station and yes at times there are moments when you can rest, but the body is still in a state of readiness and the mind won’t shut down knowing the bell can ring at any moment. This is a tremendous amount of strain on the mind and body and for this reason, the schedule is designed to allow two days for recuperation. In this day and age, a firefighter can not sustain their financial responsibility without a second job so the time for recuperation is lessened. Not to mention, firefighters are exposed to death and trauma on the daily basis. Although most firefighters can block out most of the experiences they come across, they still linger and are carried with that individual forever. After some time, this can develop into Acute Stress Disorder(ASD) or even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a more debilitating, serious and chronic disorder where a sound, picture or event can trigger a flashback type response that places that individual right back at the moment, reliving it as a reality. There are many signs and symptoms that can be observed and recognized like Anxiety, Depression, Alcohol Abuse, fatigue, withdrawn, social isolation and sleep deprivation. Take note because your firefighter may be good at hiding signs and symptoms in an attempt to “not bring work home”.
Sleep deprivation is a major issue in this line of work. How does a regular 9-5 person feel if they don’t get a full 8 hours of sleep? Firefighters are not off the clock after sundown, they are out at all hours responding while the general public sleeps. This disruption in the sleep cycle, and the inability to “shut down” leads to Insomnia and the inability to get into the REM sleep cycle. Further adding to the Anxiety and Depression and daily fatigue. Restless, and irritable, your firefighter might not be able to live up to the expectations of the marriage or family.
Time away from home. A firefighter’s schedule requires them to be away from home 2 to 3 days a week which adds a significant amount of burden on the spouse, especially if the couple has children. This can lead to resentment and anger that the other is not doing “their share” of the responsibilities. This can further lead to fights between one another compounding the stress and behavior. It is important to understand the type of duty your firefighter has sworn to serve and understand that it is not “their fault” and they are trying their best to fulfill all the roles they may have.
Awareness is key when entering marriage with a firefighter. A tremendous burden is being carried on their shoulders and the stress, sleep deprivation and time away from home with the unordinary work schedule leaves them completely exhausted. At work, they are alive, alert, energetic, and involved. When they come home, the aftereffects may set in, and they may be tired, detached, isolated, and apathetic. The greater the demand at work, the greater the symptoms become at home, debilitating them from family involvement, which, if misunderstood, may be destructive to intimate relationships. Taking the time to learn your partner, recognize signs and symptoms, work out a plan for recuperation and rehab, setting a schedule that allows a normal sleep cycle on days off and understanding that the disconnect is not from them, but from the job itself. It requires some buy in and support to keep things running smoothly. Offer to listen when they may have had a rough shift, maybe it is just a few hours of peace and quiet, learn and work together to keep the marriage alive. Like I have heard from every great firefighter on his last speech at retirement, “None of this would be possible without the love and support from my family”. Your firefighter can not be the hero he signed up to be, without having the love, support and understanding from the family.
Communication is key to any relationship, but especially important for Firefighter families and the best chance you can give your relationship is to make sure that there is 2-way communication with equal responsibility and understand of spouses. Often times firefighters may think that we can just bottling it up and it does not affect us, but that is not the case and your spouse, who knows you the best, can see this. Try and be open, look for outlets like exercise and special time for your partner. Try to talk through some of your experiences and find positive ways of dealing with them. Avoid excessive alcohol, look for happiness with your partner, set aside time for your children and always be aware of feelings of sadness and depression. Marriage is a 2-way street and it takes a lot of hard work to be successful, but it can be done. Work together through issues rather than being tough and shrugging them off. In the end, freeing yourself of the stresses of the job will only make you a better firefighter at work, and better partner at home, and that is what it’s all about.
How’s the job affecting you and your relationship? We are brothers and sisters- please share your experiences or helpful advice you use.
**Article written from firefighter’s point of view. If you are struggling with relationship issues or depression, please locate a local therapist or doctor. This article is not intended as medical advice.