Being a married cop presents distinctive challenges to the relationship. Is your relationship laid out on the gurney? Therapy might be the next step to a better relationship. Photo iStock
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Althea: From the Therapist’s Chair
Every couple that walks though my office door has challenges, hurts, betrayals and resentments in their relationship that needs to be reworked, talked about, negotiated, re-strengthened and/or changed. Some couples come in with hope of putting the pieces back together; ready to roll their sleeves up and getting down to work, however, most people come in with an agenda of outing their spouse.
Generally the dynamic that exists in the first 5 minutes of most new couples’ sessions goes something like this: One person in the couple--often the one whose idea therapy was in the first place--wants to tell me just how bad, horrible, awful their spouse is, how it is all their fault--couldn’t possibly be mine--and then wants me to agree with them. After I agree, I am then supposed to join with them in telling their partner or spouse just how bad of a person they really are, and that all the problems in the relationship are entirely their fault.
During such time we are going to go through the long… very long laundry list of transgressions their partner has committed against them, going over every detail until the offending spouse is emotionally beaten into submission, admits guilt and then begins doing things that are supposed to be done as stated by the wronged spouse. As an experienced therapist, at some point during the session, after I’ve assessed the dynamics through skillful observation and potent questions, I need to take control by refocusing the couple or no progress will be made.
In Couples Therapy textbooks this dynamic is often known as “joining,” where a dyad is formed between the therapist and one of the clients, thus alienating the other part of the couple; although not entirely uncommon, to engage in this “joining” is a destructive dynamic for the future existence of the relationship.
For the inexperienced therapist, it is easy to become sucked into the dynamic but, when this happens, the therapist is also joining with and becoming a part of the dysfunction in the relationship. In other words, the therapist becomes part of the problem rather than the solution. The therapist is now as dysfunctional as the couple instead of a functional part of helping the clients identifying solutions so the couple can heal and progress. It is the therapist’s job to assess the communication patterns, trust issues, sources of betrayal, and the strengths that need to be nurtured back into existence while remaining unbiased and for the future of the couple.
My hope for each couple that enters my office is that they remain together. I love being married and I’ve experienced it as the greatest joy in my life, and I would love for everyone to know what I see as my heaven on earth…..a successful marriage.
Mike & I did not fall into this by accident. We have worked really hard and know, as a pastor once told us, “It is the commitment of getting up each day and deciding to be married that makes a relationship work” through both good and bad times. It means honoring our marriage vows of loving, honoring, and cherishing each other in every moments even when our human nature tries to override that decision. It is a hard vow to keep every day, but we believe in order for our marriage to survive, our vows must be lived out in how we treat each other and in the word choices we make.
Even though the vows seem simplistic--“To love, honor, and cherish”--they are hard to maintain. This is also why I tell couples in the beginning of our journey together that “couples counseling will either reconcile your marriage or it will be an avenue for you to say good-bye.” I wish the latter wasn’t true, but I’ve learned through experience that the first step a couple must take in healing their hurts, betrayals, and emotions is the most difficult to take and it often goes against the grain of what most people think will work.
However, research has indicated, from many relationship theorists, that in order for a relationship to move forward, heal, and reconcile each person must take ownership and have insight into what they have done that contributed to their difficulties and possible breakdown. What will surely and unequivocally destroy a relationship is staying stuck in blaming the other person. Blaming is easy. It is easy to see another person’s faults. It is much harder and more painful to take a self-inventory and admit, not only to ourselves, but to another, that “I am flawed and need to fix myself before and as we fix our relationship.”
Mike: Straight Talk from the Cop Side
So what does all this have to do with you if you happen to be the one who wears a badge to work every day? Well, quite a lot, actually.
Let’s look first at the matter from the perspective of “officer survival” and how the skills you’ve internalized on the job to ensure your survival – physically, professionally, and emotionally – might actually hinder the survival of your relationships. As we’ve written and taught for a long time, the very skills that promote officer safety on the street can be destructive when applied at home and in other aspects of your personal life. For instance:
As a cop, on the job you are expected to be in undisputed control – of your emotions, your personal affairs, and whatever situation you might be called upon to respond to. You are the authority, you are the law, you are The Man (or The Woman, as the case may be) and everyone puts a great deal of faith in your expertise.
Demonstrating humanness in the form of emotion, uncertainty, fear, or equivocating is often tantamount to demonstrating weakness, and that can be deadly (literally) on the street; when you’re standing face-to-face with someone who might well mean you harm if the alternative is going to jail, you’d best project confidence and certainty you’ll prevail in any fight they bring. Wavering about the appropriateness of your arrest in front of a jury is begging for an acquittal. And when two disputants are looking to you for a decision, you’d best be able to provide, self-assurance, a firm and legally justified decision or direction or you can be sure you’ll hear about their displeasure later.
Moreover, your ability to “cut through the BS” and take control is paramount; at some point during most calls, while listening with a fair ear to both sides of a dispute, you’ll usually find yourself taking on the task of distilling things down to their essential elements and discarding all but the most pertinent – and legally relevant – facts and moving forward from there. You don’t have time for an excess of empathy. You’re involvement is as a representative of “the law” and considering the emotional and psychological impacts are not as necessary in your decision-making and advice-giving capacity.
But failing to demonstrate humanness in your interpersonal relationships can be just as deadly (literally) for the relationship. What often happens is, as Althea calls it, we “go all cop on” our significant others (or kids, or family members, or friends), taking on a Sergeant Joe Friday “just the facts, ma’am” approach to conflict, assuming an interrogatory tone, and trying to maintain control at all costs. You might win a lot of battles with that approach but ultimately lose the war and, with it, all that you hoped to hold onto. Our (innate? learned?) desire for control directs our actions and undermines our goals for relational success. It leads to a defensiveness that denies the possibility we could be anything less than perfect.
And when you find yourself in the therapist’s office, trying to save your relationship, being unable to own your own shortcomings (because you cannot possibly be anything less than perfect) is the surest path to failure.
Being able to do own up to personal shortcomings requires a second skill, and one that can be just as difficult to acquire, that of overcoming a certain form of cognitive dissonance. It is common in police work to develop rather strict definitions of right and wrong, or perceptions of the “way things really are and ought to be.” The problem with this perspective is it’s development of, and reliance on, ‘either/or” ways of defining problems, i.e. either I’m right or she is, how could it be possibly be both of us? Since we tend to favor our own perspective as the clearly logical one in any dispute – and of course we do – it is natural we use our own inherent logic to disparage the obviously flawed perspective of anyone who opposes us, right?
Good luck with that! Overcoming cognitive dissonance - the necessary skill of not only understanding and having empathy for opposing viewpoints but seeing their logic - is critical to relational success. Of course, you’re right! And so is your partner! And yet you’re miles apart from agreeing with each other. Doesn’t make sense? Deal with it., because you probably are both at least a little bit right. And when you do commit to seeing not just your own point-of-view but also that of others, it’s surprising how quickly “black & white” yields to “shades-of-grey.”
If you find yourself in the position of working to save your relationship you must be willing to humble yourself, admit fault and where your actions might have led to the breakdown, and be willing to not only assume at least some of the blame but also to make fundamental changes to your own way of doing relationships. None of us are perfect. Acknowledging that is the first step toward creating a “more perfect union.”