Divorce, Emergency Responders, and Special Circumstances
Unique considerations when a responder divorces, especially if he has PTSD.
Posted November 11, 2019
I have been married to an emergency responder for 25 years. Today I am wondering about the special circumstances when one divorces a police officer.
(For the record, this is a clinical question. I have no intention of ever divorcing my husband, a retired police officer after 34 years, and now a psychologist specializing in trauma work.)
First, most police divorces are like any other divorce. Some are collaborative, others hostile. There are unique challenges, like shift work, being called out, etc., but that is not unique to law enforcement.
Divorces are always painful; children add another level of pain and complication. However, divorcing a police officer (and other emergency responders, male or female) may have unique issues and concerns.
There are no accurate statistics on divorce among law enforcement professionals. The statistics range from 14 percent to 80 percent, and the reality is probably in between (see note #1 below).
Clinically, I have noticed a pattern when the officers have been diagnosed with PTSD. In addition to the usual marital issues, there are PTSD symptoms and the sometimes-problematic attempts to cope with them—which contribute to the breakdown of the marriage and the subsequent divorce.
Common maladaptive coping includes drinking, affairs, isolation, anger, and anxiety. It is difficult for a responder to get treatment because there are so few culturally competent therapists. Sometimes this leads the responder to suicide. See note #2 below.
In 1999, a few colleagues and I got together to build a program to help emergency responders with PTSD. We launched our residential program, West Coast Post Trauma Retreat (WCPR), in 2001 under our non-profit, First Responder’s Support Network (FRSN). We have helped over 1,300 responders recover from PTSD and other mental health issues. All of our staff are volunteers.
In addition to their critical incidents (from work and from childhood), most attendees come with serious relationship problems, often with difficult divorces pending or ongoing.
Another clinician and I formed a separate program under the FRSN umbrella specifically for spouses and partners. This program, SOS, launched in 2004; we have a three-year waitlist. Not surprisingly, spouses and partners of responders often come with their own trauma, vicarious trauma from their partners, and difficult relationship problems.
So, what is it like to divorce a police officer?
A typical story: Janice (not her real name) came to SOS because her husband, a police officer, had relapsed in his alcoholism, had an affair, and then left his wife and young children. Despite her pleading, her husband would not go to counseling. Finally, he informed Janice that the marriage was over. He suffers from PTSD and copes with his symptoms with alcohol and sex addiction.
Janice shared her story, common among our SOS attendees. Janice had suffered emotional abuse as a child and was raped in high school. Her husband seemed to offer safety and liked helping others in his work. He took risks every day to keep bad guys off the street and make the world safer. Her husband was idealistic when he entered police work, but after several critical incidents (which he never talked about), he developed PTSD.
The job changed him. He shut down, had angry outbursts and nightmares, and often didn’t come home till hours after his shift ended. Janice did everything she could to make his life easier, gradually giving up her own interests, friends, and identity. Try as she did, things were worsening every day. At SOS, she learned that she had become co-dependent as a way of coping with her husband’s PTSD-symptoms.
The same factors that make the emergency responder marriages challenging, come up in their divorces.
First, shift work is disruptive to family life. The spouse goes to holiday and social events alone because the officer is working holidays, nights, or weekends.
Spouses often talk about their loneliness and often feel guilty about feeling resentful, when their partner is putting his life on the line every day. They often feel that no one (other than responder spouses) can understand what it is like to live with a responder, especially one with PTSD.
Drafting a parenting plan is harder during divorce because officers’ work schedules change frequently. They may have to be on call for special assignments (SWAT, hostage negotiation, K-9, etc.). For this reason, many officers fear losing their children in divorce. However, a flexible schedule adapts to the officer’s schedule changes, assuming both parents are willing and able to maximize their time with their children.
If there has been abuse at the hands of the officer, he will fear losing his job should this be disclosed. If he loses his job, he can't provide support to his children and ex. Therefore, the spouse may be unwilling to report the abuse as he/she recognizes that the officer needs to keep his job to help with family expenses and benefits.
The spouse may fear that he has more power than her because of his access to “the system.” She may fear him if he is drinking, self-medicating, prone to rages, or intimidating.
Commonly heard at SOS is that when the officer has PTSD, power and control issues often dominate the marriage. The spouse becomes co-dependent, trying to manage her partner’s symptoms and behaviors. These power and control issues, coupled with the traumas of the law enforcement career, lead to the divorce.
Obviously, not all law enforcement divorces are related to PTSD or the job.
Relationships end for many reasons. But if you suspect PTSD when an emergency responder is going through a divorce, a professional should assess his symptoms. If he has PTSD, it helps to treat it during the divorce or (ideally) before the divorce is begun. The stress of the divorce could trigger or worsen the symptoms, and the divorce will be much more difficult if these symptoms are not managed.
© Ann Buscho, Ph.D. 2019
1. Statistics are conflicting. “We all know that the divorce rate for the nation sits right at about 50 percent, but did you know that the rate for officers is 60-70 percent? Staggering number when you really consider it. Approximately one-quarter of the officers who are married will still be married to that same spouse at the end of their careers. One quarter.” (Law Enforcement Officer, 2013).
2. Police officers going through a divorce are five times more likely to commit suicide than that of an officer in a stable marriage (heavybadge.com). And “according to the National Center for Women and Policing, 40 percent of police officer families experience domestic violence, whereas families not involved in police work make up 10 percent of domestic violence cases” (Kewish & Cabrero, 2014).