Operational Stress and the Police Marriage: A Narrative Study of Police Spouses

Families of the RCMP

Operational Stress and the Police Marriage: A Narrative Study of Police Spouses

Link to Full document above

A thesis research summary
Author: Alanna Thompson, MA

The most important resource of any police agency is its people.

New recruits are assessed carefully and deemed to be among some of the most physically and psychologically healthy individuals as they begin their career. In the course of their work, these officers experience stressors such as constant public scrutiny; shift work; time constraints when responding to calls; exposure to violent acts; and witnessing the harm and death of others that can lead to the development of traumatic stress over time.i

Occupational stress experienced by a police officer can “spillover” to his or her home life.ii

In an effort to appear in control, maintain the home as a safe place free of trauma, and avoid burdening the family with stress, the officer may avoid discussing their operational experiences with their spouseiii,i Repressed emotion can lead the individual to experience difficulties in communicating within close relationships.iv,v Their on-the-job skills in maintaining authority and appearing emotionally detached may carry over to their relationship with their spouse and other family members, potentially causing stress and conflict in the home.vi Police marriages are at risk for marital discord and divorce, and the quality of these marital relationships appears to be dependent on the ability of the police couple to cope effectively with this spillover effect. Much of the research over the last thirty years has examined the direct impact of operational stress on the officer as an individual, while studies that have considered its effects on police spouses and the marital relationship are based on survey data. It is useful to understand how some police couples cope effectively, in order to share this knowledge to help support other officers and their families.

Purpose of study

The purpose of this research project was to explore perceptions of civilian spouses regarding the impact of police work on the marital relationship, and the individual and relational coping strategies used within the marriage to cope with operational stress. An in-depth exploration of this topic is vital to increasing our understanding of operational stress, its transmission to significant others, and how it may impact the marital relationship.

Spouses’ recommendations for the police organization

“Sometimes people need a push. Nobody officially called him to say, ‘how are you doing? Is there anything we can do to help?’ Had he been home with cancer, you know, they do work parties; they do all these other things. I think a little bit of input or touching base would have been helpful to say,‘we get it, how are you doing? Are you okay?’ There was nothing physically wrong with him to stop him from doing stuff, but that emotional support was not there.”

“They could do seminars, inform the membership and spouses, and communicate more actively about resources available, what is going on, and changes that are coming up. I think it would be fairly easy for the department, the union, or both to create a service that serves police families. You could centralize this information in a log-in, web-based service.”

“There definitely needs to be training for these guys on the effects that are going to happen in the family. I think they need to be aware of that, and how to cope with the negatives of the job, and to learn how to relieve stress in a healthy way. I think it would be great to have an experienced spouse available to answer questions and do a lecture with the spouses. A panel, where people at different stages can share their experiences, could work well, and I think it would be an eye-opener.”

“I just do not know how they can get to that point where the guys feel like they can phone, and it would not be fodder for everyone in the office. It probably is not, but I think that is the perception. So to somehow get over that stigma and say, ‘it is okay, if you need to talk to somebody, these are the options’.”

The full, detailed PDF of this research study is publicly accessible online via the UBC circle database: http://hdl.handle.net/2429/43052
Any correspondence with the author can be directed to her email address:


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