"Being a cop's wife means nonstop worry and tension," said Liz, 33, a stay-at-home mother of three children ranging in age from 4 to 11. "But even worse, Nick totally shuts me and the kids out of his life. I feel like a single parent. Do you have any idea how many birthday parties, school performances and parent-teacher meetings I've attended by myself? Oh, and guess who takes the car to the shop when the engine conks out? Nick's older brother is also a cop, and my sister-in-law always says, 'This is just what it's like.' Well, maybe that works for her but it doesn't cut it for me. Either we fix this marriage or end it.
"I never thought this would happen to us. Nick and I were so in love that we finished each other's sentences. I met him when I was a freshman at a local community college and he was in his final year at the Police Academy. Our chemistry was amazing, but even then I had reservations about his being a New York City police officer. A scenario would run through my head: I'd hear a knock at the door and his captain would be there, telling me Nick had been shot. I was terrified to go down that path. But Nick was persistent and I was too crazy about him to resist. We got married right after I got my associate's degree.
"My imagination went haywire once we had kids. I'd be bathing the baby and I'd picture him getting shot by someone he'd pulled over for speeding, or killed in a domestic call gone bad. Basically, you can't watch cop shows on television if you're married to a law enforcement officer!
"Yes, I'm proud of him. But it's hard to describe the horror of hearing a news report that a police officer has been shot but his name hasn't been released. I've never gotten used to that panic, that waiting for the telephone to ring.
"Nick's always bugging me to join a support group. Like I have the time. God forbid he'd listen to my concerns. That stopped a long time ago. Even when the two of us are out to dinner by ourselves, he's always looking around the room, checking out everyone and everything but me. When he does deign to speak to me, it's to complain about something, like the new shoes I bought that he says we can't afford. Since I can't talk to him, I talk to my girlfriends — and then he gets mad that I'm on the phone too much! Not that he ever answers his phone! I'll call his cell and leave messages that he never returns, which sets me into another tailspin.
"A few months ago Nick was promoted to the highest rank and offered a prestigious desk job. At first I was thrilled — finally, I thought, we could have a normal life! Well, that shows you what a dope I am. True, he's off the streets, and that's reassuring, but his days are even longer now than they used to be! Before, the kids would see him as they were getting home from school and he was heading out for his night shift. Now they may not see him at all. Nick pours every ounce of energy he has into police work and acts as if I don't exist. And then he expects me to have sex with him? I don't think so.
"When the kids were younger he used to help with child care and housework, but now? Never. I handle everything! And there's something every single day, whether it's karate, soccer and basketball for the older kids or gymnastics and swimming for the younger one. I'm exhausted trying to keep everyone happy — and then Nick has the nerve to order me around like I'm a new recruit. Hardly a day goes by anymore that we don't have a huge blowup. It reminds me of my parents' marriage, which ended in an ugly divorce when I was 14. When I met Nick he made all those unhappy memories disappear. Now I feel as if I'm living the nightmare all over again."
"I'm not the one who has changed," said Nick, 39. "Liz is irritable, overemotional and sarcastic. She dislikes me, my job and everything I do! She leaves long messages on my cell phone telling me what a horrendous person I am. I delete most of them without listening. I deal with conflict 24/7 — I don't need it from my wife.
"Liz was concerned about my being a cop before we got married, but I tried to calm her fears. She knows I'd never do anything reckless. How come other wives can handle this and she falls apart? Maybe she should try talking to some of them instead of wasting time on the phone all day with her girlfriends. My sister-in-law has been a cop's wife for 25 years, but whenever she tries to offer advice Liz brushes her off.
"It's hard to believe we used to have fun together. These days I can't do anything right. Liz is always on my back for not listening to her. I explain that when we're in a restaurant, I am listening — but I'm also scanning the room to make sure there's no trouble. I'm a cop — it's part of my training. As for not helping with the kids, that's categorically untrue! I do more than most dads. But instead of giving me credit, she'll complain to her friends about the two nights I forgot to take out the garbage. Sometimes I won't hear about what I did wrong until a month later. By then I have no idea what she's talking about. Meanwhile, she does whatever she wants. She's got the kids overprogrammed with activities, which — along with all the stuff she buys — are breaking our bank account. But she doesn't seem to remember that, either — or the fact that husbands and wives are supposed to have sex with each other! I can't remember the last time we did.
"Every day while driving home I promise myself that tonight things will be better. But I get ambushed as soon as I open the door. If I'm five minutes late, she'll hiss, 'Where were you?' It's never 'I want to hear about your day, sweetheart.' It's an inquisition. There are a million and one reasons why I may have to work late. It's not as if I'm putting in long hours for my health — I'm doing it for her and the kids. And I'm wiped out when I get home. For the past eight years I've dealt with danger, violence and trauma on a daily basis. I've seen things I'd never describe to Liz that are seared in my brain. When you wear a badge and a gun you have to stay calm and just block out the horror, anger and frustration. In my new job I have a different kind of stress — management issues, everyone jockeying for position. It all takes a toll.
"I take a lot of pride in my work and I've earned the respect of my fellow officers as I've moved up the ranks. And if I handle this new job well, I have a shot at being the head honcho. That would be an incredible honor, and it would mean a lot more with the support of a loving wife. But that's one thing I'm missing right now."
The Counselor's Turn
Liz and Nick's issues were not that different from those that all parents of young kids face. But when you factor in the extra burdens of a physically dangerous job and erratic work schedules, a marriage can easily collapse from the stress. Not surprisingly, studies suggest that the divorce rate for police officers is higher than average, and their wives often complain that 'the department' controls their lives.
"Although police officers may insist, as Nick did, that their work doesn't change them, they must rein in their emotions in order to deal with danger and violence on a daily basis. As a result they may have trouble talking about personal matters when they're off duty. From his first day on the force, Nick had begun to communicate less, believing that Liz couldn't possibly under stand what his days were like — or simply because he wanted to leave work behind when he got home. He didn't understand why she interpreted his silence as a sign he didn't love her. Then, as her angry attacks escalated, he truly began to dislike her.
"Liz yearned not only for help with the house and kids but also for connection. Her husband's behavior left her feeling excluded and resentful. To compensate she unconsciously ratcheted up the drama — like a child throwing a tantrum. She did get Nick's attention, but it was hardly the affection she craved. Hurt and bewildered, Liz and Nick fell into the habit of provoking each other with snide remarks. If they were going to save their marriage, I said, they had to break destructive habits and rethink their behavior.
"'Your aloofness may be normal for your profession, but it's hurting your relationship,' I told Nick. 'Instead of ignoring Liz when you get home, give her a kiss and say, "I love you but I could use an hour to unwind." ' Liz, in turn, needed to give Nick the benefit of the doubt. 'Both of you are waiting for the other to change, but if you each change, you'll see a difference in your partner.' Liz took the first step, meeting Nick at the door with a hug. 'I forced myself because it was the right thing to do,' she admitted. And the more affectionate she was with Nick, the more responsive he became. I also challenged them to give each other one genuine compliment a day, to reserve at least 15 minutes a day to catch up and to schedule a 'date' once a week during which they were forbidden to discuss their children or any problems. Simply having fun and relaxing in each other's company was hard at first, but as the tension abated, they began to rediscover the person each had fallen in love with in the first place. Liz let Nick know how proud she was of his accomplishments, and he surprised her with flowers. They also agreed to cut back on the kids' activities and schedule more family time, including nightly family dinners and weekly outings. And once a month they run a 'marital checkup' to address what's working for them and what isn't.
"Because she blamed so many of her marital problems on 'the department,' Liz was reluctant to join a spousal support group. When she finally did she discovered that talking with the wives of other cops helped her feel less isolated. 'The women are so friendly and accepting,' she said. 'They understand the madness that goes with being married to a cop.'
"Although the couple's sex life had been in deep freeze for more than a year, I didn't press them on it for several months. When I did broach the subject of making love again, Liz smiled at Nick and reached for his hand. 'We beat you to it,' he said, grinning back at her. At that moment, which was so loving and intimate, I realized that this couple would make it.
"'Our wedding anniversary is next week,' Liz added. 'This year, we have a lot to celebrate.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2009.