Married to a Cop? Their Stress Can Become Yours

Resource Type: Article
  • Traumatic stress is contagious. You can catch it from your mate. This has important implications for first-responder families.
  • Mouse studies suggest that males and females distress differently.
  • Female mice destress in the company of an unstressed mouse. Males do not.
  • Don’t be discouraged. You can protect yourself from your partner’s stress.

Compassion is our Achilles’ Heel. When we are in pain, so are someone we love and care for. How much pain and what to do about it is the $64,000 question.

Researchers in Canada observed the effects of stress on the brains of male and female mice who were paired together. Let’s call them Mr. and Mrs. Mouse. The scientists moderately stressed one mouse in the pair and then returned it to its partner. Then they looked at the hippocampus, a sea-horse-shaped part of the brain that plays a critical role in memory and learning. Both the stressed and unstressed mice had identical changes to the brain. The takeaway: Stress, like second-hand smoke, can be transferred. Being around someone who has been through a stressful event can change your brain.

That wasn’t the most remarkable finding. Most surprising and relevant to first responder families was that Mrs. Mouse could reverse her brain changes by hanging out with an unstressed mouse, but Mr. Mouse could not. The implications of this for cops and other first responders are enormous.

At the First Responders’ Support Network retreat for significant others and spouses (SOS), we meet spouses who are exhausted, angry, and frightened after years of living with and loving a cop, a firefighter, a correctional officer, or a dispatcher. Some of their partners have experienced a significant critical incident; others are bending under the weight of cumulative less-than-critical events, and many suffer from a combination of the two. Our clients (primarily women) come to the retreat hoping to “fix” their wounded mates. They leave, understanding that they need to attend to their wounds first.

Take a hint from Mrs. Mouse.

If you live with someone suffering from post-traumatic stress, do not go it alone. Find a calm, unstressed friend, family member, spiritual advisor, or culturally competent therapist to talk to—someone you trust who listens well and has no agenda. Do not hang out exclusively with first responder friends, particularly today, as there is so much stress among first responders and their families due to Covid, social and political upheavals, and a surge of anti-police sentiment.

The relief and healing that come from talking are observable at our retreats. Clients are encouraged to let it all out. To attend to their own needs and wounds. Too many have been ignoring themselves desperately to help their first responder mates. Any police officer will tell you that writing a check on an empty bank account is illegal. Attempting to care for someone else when you are depleted is impossible. As the airline industry says, put your oxygen mask on in a crisis first. Chances are your loved one has lots of support at work: friends, training, peer counselors, employee assistance counselors, and a chaplain. They may be reluctant to use these services due to stigma, fear, or lack of trust. There are rarely any similar services for the family.

After years of counseling first responders and their families, I know a few things. Secrets kill. No one is perfect. The bad times pass, and so do the good. No matter how hard you try, you cannot change other people’s behavior. And from time to time, all of us need help (see references below). Be like Mrs. Mouse; protect yourself from stress. Find a friend.

Kirshman, E. (2021, December 23). Married to a cop? their stress can become yours. Psychology Today. Retrieved March 23, 2023, from