Psych Services: Believe it! Police officer divorce rate lower than average – here are reasons why

Lisa Garmezy

Cops are good at staying married, although you wouldn’t know it from the arguments behind closed doors at Psych. Services.


The 2000 census showed 16.4 percent of the U. S. population was divorced when the questionnaire was filled out. The number was just 14.1 percent for police officers – significantly lower. Detectives and first-line police supervisors reported even fewer divorces, with rates under 13 percent. The rate of divorce in dispatchers was a less encouraging 23.9 percent.


The numbers aren’t surprising, really. Yes, you are under a great deal of stress. On the other hand, you were tested for emotional stability and hired because you were free of substance abuse, legal problems and other types of trouble.


So it’s a myth that police divorce more than other populations, and a dangerous one. Believing a marriage is unlikely to last could lead to putting less effort into it – after all, why bother? But as has been said before in this column, marriages work when people work on them. This is not a Disney movie and there is no guaranteed happy ending.


If you’re ready to invest in your marriage, but don’t know where to start, I have a few ideas. In therapy, clients are asked to look at events through a different point of view. The list below covers some of the changes clients go through. Maybe you can shift your perspective without making the drive north.


  • Spouses come to understand the officer’s overprotectiveness as fear for a beloved family, rather than as a need to control the family. They realize that the officer’s fear is entirely reasonable, given his or her experience of the world as a dangerous place.


  • Both parties realize that the officer’s suspiciousness of the spouse is a reflex based in a belief that people in general can’t be trustworthy, and that everyone around him is cheating. It has, usually, very little to do with the actual behavior of the spouse. Too often the officer’s “radar” for threats to the marriage becomes the threat.


  • Spouses realize the officer’s desire to hang out with colleagues and friends is partly a means of getting potentially life-saving peer support, and not just a waste of time. For police officers, those strong relationships are necessary to bounce back from potentially traumatic events on the job.


  • Officers are watchful, suspicious, and as Kevin Gilmartin said, sense a felony in progress around every corner. Spouses come to realize it’s the job, not a character flaw.


  • Officers realize that taking a traditional head-of-the-household role means accepting influence from the spouse—and appreciating it.


  • Couples get to know their Pursuer-Distancer cycles. When an officer can’t deal with the spouse’s emotional needs, or just doesn’t want to tell the spouse about what he’s been through, not wanting to burden her and not thinking she’ll understand, he pulls back. The spouse is unhappy and increases the demands on the officer for time together, emotional support, and so on. Then the officer pulls back further, and the spouse tries even harder to engage him. The Distancer keeps trying to increase the distance, and the Pursuer keeps trying to decrease it.


Like couples living with different levels of sexual desire, Pursuers and Distancers won’t ever fully solve their problem. Counseling points out that some of the withdrawal is necessary self-care, not selfishness or rejection. I recommend giving the officer the first 30 minutes at home to physically and psychologically separate from work while a civilian spouse makes no demands. A fire chief put it this way: It’s okay to hug your horse before your wife. Respecting the officer means respecting what the officer does to stay whole and sane (within reason).


  • Both parties come to recognize that their partners’ hurtful behavior in the past was not maliciously intended but came from a poor understanding of each other’s needs. That lack of understanding was due to lousy communication on both sides. In other words, clients who find therapy useful – and the majority do – come to view their partners’ poor behavior in the past as more ignorant than evil.


Of course, the biggest shift in perspective is recognizing that other points of view exist in the first place. That’s probably harder for officers than for civilian spouses, since – on the street – officers are the authority figures in charge. Out there, you’re pretty much always right. Nice, isn’t it?


A counselor friend told me that for every problem, there are 50 ways out. A handful are great, a handful are terrible, and the rest are meh. Don’t get stuck after looking at just two solutions. There are plenty of novel approaches that can free you from fighting over “his way” versus “her way” (or “her way” versus “her way”).


Staying married as an officer is like swimming upstream – tough, but manageable. Strong currents try to push you apart – the forces of crazy schedules, uniform junkies, the temptation to build a lifestyle around extra job money, the traumatic stress that leaves you emotionally numb or crazy suspicious, and all the rest. The survival of your relationships is a tribute to the strength and resilience of police officers and the people they marry.