Public Safety Relationships

By Charles F. Bond

Is the chance of a public safety worker getting a divorce higher than in any other profession? How different are the numbers compared with the national average? Are all of our relationships doomed to failure? What type of person is drawn to public safety work, and does that have anything to do with what seems like a relationship disaster? After a divorce, what type of family system or structure is most common in the next relationship?

Emergency service is one of our society’s most challenging and rewarding professions. Yet, many who enter cannot withstand the persistent pressure of its occupational stress. There are few stressors in life that have the destructive power associated with the stress of caring for the sick and injured. Similarly, firefighters, paramedics, disaster workers, and other emergency response personnel experience tremendous stress as a result of their work with other people. Researchers have pointed out that the responsibility for the life and safety of others is considered a significant stressor to emergency workers, and it may have damaging effects on their lives and relationships (Mitchell & Bray, 1990).

Much has been written on the stresses inherent in public safety work—what the stressors are, how we can combat them, and what effect they have on us and our personal relationships. This article deals with the increasing number of workers who have had or are presently experiencing a failed relationship, have become a single parent, or have entered into what has become the “new” family type: the stepfamily. Many public safety workers are on their second, third, fourth, or more marriages. Figure 1 has statistics on the national prevalence of divorce, according to www.divorcestatistics.com.

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The stress and trauma of public safety work often impact family life. Families, however, can be our main source of support. Family support can provide the sort of resiliency the worker needs to stay physically and emotionally fit. However, when family life adds to the worker’s emotional distress, or families do not offer support, this can have a dramatically negative impact.

Why does this work affect our relationships in such a profound way? We all know the types of calls we run and the effect those calls have on us. The job can make us distrustful and withdrawn, looking for comfort in many ways and maybe looking to become numb and escape.

Let’s look at the stressors besides the emergency calls that may erode our relationships:

  • Changing schedules (shift work and overtime).
  • Changing co-workers.
  • Environment (cold, heat, noise).
  • Situational dangers (physical injury, communicable diseases).
  • Emotional demands.
  • Interpersonal conflicts.
  • Nuisance calls.
  • Need for quick decision making.
  • Boredom.
  • Fatigue.
  • Uncertainty.

Now, let’s look at the personality types that are found among us:

  • Action-oriented.
  • Live in the present moment.
  • Nontrusting.
  • Rigid.
  • Dislike abstract theory without practical application.
  • Like to see immediate results of efforts.
  • Fast-paced and energetic.
  • Seldom work from a plan—make things up as we go.
  • Highly observant.
  • Excellent ability to see an immediate problem and quickly devise a solution.
  • Attracted to adventure and risk.

STRESS AND ITS EFFECTS ON RELATIONSHIPS AND FAMILIES

I am not trying to present a “doom and gloom” view of marriage and relationships, but I am trying to provide some insight into the realities of our profession. My hope is that many people will read this article as they are starting a new family or have one in progress and will use some of the information as their family struggles with the day-to-day operation of the relationship. My own personal experiences motivated me to write this article. I was hoping to assist my fellow public safety workers to create a better way of life and possibly, dare I say, lower the divorce rate among us, especially among remarried families.

One of the most important factors to realize is that divorce is just one event in the long painful process of a marital breakup. The dissolution of a marital relationship begins long before and continues well after the legal battles are over. Most divorced people report their greatest level of stress occurred before deciding to divorce; the second most distressing period was when the decision was made to divorce; and the least stressful time, relatively speaking, was after the separation or divorce. Therefore, the worker typically will exhibit signs of decreased well-being long before the actual divorce or long before any co-workers become aware of the marriage difficulties (Rawles, 2003).

Marital breakup also negatively affects the relationship we have with our children. Divorced personnel may find themselves trying to manage their own personal distress while having to address new problematic behaviors in their children. This is a common response of children to marital conflict, especially when parents act out in front of them. Such behaviors may include disobeying or verbally disrespecting parents, truancy, poor academic performance, substance abuse, and running away. Additionally, because the public safety discipline is more than 90 percent male and mothers are more often given custody of the children, the newly separated or divorced fathers are likely to be newly noncustodial fathers (Rawles, 2003). These consequences only increase their feelings of distress, inadequacy, and incompetence, which could ultimately begin to affect work performance and interactions with co-workers and the general public. Furthermore, fire departments tend to be close-knit communities. Personnel often date co-workers or marry the relatives or friends of co-workers. These relationships can create a unique challenge for predivorce or divorced personnel on the job.

The remainder of this article deals with the increasing numbers who have experienced or are experiencing a failed relationship and have found themselves a single parent or have entered into a nonnuclear or stepfamily. A rapid increase in the divorce rate in nuclear families has produced a growing number of single-parent households, remarriage families, and stepfamilies.

THE STEPFAMILY

In the general population—the population that does not have a family member working in public safety—the predictions from professionals are that stepfamilies will soon outnumber first-marriage families in America, since 50 percent of first marriages end in divorce and approximately 75 percent of divorced individuals do remarry, typically within three to four years (Visher & Visher, 1996). Figure 2 lists stepfamily statistics from the Stepfamily Association of America (1989).

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It would be helpful to learn about stepfamilies if you are one of the following (SAA, 1989):

  • Planning to remarry.
  • A stepparent of children who visit.
  • A biological parent who has remarried.
  • An instant parent.
  • A stepparent of children who live with you full time.
  • Troubled by problems with an ex-spouse.
  • A grandparent wondering where you fit in.

What does this mean? It means that many children today live in step relationships, of which two out of three are predicted to fail. This family failure causes the child to lack the crucial support that enables him to thrive or even survive society’s cultural, educational, and work systems without proper stepfamily familiarization assistance (www.stepfamily.org, 2006). Without appropriate guidance and assistance from someone experienced in stepfamily issues and public safety dynamics, whether an experienced psychotherapist, an employee assistance professional, or a specially trained paraprofessional within your agency, a stepfamily could fall victim to the difficulties of remarriage and become another statistic.

Today, at least one-third of all children in the United States are expected to live in a stepfamily before they reach age 18. Depending on whose research you read, the numbers in public safety may even be higher. The blended family is becoming more of a norm than an aberration. Born of conflict and loss, newfound commitments, and often a heart-wrenching transition, stepfamilies face many lifestyle adjustments. Fortunately, most of them are able to work out their problems and live together successfully, but it takes careful planning, open discussions of feelings, positive attitudes, mutual respect, and patience (www.helpguide.org, 2006).

STEPFAMILY DYNAMICS

Because stepfamilies are most frequently born of loss—divorce or death—the protection factor is an important consideration. After a death or divorce, the reorganized, single-parent family often bonds into a very close unit emotionally. This closeness is vital to its survival. To ward off any real or perceived invaders, the family members may automatically put up the family’s invisible protective emotional shield. It becomes a case of “us against the world” or “circle the wagons” as the single-parent family seeks to stabilize itself. Often in the formation of stepfamily relationships, the adults look at this new family as a positive opportunity for growth and happiness. For the children, on the other hand, this outsider represents a threat to the security of the parent-child relationship. Children naturally become highly protective of their relationships with the individual parents. Whereas the adults often come out feeling like winners, the children just as frequently feel like losers (Harway, 1996).

Some stepfamily definitions follow.

  • A stepfamily is a household in which there is an adult couple, at least one of whom has a child by a previous relationship. It doesn’t matter whether the child resides full time or part time within the household.
  • A residential parent is the parent with whom the child lives most of the time. Usually, but not always, this will be the parent who has custody of the child.
  • A nonresidential parent is the parent with whom the child lives less than the majority of the time.
  • A remarried parent is a person with a biological or adoptive child who marries someone other than the child’s biological or adoptive parent.
  • A stepparent is the new partner of the child’s parent. This adult is not biologically related to the child.

One unrealistic expectation of stepfamily members is that the household will integrate and settle down relatively quickly. Relationships are not developed overnight, and integrations between new family members, members who may have met only months before, often take considerable time. The new parents believe that love occurs instantly between the child and the stepparent. Often, there is the expectation that you will or are expected to love the children immediately.

Children often go through a painful period of adjustment after a divorce or remarriage. An important part of parenting is setting limits. Parents often respond to their children’s pain with guilt. They feel that they must make it up to them, leading to improper or no control.

That the parent-child relationship precedes the new couple relationship is one of the most significant factors to consider. A new couple relationship could feel like a major threat to the already existing parent-child bond. In so many ways, the incoming stepparent is at a distinct disadvantage, feeling like an outsider looking in through the invisible family shield, unable to be part of the ongoing parent-child relationship. However, it is extremely important that until the child feels trusting enough to welcome this stranger into the family, the adults (parent and stepparent) need to refrain from trying to force such bonds to happen. Children need to set the pace (Harway, 1996).

Figure 3 lists seven characteristics that distinguish stepfamilies from nuclear, intact families. With each characteristic listed, there is the corresponding task facing the stepfamily (Visher, & Visher, 1988).

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What roles do stepparents have when it comes to issues of discipline? If the stepparent has only a tentative, fragile bond with the stepchildren, how can either feel secure with the stepparent setting limits or being the disciplinarian? A common statement heard by stepparents is, “You can’t tell me what to do; you’re not my father/mother.” A stepparent does not automatically become an authority figure just because he is married to or living with the child’s biological parent. The parenting role is not a given; it has to be earned, achieved over time, and based on respect and an emerging psychological relationship. This is especially true when the children are preteens or adolescents.

The couple relationship needs to be the first priority in any newly forming stepfamily. The children need to feel secure, and the most visible source of such security is a stable, loving couple that can provide for all their needs. So often, couples enter into a stepfamily and have no time or energy for each other. In the first two years of stepfamily living, the key to eventual stability for the children and the stepfamily has to be the emergence of a solid, stable, loving couple relationship. Even then, there is no guarantee that all children in the stepfamily will accept the new relationship (Harway, 1996).

According to Visher & Visher (1993), “Not only does their new [stable] couple relationship bring happiness to the adults, it reduces the children’s anxiety about another parental breakup, creates an atmosphere in which the maintaining of the parent/child relationship can be respected by the stepparent, and encourages warm steprelationships. It provides the children with a model of a couple who are happy together and can work as a team to meet family challenges” (p. 247).

BASIC DIFFERENCES IN STEPFAMILY STRUCTURE

The following are from Visher & Visher (1996):

The family begins after many losses and changes. There are no longer two parents living in the household; children are no longer living full time in one household; there are usually new rules, foods, and ways of doing things; the children feel they have lost their family.

Both adults and children come together with incongruent individual, marital, and family life cycles. In an original marriage, two adults become a couple at the same time and become parents at the same time. In a stepfamily, children and adults come together from markedly dissimilar marital and family experiences.

Children and adults all have expectations from previous families. In a first marriage, two adults each have learned behavior patterns and values from their families of origin. Children are born into a family and grow up unconsciously absorbing the values and patterns of that family. In a stepfamily, the children as well as the adults bring with them values and ways of doing things from their families of origin, from previous marriages, and from single-parent households.

Parent-child relationships predate the new couple relationship. In stepfamilies, remarried parents come into the family with preexisting bonds, experiences, and alliances with their children.

There is a biological parent in another household or in memory. Children usually have strong emotional ties to each of their biological parents. Children are often expected to choose from among three or four adults as primary parents. Over time, developing a parenting coalition of parents and stepparents in the children’s two households is often beneficial for the adults as well as the children.

Stepparents may be asked to assume a parental role before emotional ties with the stepchild have been established. Often, a stepparent is thrust into the role of instant parent. Biological parents grow into their parenting roles as their children grow. Stepparents are often expected to adjust instantly as though parenting is an innate skill.

There is no legal relationship between stepparents and stepchildren. The role of stepparent is unclear because of the lack of a legal relationship between the stepparent and the child. No legal relationship with the stepchild means that unless they have written authority, they can’t authorize emergency medical care, have access to school records, or sign important documents.

Loyalty conflicts are introduced. In functional first-marriage families when a child is born, the couple has already developed a strong bond with the child. Children in the household have alliances with the parent in the household and with the other parent living elsewhere. Many children fear that they are being disloyal to the parent outside of the home if they build a bond with the stepparent. Even the stepparent feels guilty spending time with the stepchild and not a biological child.

DISCIPLINE

Following are discipline ideas for stepfamilies:

  • First set up a relationship with the children in which the stepparent is more like a friend or camp counselor than a disciplinarian.
  • Let the biological parent remain primarily responsible for control and discipline of the children until the stepparent has developed a solid bond with them. It is ideal to have both the biological parent and the stepparent working collaboratively on discipline issues after the stepparent has forged a solid relationship with the children.
  • Until stepparents can take on more parenting responsibilities, they can monitor the children’s behavior and activities and keep their spouses informed (without appearing to be spies).
  • Without the children present, each spouse might develop a list of household rules. It is a good idea to discuss the rules with the children and then post them in a prominent place.

When the rules are explicit, the stepparent is removed from the custodial parent/stepparent/stepchild triangle by simply following agreed-on house rules rather than acting like a dictator for the family.

WHEN TO SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP

If conflicts persist or escalate in your stepfamily despite all your efforts to make peace, then you would probably benefit from seeking appropriately trained help. The results of therapeutic intervention in stepfamily conflicts are generally good. In fact, given the high divorce rate among remarrieds with children and the complexity of stepfamily relationships, it is recommended that stepfamily members seek assistance whenever conflicts seem to continue for prolonged periods.

According to Bloomfield (1993), if one or more of the following signs and symptoms apply to your stepfamily, you should seek help promptly:

  • You and your marriage partner are repeatedly caught in bitter conflict and hostility.
  • You feel chronically overwhelmed by problems and feel you cannot cope.
  • You or your mate seeks solace in binge eating, drugs, or alcohol abuse.
  • Family arguments lead to physical combat or threats of violence.
  • The boundaries of intimacy are violated, and someone in the stepfamily is sexually harassed or abused.
  • You and your spouse have sexual problems that you haven’t been able to resolve on your own, even after making a sustained effort.
  • A child in the family is “that troublemaker,” the source of many unresolved disputes between the two of you.
  • Stepsiblings continually use physical or psychological abuse to deal with jealousy and rivalry.
  • You’re in a severe emotional crisis, and the support of family and friends isn’t enough.
  • Someone in the family may be suffering from a serious mental illness.
  • Any family member is significantly depressed or having suicidal thoughts.
  • You and your mate remain emotionally withdrawn from each other (when you frequently think the remarriage was a mistake).
  • A child’s school performance, peer relationships, or behavior remains deteriorated months after the previous marital breakup or after the new family has been formed.

Studies show that children of stepfamilies face higher risk of emotional and behavioral problems. They also are less likely to be resilient in stressful situations. Although most parents are able to work out these difficulties within the family, they should consider seeking assistance for children who exhibit strong feelings of the following:

  • Being alone in dealing with their losses.
  • Torn between two parents or two households.
  • Excluded.
  • Isolated by feelings of guilt or anger.
  • Unsure about what is right.
  • Very uncomfortable with any member of the original family or stepfamily.

Seeking qualified assistance might be appropriate for both the children and the family in the following situations:

  • The children direct anger at a particular family member or openly resent a stepparent or parent.
  • One of the parents suffers from great stress and is unable to help with the children’s increased need for attention.
  • A stepparent or parent openly favors one of the children.

Denial is a tool that many couples use to prolong their emotional distress. Many of us have a tendency to hope conflict will lessen by ignoring it. If any of the symptoms above apply to your stepfamily, what you need is the courage to acknowledge the crisis and get help. Many forms of help are available, including premarital counseling, stepfamily workshops, stepfamily groups, stepfamily classes, family therapy, and adolescent or child therapy (Bloomfield, 1993).

HOW TO CHOOSE A BEHAVIORAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL

It is very important that helping professionals have a clear understanding of the issues and dynamics of stepfamily living. These families are unique and potentially very complex. In their functioning, we can readily see family systems operating in the most complicated fashion. With a thorough knowledge of family systems and stepfamily dynamics, professionals and paraprofessionals are better prepared to cope with the turmoil that these families encounter (Seibt, 1991). Martin and Martin (1992), in their book on therapy with stepfamilies, express this very clearly: “For a therapist untrained in working with stepfamilies, therapeutic contact with them can feel like being ringmaster for a disorganized circus. In correlation with its degree of dysfunction, a stepfamily can take every conceivable twist and turn. The methods that work with traditional families may not work with stepfamilies at all” (p. 2).

In the early stages of working with stepfamilies, one of the first interventions of benefit is education about what is normal and can be expected as the stepfamily grows. Normalizing the family members’ feelings frequently relieves a great deal of anxiety and allows them to step back and look at the situation with a little more objectivity. With the education process of the family members, they need to understand the following:

  • The myth and unrealistic expectations prevalent in our culture.
  • The unique stepfamily characteristics.
  • The primacy of the couple relationship.
  • The developmental stages that stepfamilies normally traverse.

CHALLENGING BUT NOT IMPOSSIBLE

As our society evolves and changes and new patterns emerge, especially in public safety, many nontraditional (single-parent, divorce, remarried) families need education and support as they try to understand their new family types. Being in a nontraditional family is different from being in a traditional, intact first-marriage family. To succeed in the face of these differences, families must know that their experiences are normal. It is also critical not to label these families as dysfunctional. Family members need to understand that the tasks they face in their unique situation are challenging but not impossible. The helping professionals they work with need to be knowledgeable about and open to these nontraditional families.

I hope this article will be helpful for new stepfamilies as well as existing stepfamilies as they try to normalize the relationship crises in their lives. By devoting the necessary time to develop their own traditions and form loving, stable relationships, stepfamilies can create emotionally rich and lasting bonds for each member. In the process, the children acquire the self-esteem and strength to enjoy the challenges that lie ahead. Some comments made by children experiencing a loving stepfamily include the following: “More friends, more presents, more celebrations, more adults to love you, more children in the house to play with or do things with.” “Awareness of what it takes to develop and maintain interpersonal relationships.” “Never a dull moment.” “A sense of personal growth.” “More adult role models for me to choose from.” “A stepparent who is more objective to confide in.” “Another chance at happiness.”

REFERENCES

Bloomfield, H. H. Making peace in your stepfamily. (New York: Hyperion). 1993.

Divorcestatistics.org. Divorce Statistics. Retrieved December 8, 2006, http://www.divorcestatistics.org/.

Harway, M. (ed.). Treating the changing family: Handling normative and unusual events. (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.). 1996.

Larson, J., “Understanding stepfamilies,” American Demographics, 1992; 14, 360. Retrieved October 31, 2006, http://www.helpguide.org/mental/bleded_families_stepfamilies.htm/.

Martin, D. & M. Martin. Stepfamilies in therapy: Understanding systems, assessment, and intervention. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass). 1992.

Mitchell, J.T. & G.P. Bray. Emergency services stress: Guidelines for preserving the health and careers of emergency personnel. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall). 1990.

Rawles, P. Don’t divorce yourself from members’ marital woes. 2003. Retrieved August 8, 2006 http://www.printthis.clickability.com/pt/cpt/?action=cpt&title=Don%27t+.../.

Seibt, T., “Teenagers in stepfamilies: What’s the difference?” Employee Assistance: Solutions to problems, October 1994, 7(3):15-23.

Stepfamilies stepping ahead, Stepfamily Association of America, Stepfamilies Press, Lincoln, NE, 1989.

The statistics on stepfamilies are staggering. The Stepfamily Foundation. Retrieved October 31, 2006, http://www.stepfamily.org/statistics.html/.

Visher, E. & J. Visher. Old loyalties: New ties. (New York: Brummer/Mazel). 1988.

Visher, E. & J. Visher. “Remarriage, families and stepparenting. In F. Walsh (ed). Normal family processes (2nd ed) (New York: Guilford). 1993.

Visher, E.B. & J.S. Visher. Stepping Together: Creating Strong Stepfamilies, Stepfamily Association of America, Lincoln, NE, 1996.

Charles F. Bond, MA, BCECR, EMT-P, is deputy director of behavioral health disaster services for the State of Maryland. He has been a nationally registered and Maryland licensed paramedic for 23 years, has won the Medal of Valor, and has been named Paramedic of the Year. He recently retired from the Prince George’s County (MD) Fire/EMS Department with 27 years in public safety. He has experience with the design and implementation of critical incident stress management (CISM) teams and has conducted hundreds of interventions with fire and EMS personnel and civilians who have dealt with critical incidents at home, in the workplace, and on the highways. He is a trained hostage negotiator, is a certified CISM instructor, and is board certified in emergency crisis response with the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. Bond has a master’s degree in counseling/family psychology.

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