Fire Life

The Hard Conversations: When Harshness Is Brought Home

By Anne Gagliano

Mike and his crew fighting a house fire.

Firefighters are a tough breed. They’re usually “Type A” go-getters who are hard-working, aggressive, confident achievers. They tend to be athletic and very active. They are drawn to the fire service for these very reasons, as firefighting requires aggression, physical prowess, and teamwork. It is an exciting, adrenaline-packed job that is both exhilarating and fulfilling. Type A people can pour themselves into this demanding job and feel rewarded from all the self-sacrificing exertion they experience every single day. For these types, it is a dream job; it’s never dull, ever changing, and always challenging. And in this profession, where life itself can be on the line, firefighters form bonds with each other that few can truly understand. It is indeed teamwork at its best.

But this job has a downside as well. Firefighters witness some pretty gruesome sights. They have near-misses with death and are present many times when it doesn’t miss. To cope, to survive, it is only natural that they get a little “hard-hearted.” Some of this hardness exhibits itself in what’s known as “gallows’ humor.”

Gallows’ humor was a term coined from the actual device itself: When victims were to be beheaded or hanged on the gallows, they often shouted out bits of humor to cheer their distraught friends and family members who were in attendance. For example, Sir Thomas More is quoted as saying something like this as he was being helped up to the platform: “Be careful, don’t let me fall down the stairs.” 

Gallows’ humor, for the firefighter, arises from stressful, traumatic, or life-threatening situations. Humor is a coping mechanism used to alleviate some of those stresses. It is far less painful to laugh than it is to let yourself feel the overwhelming emotions of the tragedy itself.

The humor may be too edgy or offensive to share with outsiders, but between firefighters, it becomes an “inside joke.” It may seem inappropriate, but this humor is indeed quite natural; it makes disagreeable tasks more agreeable and is present in many professions. It keeps firefighters sane by filling the void of needed expression with a safe and harmless way to do so. It does not, however, translate well to the outside world. Gallows’ humor can make one appear cold, uncaring, insensitive, and even disrespectful. It is best kept between firefighters, on the job, with those who share the joke. (Funny addendum to illustrate this point: I asked Mike to give me an example of gallows’ humor from his own experience; he could not think of one that would be appropriate for the public to read of. Neither could any of his crew! All their examples, they felt, were way too dark!)

The trauma exposure is ongoing for firefighters; it is not just a one-time event. They adapt to survive by developing behaviors such as gallows’ humor; coarse jesting with one another; and harsh, jaded detachment from their own feelings while on the job. On the job, these behaviors don’t mean anything; no one gets offended because they all do it. The work environment actually creates these responses, and they are natural. What is unnatural is when the harshness comes home. In the home, these behaviors take on a new light. The spouse, who is unaccustomed to trauma, can see these types of behaviors as offensive and harsh. The spouse can think, “It’s me. He’s unhappy with me. I must have done something to provoke this harshness.” The spouse takes it personally and responds by pouting or withdrawing. Or the spouse can think, “It’s him. He’s being a jerk,” and decide to retaliate with the same type of harshness, sarcasm, or anger.

Nagging, whining, pouting, or retaliating does nothing to improve the situation; it only makes you grow farther apart. So what do you do? Harshness should not and must not be allowed to continue, as it is a very destructive force within a marriage. The answer is this: You must be able to have the hard conversations. Spouses of firefighters must tell them when they are being too harsh, in a constructive way.

To begin these conversations, always approach your firefighter by assuming the best of him or her. Try to understand that this harshness is a defense mechanism, not a character flaw. And remember, it’s not about you. Try very hard not to take it too personally, while at the same time working to see that is doesn’t impact your relationship. Again, it is natural to be “hard-hearted” at work, but it is unhealthy to be so at home.

It is best to have these conversations when your firefighter is well-rested and has had a chance to fully recover from the draining effects of adrenaline. Then he is better predisposed to listening and understanding what you are saying.

Have an agreement ahead of time to use key phrases that you both recognize as being indicators that your firefighter’s harshness is creeping back into the relationship. It is sometimes difficult to create these phrases in the heat of the moment; thus, planning and preparing them are more effective. For example, my husband Mike and I have agreed on my saying, “Hey, I’m not a firefighter.”(A buddy of ours, Captain Mike Dugan of FDNY, told us his daughters say, “Hey, Dad, stop using your fireman voice.”) We’ve discussed this issue at length over our 25-year marriage, and these types of friendly little reminders are a way of gently broaching the subject without getting into a major argument. He knows, and I know, what this phrase means: You’re starting to offend me with your coarseness, so please lighten up.

Mike has specifically asked me to tell him when he’s being a “jerk”; he needs to hear it from me. Otherwise, he can be unaware of the fact that he is indeed starting to treat me like a firefighter. I’ve been honest with him; I don’t like it. I’m a tender-hearted female and I need to be treated as such. He likes me that way; it’s one of the primary reasons he married me. Our relationship has weathered these storms because we are willing to have these conversations, though they can be difficult. Mike has come to understand that his behavior can be affected by his work and that behavior can be harmful to me emotionally if it continues unchecked. I’ve come to understand that it’s often difficult to shift gears from the work atmosphere to home life, especially when you add sleep deprivation to the equation; he does the best he can and never intends to be harsh with me.

Intimacy is a very fragile, silken thread that binds two souls together. It must be protected to survive. Unchecked, undealt-with harshness can damage this thread, even threaten to break it. Firefighters need a soft place to land after the hardness of their work. Home should be that place. It takes a concerted effort on both your parts to maintain that softness; otherwise, the harshness of the job will creep in. There is no more magical, rewarding, or beautiful relationship than that of husband and wife. It is unique amongst all others, and intimacy is what makes it so. Without intimacy, two people simply become polite but distant strangers. Conversation, healthy conversation, is required to maintain that silken thread between you. You must be willing to have the hard conversations so you can continue to be true soul mates, not just roommates.

Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 25 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.