By Anne Gagliano
It’s 1990, and the ’80s are over, but as you can tell by the picture—both my and my husband Mike’s hair don’t seem to know it yet. We are a young couple with two small boys ages 3 and 2. We’re a tight little family, close, and newly returned to Seattle (my hometown) from serving in the United States Air Force at England Air Force Base in Alexandria, Louisiana. Mike has spent the last 10 months working as a correction’s officer in Tacoma as he tests for his dream job—Seattle Fire.
The day finally came—the day that would change both his life and mine for the next 26 years—the day he received his acceptance letter from the Seattle Fire Department (SFD). It has been an amazing career with incredible highs and incredible lows and a few surprises as well. We watched many of our peers along the way lose their first family to the phenomenon that was until then unforeseen by us—the second family.
Firefighters form very tight bonds. They are a team, a team that puts their lives into each other’s hands. They tend to be like-minded with similar interests, even similar senses of humor. They share inside jokes and experiences that often cannot be spoken of with those who have not gone through them. This bond is a brotherhood/sisterhood that can become as strong as blood. Like soldiers in the trenches, as firefighters battle the forces of death they discover this:
“… it awakened in us a strong, practical sense of espirit de corps, which in the field developed into the finest thing that arose out of the war—comradeship.”–Erich Maria Remarque
The strong affection firefighters feel for one another is a good thing. It helps them do what they do—and love doing it. But through our years in SFD, we’ve watched this bond become a problem if and when it begins to take precedence over a firefighter’s first family—the spouse and children. And this can be a hazard to a firefighter’s marriage, one that we’ve had to address ourselves over the years.
Rita Brunacini, wife of legendary and much beloved Chief (Ret.) Alan Brunacini, Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department, stated this problem best when she complained to Al, “I think you love Fire Station 1 more than you love me.” Al, whose sharp wit and sense of humor is well known in the fire service, quickly replied, “Yes, I do, but I love you more than Fire Station 2.”
We chuckle at this funny response, but the underlying jealousy is real enough, as I myself have experienced on many occasions. Sometimes I’ve felt left out as I cannot compete with sirens and flashing lights and “dragon fighting.” The urgency of life and death often trumps the needs of a sheltered wife. Or so it can seem. My firefighter, who adores me above all else, can sometimes feel his loyalties being torn as he is desperately needed both at home and at the firehouse. The balance between the two is something that every firefighter couple must find, and to do so I suggest having this essential conversation: How do we keep our first family first? How does a spouse feel number one over a profession that is elite, exclusive, and vital to the existence of our communities?
Step one is to recognize the “red flags of warning,” as I call them. These are indicators that Mike and I are beginning to drift as a couple into marital discord, warnings that I am beginning to feel “second.”
Red Flag #1: We’re not talking much about deeper issues, which is one of my vital needs to feel connected. Conversation becomes shallow, minimal, and perfunctory.
Red Flag #2: Mike begins to develop a “hair trigger temper” or is easily irritated by me or the kids. I begin to feel as if I’m walking on eggshells.
Red Flag #3: When he’s here, he’s not really here. So distracted is he by the projects and demands piling up that he has trouble concentrating on just me.
When one or more of these red flags begin to creep into our marriage, which is more precious to us both than anything else, we drop everything and take immediate action before things get worse—before I begin to truly resent his profession. Every couple is as unique as the individuals who comprise it, but here are a few tips that my firefighter and I have found after 26 years of SFD experience to help keep the lines between first and second families firmly in place:
(1) Make sure time together is focused. The call of the firehouse is a strong one—it can be felt, even at home. My firefighter is sometimes so busy as to be perpetually distracted, and this I can and do resent at times. So what I need from him, what I’ve told him that I need, is his undivided attention, not just his physical presence. This means no cell phones at the table. Look at me when I’m talking and actually listen to what I’m saying—and this I’ll know you’re doing when you give me the appropriate responses. He never means to neglect me—I am undoubtedly first in his heart—and this he tells me all the time. But he shows me I’m first when he puts all distractions aside and turns his full attention to me—if just for a little while—each and every day. This makes me feel first.
(2) Run every major decision by your spouse. Doers get asked to do—a lot. And, let’s face it, most firefighters are doers. My husband gets asked to do major projects and (some small ones, too) almost every day. When he takes on the big ones, he must do this—tell me about it before he makes that decision.
It’s easy to be compelled by the urgency of the firehouse to jump in headfirst. But here’s the dilemma: These projects will ultimately impact me. It’s only fair that I be in the loop. He has learned to find out as much as possible about all that is involved and then share it with me. This shows me that my opinion matters. I have “buy-in” when I have a say in the decision. And this makes me feel first.
Look for the rest of my tips on this topic in “Keep Your First Family First, Part 2.”
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 30 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.