By Anne Gagliano
Anxiety is fear, fear of what can or may happen in a dangerous world. It is part of the human experience, something we all must learn to live with. For firefighters and their spouses, anxiety is heightened as the job itself is dangerous enough to frighten the heartiest of souls. To battle anxiety, we try to exhibit control over threats, both perceived and real. We strive for order over chaos. And we tend to become rigid in these efforts, as the fear of the unknown becomes bigger and the comfort of safe routines more relied on. But long ago, as my husband Mike and I embarked on both marriage and firefighting, we learned that control was an impossible goal–one that only continued to exacerbate, not alleviate, our anxieties. So, we decided to let it go, and in so doing we became flexible. And this has made all the difference.
In my previous column, I explained why we did this. Flexibility works well at the fire scene, which is ever changing and unpredictable, and it also works well at home. Flexible couples pause before they react; they think before they speak. This is because they are good listeners and are present in the moment, literally gathering intel as they speak. With this ability, the flexible couple avoids many fights. The controlling, rigid couple must win and be heard at all costs, no time or willingness to adapt. Or to bend. Or to concede the point. It is an unhappy, unforgiving way to live. Let it go.
If you will choose to let go of control and embrace the joys of flexibility, the ceiling is greatly raised. You will soar to new heights in both the firehouse and the family house. Rigid control is often likened to “wood” and flexibility likened to “water.” Which should a successful firefighter use when battling the flames? “A wise man adapts himself to circumstances as water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it.”—Anonymous Firefighter couples, be as water, not wood, and you will survive the fire service, dousing those flames that threaten to destroy. Here are some of the ways Mike and I became as adaptive and flexible as water over the years:
Let go of the plan. Controlling people make a plan, Plan A. They have a step-by-step outline for how the task at hand is to be accomplished. They plot, scheme, and practice this plan down to the utmost detail, over and over again. It is rigid. It is fixed. And it is absolutely believed to be the one and only way to achieve success. If it fails, then all is lost. Flustered and undone, controllers give up in despair and quit. If you can’t rely on “the plan,” then what can you rely on? So invested are they in the plan that they cannot let it go. The mind shuts down and the endeavor is over.
Flexible people show up with multiple plans, Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D. And if all of these fail, as they very likely will, then a new plan will be developed on the spot. Creativity flows because you are in the moment, not trapped in the rigid framework of “the plan,” and you will pick up on cues and information that were not available in the “preplan” phase. The creative thrive because they are not afraid to take chances, to adapt, to try something new. Able to multitask, they can stop midstream and change directions as the situation may require. Rigid “planners” cannot do this, as they must stick with one task to its completion before picking up another. But the flexible know this; change is exciting. New discoveries are made. This new tool works better than the old. This new way of speaking gets better results with my spouse. I will abandon the old for the new, whichever works best. Because I, the flexible person, put stock in myself, not the plan.
Let go of the schedule. Controllers live by the clock. It is their ticking, driving, relentless boss. They must go here then and do this now, regardless of what may be happening. We sleep at this time, we eat at this time, and we do these specific tasks within this specific framework. To deviate in any way is unthinkable; if guests stop by they will be unwelcome, because the schedule is ascendant. If my firefighter was up all night and is too tired to proceed, then too bad, so sad—the schedule must be kept. Always. Every moment of every hour of every day must be assigned. And followed. Or control is lost, and we are now in freefall, headed for disaster.
The flexible, however, live by the moment. They are not dictated to by the clock. The schedule. If my firefighter was up all night, then take a nap. Now. In the middle of the day. We can eat later. We can do our tasks tomorrow. Or next week. We are here now, in this moment, and we will live it to the fullest. Phone calls are answered. Guests are welcomed and enjoyed. Gracious and accommodating, I have time to drop everything and visit with you. The schedule is not the boss of me, I am the boss of me. My firefighter, my family, and my friends are more important than the schedule.
Let go of judgment. Controlling people have a plan. They have a schedule. They are firm in both, with no time to listen or to think or to adjust. Hence, theirs is the final judgment. The only solution. My way or the highway. If you do not fit into my plan or my schedule, then I have no use for you. Rigid, like wood. And with this wood, they build walls around themselves, living safely in their comfort zone where they become unreceptive to new ideas, new people, new experiences. If challenged, they are defensive. Feeling attacked behind their fortress of wood, they fight. A lot. Flame, after all, consumes wood.
The flexible, those who are watery in nature, do not build walls. They are well liked because they do not judge. They listen. And they are slow to get offended because they are not afraid. They live outside their comfort zone, on the edge, anticipating something new and open to it. They take chances. And they reserve judgment until all the evidence is gathered. They find humor in life’s struggles as their fluidity allows them to “roll with the flow.” Easygoing and adaptive, their attitude is one of acceptance and tolerance. They trust and believe all will be okay as water, after all, will douse those flames.
Long ago, I was a young girl afraid of the storm. Of the unknown. Of things I could not control. Then I married a firefighter. And today I have become something different. I hardly recognize myself, but I like who I have become, and I love who Mike and I have become together. We are flexible. We have hopes and dreams, but no set plan. We live in the moment and adapt our schedule to fit us. And we are slow to anger and seldom fight because we’ve grown to understand we are in no place to judge anyone, not even each other.
Fear? Plans? Schedule? Judgment? Control? Firefighter couples, to survive the fire service for as long as we have, harken back to the song from Disney’s Frozen: “That perfect girl is gone, Here I stand in the light of day, let the storm rage on …. Let it go.”
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 33 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.