By Anne Gagliano
As a young wife new to the fire service 30-plus years ago, I quickly realized one thing about this profession: My firefighter is dealing with some pretty serious stuff. Life and death. Emergencies. Chaos, disarray, and disorder that needed fixing—right now—or people would die. The stories he’d relay were at first shocking; I didn’t know such things could happen in life, but even over time, extraordinary things just kept coming. It never gets dull or samey in the world of 911. Never.
For the fire spouse who is witness (by proxy) to the realm of extremes, it’s easy to start thinking, “I’ll just wait to tell him about this or that issue of mine till things calm down a bit. The last thing I want to do is add to his plate while he’s dealing with a calamity.” The problem with this, firefighter spouse, is that they never do calm down. Trust me, I know; my firefighter’s been at it for more than 33 years. To be honest, it seems like the past few years were even more stressful than the first few.
The point I’m trying to make is, you must tell your firefighter what’s going on with you now, not later. I don’t mean the minute he walks through the door after a 24-hour shift, but soon, within a reasonable time frame of your need and his days off. This is better for you and your firefighter.
It took me a while to figure this out. What I used to do was hold on to it, mull it over, and hope that a gap in the action would arise, then I’d lay it on him. This does not work for two reasons: (1) Some issues just can’t wait, and (2) by the time I finally did lay it all out, the problem had grown. My angst had increased and, along with it, a little resentment as well. When all was finally said and done, my firefighter was now dealing with my problem as well as my anger, with perhaps a few self-pitying tears thrown in for good measure. It’s like shaking up a bottle of pop; instead of just opening and pouring it out, combustion and mess vs. simple release.
That is what churning, suppression, and lack of communication does in a marriage. One way or another, it’s going to come out; it just depends on how you do it. Calm or explosive, you get to decide how you relay issues to your firefighter. I began to recognize that if I suppressed my problems, they always became a bigger mess than was necessary. This was not my firefighter’s fault, but mine. This tendency developed from the mistaken belief that my problems paled in comparison to his, so they didn’t matter as much. But the truth, as I came to know it, is my stuff matters too.
This may seem like a no-brainer, an obvious point in marriage. One partner should never be perceived as more important, as a higher priority, and as needing to come first. This is true in every sense. A good marriage is a partnership based on complete equality. However, I’m not talking about value or worth, respect or love. I’m talking about problems. This is where it gets tricky for fire spouses. How does, “So-and-so spoke harshly to me today” compare to “we pulled a dead body from a mangled car today?” It absolutely does not compare, which is the problem. I’m here to tell you, young fire spouses, to quit believing that it ever will, so stop comparing. You can’t withhold your issues from your spouse out of a sense of sacrifice to the greater good of the fire service, or his part in it. This doesn’t help your firefighter, and it will only damage your relationship. I’ll bet your firefighter will say the same thing. Of course they care about you and your issues, so quit trying to hide them. It only makes them feel bad if they think you can’t go to them. And it most assuredly will make things worse when you finally erupt from the mounting pressure. Trust me—I know.
You’ve heard the truth—your stuff matters, too. Trust your firefighter with your problems and seek them out just the same as if they were a “normal” spouse with a normal job. That’s your role, your responsibility fire spouse. Your firefighter is not a mind-reader and shouldn’t be expected to show support for things he knows nothing about. Step 1 is on you—tell your firefighter.
What’s Step 2? This one’s on the firefighter: how to deal with the problems of their spouse. Herein lies another reality that became apparent in our marriage when I would finally seek my firefighter’s help or comfort—he’s not a normal spouse. He’s a fixer, a fixer for a living, a fixer on steroids—24/7. Even when my problems were minor, his reactions to them often stemmed from his experience with extreme ones. In his world, it’s all-hands-on deck, think fast—apply solutions with aggression, decisiveness, and rapid intervention. Out would come the dry-erase board with a five-point plan or abrupt, quick answers would fly in quips like, “You shouldn’t care what so-and-so thinks of you, and if they speak harshly, tell them to pound sand!” That’s how he rolls.
This may seem a bit much, and it was, at times, but this was his way of speaking love to me. To pour all his strength and skill at fixing onto me, his beloved bride, was his idea of truly helping in the best way he knew how. Problem is, however, this often wasn’t what I needed. And “fixing,” no matter how well intentioned, can shut a person down. Being a fixer works at the fire scene, but not so much in a marriage.
I’ll lay this all out in Part 2 as I define the firefighter’s role in dealing with their mate’s stuff—’cause it matters, too.
If you’re interested in my book, Challenges of the Firefighter Marriage, check it out HERE
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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.