By Anne Gagliano
In Part 1, I explained that, as a young wife 30-plus years ago, I quickly realized one thing about the fire service: My firefighter is dealing with some pretty serious stuff. 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 til 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. I began to recognize that, if I suppressed my problems, they always became a bigger mess than was necessary, and 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 don’t matter as much. But the truth as I came to know it is this: My stuff matters too.
You’ve heard the truth: Your stuff matters too. Trust your firefighter with your problems and seek him out just the same as if he were a “normal” spouse with a normal job. But herein lies another reality that became apparent in our marriage when I finally would 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 and decisiveness and rapid intervention.
In Part 2, I shared that I’ve been speaking on firefighter marriage for many years and a common tale I’ve heard from young fire wives is this: I’m afraid to tell him of my needs because he “freaks out when I cry.” With a little more digging (combined with my own experience), I’ve uncovered a more precise definition of “freaks out,” and it is this: He tries to fix it.
I’ve also heard the flip side from young firefighters (both male and female): I don’t know how to help because my best efforts seem to offend. So again, young couples, I will explain to you what I’ve discovered after 33 years of living with a firefighter (a.k.a. a fixer on steroids): Fixing does not work in a marriage. Reasons one and two were in my last column. Following are two more:
Fixing is often viewed as impatience. The quick fix. The rapid intervention; this works at the fire scene when lives are on the line. Or at the aid run; the addict with a needle in his arm needs to have that needle removed and aid applied. Simple. Zap boom bam, problem solved. This can become automatic for the well-trained firefighter; see the need, apply the solution. Done. And it’s off to the next 911 call. And the next, and the next. Speed required.
Now the firefighter goes home and is faced with a weepy spouse. A need is encountered; apply a quick solution. Done; wait, not done? My spouse is not fixed; in fact, now she’s mad at me. The reason for this is your quick slap of a bandage was interpreted as “You don’t have time for me; you’re in a hurry to be on to the next thing.” I too know this from personal experience as I’ve felt rushed to move along, to get to the point, like a 911 call. I’ve had to remind my firefighter on occasion that I’m not an addict with a needle in my arm.
The “quick fix” often says that, in any profession, I have bigger fish to fry, so let’s get this over with ASAP, as fingers snap. You’ve just conveyed, however unintentional, that your precious time must not be wasted on the mundane, nonlife-threatening problems of your spouse.
Fixing is often viewed as apathy. This is probably the most harmful of all to a marriage and the hardest to explain. The reason for this is that it is a feeling that comes across, something not clearly spoken in words or deeds. With the fix-it approach, a spouse seeking comfort or support is instead issued a fix, but this does not meet the need. And, when a need is not met, the perception of a lack of concern may fester and grow, causing emotional distance and a loss of intimacy or trust. “My spouse doesn’t really care what I need, doesn’t really know me, and doesn’t take the time to find out.” If continuous, this may prove disastrous to a once healthy relationship.
The solution to a firefighter’s tendency to fix? Just listen. That’s it; just ask your spouse, “Do you want my advice, or do you just want me to listen?” Most of the time the answer will be, just listen. This is incredibly simple, but simple doesn’t mean easy. A fixer on steroids (who secretly prefers to offer that advice) must suppress that which they are not only good at but well-trained in with skills honed to perfection. Not easy to hold back the fix, but oh so doable and worth every effort. My firefighter has learned to do this very well, and trust me, with his typical firefighter can-do nature, he’s become very good at it. I now tell him when I need to talk, I have an issue, I’m sad, can I share this with you? (this I do as needed, no longer waiting for a lull in his action, which leads to that “shaken-pop-bottle” explosion.) My excellent, nonfixer drops everything and literally says, “Do you want me to listen?” Yes, absolutely; that’s exactly what I want. Then, I get to choose if we sit over a cup of coffee or (if it’s really serious) have him hold me as I vent. No fixes are offered, no advice given, just murmurs of “I understand, that must be hard, I’m here, I’m so sorry, I love you,” and so on. Then, at the end, he’ll offer to “disagree” or point out why all that I’ve just laid out isn’t as bad as I think as he kindly reminds me of all the good stuff: my strength of character, my ability to handle this, my undying support of his and all who love me. This is what I need—a vent session with tenderness and empathy and encouragement plus gentle reminders of all that’s good. This takes time and attention and focus, and it is the polar opposite of the quick fix that often implies criticism; condescension; impatience; or, worst of all, apathy.
Heartfelt comfort displayed with a hug and attentiveness is usually all your spouse needs. So just listen, firefighter, when your spouse tells you of her issues, and do not fix. This will clearly say to her that, although you deal with the most extreme emergencies known to mankind and your stuff is fast, furious, and extraordinary, you do have time to listen because her stuff matters too—at least, it matters to you.
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.