Mike and his crew. (Photo by John Odegard.)
By Anne Gagliano
For the fire spouse, sharing problems with your firefighter can be tricky at times. The primary reason for this (as clearly laid out in my last column) stems from a comparison of the mundane with the extreme; your regular issues vs. their extraordinary ones. As a longtime fire spouse, I’ve learned over the years that I must not suppress my needs from my husband Mike for any length of time, waiting for his life to settle down, because my problems only grow—and his life never settles down. Churning and suppressing and lack of communication in a marriage are always bad ideas, for any profession. To do so is like shaking up a bottle of pop: Explosion and mess are sure to follow.
Your stuff matters too, fire spouse; don’t ever think otherwise. Your issues matter to your firefighter just as much as your firefighter’s issues matter to you; that’s the whole idea behind marriage. To suppress your needs only causes bigger, unnecessary problems, and this does not help your firefighter battle those dragons. And neither does it help the fire service if you sacrifice yourself on the altar of the greater good. So step one is on you: Tell your firefighter when you have a problem within a reasonable timeframe of that need. It’s better for you both. Trust me, I know; simply pouring them out as needed is always better and much less messy.
Now, the ball is in the firefighter’s court. No excuses, you know that your spouse has a need; you can no longer claim ignorance. But here’s where it gets tricky again, at least it has in this firefighter marriage. My husband is a fixer, a fixer on steroids. Most firefighters are; danger releases adrenaline, which influences them to act with all urgency. They fix hard and fast and aggressively—for a living—and if they don’t, people die. So they get really good at solving problems. Really good. But this wonderful ability can become a negative for this reason, when your firefighter sees your “tears” or angst or needs as a problem, a threat even, one they are very uncomfortable with, one that must be solved quickly—like putting out a fire. I’ve noticed my simple problems being handled in an overly aggressive manner at times by my firefighter; meant with the best of intentions, this “urgency” or intensity didn’t work for me. My tears were not in need of drastic, rapid intervention on his part.
I’ve been speaking on firefighter marriage for many years now, and a common tale I’m hearing 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, and here are four reasons why:
Fixing is often viewed as criticism. Back to my example of a common problem for me: “So-and-so spoke harshly to me today, and it really hurt my feelings.” My firefighter’s fix: “You shouldn’t care what they think.” True, yes, but my feelings are often not in my control, so I can’t always help “feeling hurt.” For this reason, his advice has come across as a criticism of my thinking or my ability to not get hurt–a weakness. A flaw. A failure. He has now lost me; I have shut down, withdrawn from him emotionally. The person I love most in the world, the one who’s supposed to view me as nearly perfect, has found fault with me; I’m too sensitive, not thick-skinned enough, too wimpy, and so on.
Fixing in terms of a relationship often makes a spouse feel inadequate, that they need to change in order to please. To handle problems in life. And this is always destructive, as it breaks trust. Love is all about accepting and valuing your partner just as they are. Though your advice may be sound, true even—spot on; if it comes across as criticism, it won’t be viewed as such, and it won’t help. It will, in fact, only hurt.
Fixing is often viewed as condescension. If a spouse lays out a wound, a hurt, a need—and the dry-erase board with the five-point plan comes out in response—be warned: This is insulting as well. And it may do more harm than good. Why is that, especially if you do know exactly what your spouse should do? You are sharing your wisdom, experience—which is hard-won—and they’re withdrawing from your expertise. The reason for the recoil? You’ve inadvertently portrayed yourself as superior.
Again, this may work in professional settings–the firehouse, a counselor’s office, the meeting room. But in an intimate, loving relationship? Not so much. In marriage, you must be treated as equals—always—or things may tip from balanced to imbalanced, and balance is the absolute bedrock of a solid marriage. One partner is not subordinate to the other; you are a team of equal measure, value, worth, and strength. Though your roles may be different, together you bring every necessary thing to the table of family life. The minute your partner feels less than, resentment creeps in. And this is what the “fix-it” mode can do–imply superiority and, subsequently, inferiority.
In my next column, I will lay out the other two reasons “fixing” doesn’t work in a marriage. And with those I will offer a solution to fixing, or that which does convey to the fire spouse, in the way they need to hear it from the firefighter, that their stuff 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.