By Anne Gagliano
Our marriage has survived 33 years of the fire service—33 years! That’s approximately 4,000 24-hour shifts followed by 4,000 re-entry times. I’ve credited re-entry time to helping our relationship survive the challenges of firefighter marriage in previous columns, in our classes, and with an entire chapter in our book. I’ve described how it came about, what it is, and why it’s needed, but I don’t think I’ve ever suggested what to do when you’ve failed at it. And trust me, we’ve had many fails. Nobody’s perfect 4,000 times in a row! However, failure is never the end, especially for the firefighter. The can-do attitude that permeates the fire service applies at home, too. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Your time together as a couple depends on it.
A little reminder of what re-entry time is: Giving your firefighter time to decompress and transition from the rough-and-tumble world of the firehouse to the safe and tranquil environment of home. Firefighting is unique among professions primarily for its exposure to danger. It is a high-stress, adrenaline-packed job. When one is confronted with danger, adrenaline surges into the body (along with as many as 30 other hormones) to prepare the body for “fight or flight.” Consequently, sometimes your firefighter may come home to you still full of adrenaline or completely exhausted and drained of all energy (also known as “para-sympathetic nervous system backlash”). Being either one—amped up and agitated or drained and ambivalent—can render one incapable of having fruitful and meaningful conversation. When full of adrenaline, a firefighter can still be in full fight-or-flight mode and might actually see a brisk round of questions as a threat. He may then be overly aggressive or harsh in his responses (unintentionally of course), which can result in a hurt and offended spouse. Or, conversely, a drained and sleep-deprived firefighter may be so uninterested in your questions and friendly attempts at conversation that the same result can occur—a hurt and offended spouse. This is how re-entry time was born in our household…from the conflicts that arose when our different dispositions and job demands met at the front door.
I found that if I gave Mike a chance to transition with a little peace, quiet, and space when he first arrived home, things went way better for us. He was so grateful for this gift that later, when he was more rested and relaxed, he’d gladly give me what I needed; lots of conversation and attention. Both of our needs were met in this way: with re-entry time. But honestly, folks, sometimes we failed. Sometimes I’d pounce when he walked in the door with demands for conversation and focused, decisive answers, and he might reply harshly (or not at all). The result? Anger and distance and fighting the entire day and, occasionally, even longer. It was a failure on my part. Or, sometimes he’d fail; I’d give him re-entry time, but he’d still neglect me in conversation and adequate attention later in the day. A failure on his part. The result? We’d go to bed angry with each other and perhaps be angry the next day still.
That’s the bad news. Failure to reconnect smoothly after time apart can cause distance which, if not addressed, may spiral out of control. However, the good news is this: If failure occurs at the front door, don’t throw in the towel. The day can still be saved, and here are four ways how.
Step back. Tempers flare when needs are not met or ignored. And, with that flare come sparks. Sparks come in the form of harsh words or no words, stomping about, slamming doors, and other acts of retaliation. Try not to escalate the failure. Count to 10. Take a deep breath. Give it a chance to settle. Don’t make it worse by compounding failure with more failure. The day has only just begun, give it time.
Apologize. Apologizing goes a long way in resetting re-entry time. As soon as you recognize failure, simply say “I’m sorry.” This will help you get back on each other’s side. Words do matter, so use them. Apologies don’t have to be immediate to work. In fact, they may be more sincere later when emotional flares have calmed a bit, but don’t wait too long; the day can be over quickly, and a night may be long and miserable if it’s sleepless.
Take conciliatory action. Perhaps words are not enough, or they don’t come easily. But don’t give up; instead, act. Show your remorse by doing something. The short window for successful re-entry time may be lost, but there are other opportunities to reconnect the rest of the day. Try an unsolicited back rub or a spontaneous fix on the “honey do” list. Or, give tokens such as flowers or a favorite meal. Actions often speak louder than words. The energy expended will be well worth it if peace is restored before bed and then replenished with a good night’s sleep.
Forgive each other. Sometimes, we have to just let it go. Mike will never fully understand my deep need for conversation. Studies show that most women can take as long as 48 hours to reconnect emotionally with their spouse after just 24 hours of being apart. For the firefighter marriage, this reality can be brutal. One of the primary ways most women reconnect is through conversation. Remember this and show some grace when your spouse accidently pounces on you at re-entry time. She wants to reconnect with you because she loves you, and time to do so is limited for the firefighter couple.
I will never fully understand what it is to fight fires; to face danger, trauma, and to do so all night long. That level of exhaustion is profound, and I’ll never quite get why my husband doesn’t like to talk as frequently and freely as I do about emotional stuff. He’s simply not wired the same way that I am. Have some grace when your spouse fails to talk as much as you wish; they may sometimes remain silent out of love for you. To say exactly what they’re really feeling or thinking in those moments of re-entry time may offend. Choosing to shut down for a while to recover, rest, and be worthy of your company and your conversation later is often the right way to go. Mike has always wanted to come home to me and is happy to do so, and I’ve learned to trust that even when it’s not declared the minute he walks through the door.
Re-entry time is a gift, a tool for transitioning successfully back together as a couple after long hours apart. Use it, but don’t despair if you fail once in a while. All is not lost. The day can be re-covered by stepping back, apologizing, doing nice things for each other, and offering forgiveness. After 4,000 re-entry times, believe me, we know!
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.