By Anne Gagliano
Life is very stressful these days, especially for the firefighter. Firefighting is dangerous, taxing both physically and emotionally. My firefighter husband Mike had an arson fire and an infant mortality all within the past couple of shifts. Fighting fire is typically exhilarating, but it takes its toll physically. Attending the scene of a SIDs is just about as heartbreaking as it gets and brings an emotional toll that most people cannot comprehend.
For the average firefighter, the work doesn’t end when they leave the firehouse. Many go on to second jobs to earn an extra income that is often needed these days to support a family. Firefighters are, typically, the finest of people and they desire above all else to take good care of their loved ones. For these fine souls it seems the work never ends—it just goes on and on.
As firefighters promote, the job gets tougher as they take on the even weightier responsibilities of leadership. Officers are no longer just in charge of themselves but of crews and entire stations. With so much stress, overworked firefighters may be running on fumes with little reserves for added crisis. They are doing good to simply keep their head above water. Without some help, without a break, without a sanctuary of peace and recovery, overworked, overstressed firefighters may decide to abandon it all and walk away from that which they’ve worked for just to get off the treadmill. Being shipwrecked on a deserted island where nothing but the hunt for food is required starts to sound pretty good, and even the mindless drudgery of a hellish prison can become appealing to one on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
In a perfect world, the firefighter’s sanctuary is “Home Sweet Home”; no need to go elsewhere. They enter into a quiet, orderly living space where the children are well-behaved and thriving; the house is spotless and in no need of repair; and a delicious variety of meals are served in a timely fashion. The spouse eagerly awaits their arrival, cheerfully greats them at the door, and places absolutely no demands on them either physically or emotionally. Ah, heaven! Let the healing begin!
Unfortunately, it’s not a perfect world. In the real world, children are never quiet for very long, houses don’t stay clean and in repair by themselves, and no spouse can be perfectly cheerful and selfless all the time, especially if they work too. In fact, home is often more stressful than work as the demands of children and housework can be overwhelming. An exhausted firefighter may try to escape into the television or computer, or stay later than necessary at the firehouse just to avoid going home. They may spend an inordinate amount of time involved in hobbies or sports. They may even become so desperate as to seek comfort from drugs or alcohol just to find relief from the physical soreness and emotional drain that is unique to firefighting. These types of crutches drive spouses apart as resentment grows, and this is, perhaps, one of the reasons firefighters have such a high divorce rate. Something’s got to give; someone’s got to give. Firefighters need a sanctuary, and the sanctuary of choice is home.
So how do we make home a place everyone wants to be? A peaceful home begins with the division of labor. All are more willing to do their share if they believe it is a fair share. Decide who should do what, with both in agreement. If no one has time to do the housework, then either hire someone to clean for you or cut back on work hours so someone has the time. If you both feel you’re doing more than the other, sit down and make out a list so you can actually see what the other is doing—then divide the list evenly if it is unbalanced. Unequal division of labor is a primary cause for divorce, so it must be addressed. Marriage is a partnership; successful marriages result when the work load is equal.
Next, the firefighter spouse must understand that physical exhaustion is a daily aspect of this profession, so allow your firefighter time to rest whenever possible. My firefighter’s station houses the busiest engine in the city of Seattle; he is typically up all night. I have made our bedroom a dark tomb with heavy, light-blocking curtains in which he can nap. A little massage will also ease tense muscles and help your firefighter sleep without the aid of drugs or alcohol. I once met a woman at one of my speaking engagements who came up to me beaming at the end of my presentation in which I had just pointed out the benefits of massage as a sleep aid. She proudly told me that she sent her firefighter to a massage therapist every week—wow, now that’s what I’m talking about! What a good wife! Sleep deprivation is the number one complaint among firefighters; they desperately need help in this area.
The emotional toll of firefighting needs an outlet as well. The best source of healing and help is you, spouse—your tenderness and care works better than any therapist’s couch. Take time to listen and soothe when needed and your firefighter will see you as their haven in the storm. And find fun things to do as a couple to lift saddened spirits–things you both enjoy. Be the buddy, the companion, the playmate, so your firefighter won’t want to spend too much time at the station or pursuing hobbies. Everybody needs some fun in their lives to be happy; make a concerted effort to find it. Even when it’s not in your bailiwick, try to be a good sport for each other. For example, my firefighter likes to scream his guts out at rock concerts; he finds this to be a tremendous stress release. I do not. But I go on occasion with cotton tucked firmly in my ears to give him this outlet, for I’d rather he take me along than anyone else. And he dislikes a certain chain restaurant, but this he endures for my sake, as he knows it is my favorite; and he usually lets me pick the movie too!
No home is perfect, no spouse is perfect; but every home can be a sanctuary with a little bit of effort, a little bit of compromise, and a whole lot of communication!
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 27 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.