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The Thin Blue Stressed Line

Stressed-out cops and their wives can't communicate, study finds

TUESDAY, Dec. 4, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Being a cop's wife is nearly as stressful as being a cop. That's why so many marriages of police officers and civilian spouses go south, says a study that measured stress levels of both marital partners.

The study, published in the November issue of The Journal of Marriage and Family, measured body responses like heart rate, sweat gland activity and other stress-related responses of 19 male police officers and their wives over four visits to the lab. The couples also kept a 30-day diary to report marital discord and other stresses. The study concluded that the more stress, the higher the level of marital discord and the more difficulty the couples had carrying on a civil conversation. That inability to communicate was what appeared to be hardest on the marriages.

Nicole Roberts, a University of California at Berkeley doctoral candidate, conducted the study under the supervision of Robert Levenson, director of the Institute of Personality and Social Research. Roberts says both unpleasant and intense events, as well as exhaustion, caused stress in the officers. Worry and anticipation of unpleasant encounters with their spouses caused stress in the wives. "Wives get ready for action, too. They get all revved up to respond to their husbands, and that's not helpful. That means they can't express themselves either," Roberts says.

Roberts says the study found that being tired and being stressed are two different things. While neither is good for a marriage or for health, the wives could deal better with husbands who were tired and grumpy than they could with husbands who were at such high levels of stress they couldn't calm down. "Officers get frozen in a state of stress. They aren't able to manage it, and their wives aren't able to help," Roberts says.

Cedric L. Alexander, a clinical psychologist at the University of Rochester, N.Y., counsels 400 cops a year, most of whom have marital troubles. He also is a 16-year veteran of the Miami-Dade County, Fla., police force. He says police exposed to traumatic events like shootings, stabbings and deadly explosions get numb and cynical, and those attitudes carry over into their relationships.

"It's a very authoritarian kind of job. You go in under hostile circumstances and take control. The longer you do it, the more controlling and dominating you become, and that gets in the way of relationships with spouses and friends," he says.

To manage the problem, Alexander urges police officers to take care of themselves by exercising and eating well. He also says every police department should have a mental health unit to help its officers -- a place where they can go and talk about family problems and issues and not be fearful that the information will get back to the community or back to superiors. "If an officer just internalizes those stresses and lets them build up, they'll get in the way of his career and his personal life."

Roberts says the study shows that officers with successful marriages work hard at keeping them that way. "They realize that they just can't take each other for granted," she says.

What To Do

If you are an officer, a spouse, a family member or friend, turn to the Thin Blue Line, a law enforcement support site. It offers information and resources about coping with law enforcement-related stress.

Likewise, Heavy Badge provides links to a variety of articles on police stress. It is managed by a counseling center for police on Long Island, N.Y.

Suicide often is associated with unresolved stress. Tears of a Cop is an organization that attempts to help officers contemplating suicide, as well as the families of those troubled police officers.

SOURCES: Interviews with Nicole A. Roberts, M.A. and doctoral candidate, University of California Berkeley; Cedric L. Alexander, Ph.D., department of psychiatry, University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester, N.Y.; November 2001 Journal of Marriage and Family
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