Navigating Firefighter Relationships: Communication Is Key

by | August 23, 2023

Relationships are hard! And being a firefighter (or being married to one) can make navigating relationships even harder. Long shifts and days away from home are added to the regular stressors of life, placing even greater strain on firefighter relationships. Relationship challenges can add up to create unnecessary conflict between a firefighter and their partner. And it can be hard to even make time to address that conflict in between shifts, call outs, and mandatory overtime.

While the firefighter life can be hard to navigate, it’s not impossible, I promise. Communication is important in all relationships, but it’s even more essential when you’re going back and forth between two different worlds! My advice: Focus on maintaining an open dialogue, sharing and listening, and creating a plan (or many) to address the challenges we know will inevitably come with this profession. Get really comfortable asking yourself the question, “What do I need?” and communicating that to your partner in a healthy way. You’ll need to be just as comfortable asking your partner “What do you need?” and working together to make that happen. When you’re both fighting to make sure each of you has their needs met, you’ll find balance. Some weeks you may have more needs than others; the same goes for your partner. The point is you’re both constantly checking in with yourselves and each other, being honest and developing collaborative solutions.

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Communicating Your Needs

So many of the problems facing firefighters in their relationships truly come down to communication—more specifically, a lack of communication. When firefighters are at work, they operate and live in a completely separate world from their partners. Alarms and adrenaline, camaraderie and hypervigilance mark the life of a firefighter at the station. But life at home looks different. When you’re gone, your partner manages the homefront and juggles schedules, childcare, messes and more—not to mention their own job demands if your partner works outside the house.

After operating in a state of hypervigilance for 48 hours (or more), firefighters cannot simply pop back into their partner’s world and expect to immediately be caught up and ready to engage. To effectively transition back into the home world, firefighters must be intentional to communicate their needs, ensuring they and their partner understand the challenges of transitioning from work to home. You both must work together to re-engage for a smoother transition for everyone. Maybe this involves intentionally setting aside time after your shift to decompress—listening to music on a longer commute home, working out or going for a run, or even taking a nap to catch up on sleep. It’s all about finding what works for you and your family.

When you and your partner are committed to sharing, listening and finding common ground, you strengthen your relationship, build trust and support one another in ways that are critical to the success of any firefighter relationship.

But you can’t take these necessary steps to be ready to engage with your family unless you clearly communicate your needs. Tell your partner what you need and ask for the space and time to effectively transition back to home life. Communication and clarity ensure you are aligned with your partner and that both your needs and the needs of your family are being met.

Listen & Understand

Communicating your needs is only one part of the equation. As with all relationships, your marriage and family are a two-way street. That means you also need to understand the challenges your partner faces while you’re away and their needs when you return. After two days (or more) of single parenting and managing the household alone, your partner will be looking for support from you—support that you probably would love to give! Communication allows you and your partner to determine the best approach to meeting both your needs and helps you avoid unnecessary and unproductive arguments.

Your attitude plays a big role here. Come to the table ready to listen, seeking to understand and empathize (not necessarily fix) with the challenges your spouse faces. Recognize that they may not have a job they love as much as you love being a firefighter. Remember that being home with the family can be incredibly challenging. Stressors are never to be compared. The daily stressors you face may look very different, yet you and your partner may actually rate your stress levels equally. Having an open mind and being ready to find compromises that work for everyone will go a long way in building and maintaining trust and ensuring more than just a smooth transition home.

Plan for the Predictable

Establishing a plan before problems arise is critical. We can’t predict all future challenges, but we do know which issues are most likely to happen or repeat themselves, and we can plan for those: You had an exhausting shift, you responded to a terribly tragic call, the non-firefighter spouse had a particularly challenging few days while you were gone. How do you both adapt or support one another in these times? Do you and your partner have solid protocols or a good understanding of how to care for one another in these scenarios? What do you need after a bad call? What details can your spouse expect you to share, and what details are they willing to hear? Some honest discussions and planning ahead of time can help you avoid unnecessary arguments and tension, helping you bridge the gap between work and home and better manage the additional stressors that impact home life with this career.

Consistent, clear and effective communication is especially important to address the challenges that come with the firefighter life. When you and your partner are committed to sharing, listening and finding common ground, you strengthen your relationship, build trust and support one another in ways that are critical to the success of any firefighter relationship.

For further discussion on navigating firefighter relationships, watch Lexipol’s on-demand webinar, “Firefighter Relationship Survival: Top 10 Answers,” with Dr. Rachelle Zemlok and Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder.

Rachelle Zemlok, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist in California, specializing in work with first responder families. She serves as the strategic wellness director at Lexipol, supporting the content and strategy related to first responder mental health and wellness, with a special focus on supporting spouses and family members through the Cordico Wellness App. Prior to joining Lexipol, Zemlok founded First Responder Family Psychology, which provides culturally competent therapy to first responders and their family members. She is the author of “The Firefighter Family Academy: A Guide to Educate & Prepare Spouses for the Career Ahead.”

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