Marriage and the First Responder: Defending the Homefront

By: Joshua Browne, M.P.S.

The Value of Marriage:

The new book authored by Adam Davis and Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (2019), entitled “Bulletproof Marriage,” opens with an exchange familiar to first responders.  After locating a new officer in the patrol briefing room, a “pasty looking sergeant” inquired as to the reason the officer was present.  The conversation progressed as follows: “Hey sarge, I was wrapping up some paperwork and heading back out.  About to meet my wife for lunch.”  “You married?  How long?” the sergeant asked.  “We’ve been married six years.  Two kids.”  The sergeant responded, “I give it five more.  Five years on this job and you’ll be divorced.  It’s impossible for a cop to stay married with the crap we see every day.  Good luck kid.  You’re gonna need it” (pg.1).

The sergeant’s cynical response not only highlights a pervasive fallacy, but also the importance of infusing hope for marriage into first responder culture.  The institution of marriage has been trivialized for decades, as evidenced by the behavior of many societal organizations, including government, media productions, and academia.  Fortunately, a few champions of marriage have emerged within these same institutions, as well as an internal movement to fortify first responder marriages and families.  Davis and Grossman (2019) are among these courageous leaders, who share my endorsement of marriage as a sacred institution, possessing profound intrinsic value for first responders.  As sheepdogs, we venture into toxic environments to rescue the sheep from physical harm.  We can surely recognize our own marriages and those of our colleagues, as sufficiently valuable to deploy similar courage, as we protect them from destructive influences, repair dysfunctional behavior and fight for joyful success.  As one who has found joy in my marriage relationship, while working through struggles like any other couple, I testify marriage can be a source of transcendent joy and can succeed simultaneously with a fruitful first responder career.

Unique Challenges and Common Experience:

There is substantial value in acknowledging the unique challenges experienced by first responders, as we attempt to succeed in marriage and family life.  The formidable obstacles hypervigilance and sustained direct and secondary traumatic exposure, present for first responders and their interpersonal relationships, are well documented by resilience experts Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (2004) and Dr. Kevin Gilmartin (2002), as well as by additional burgeoning research (Chopco & Swartz, 2009; Conn & Butterfield, 2013).  Although these specialized factors must be comprehended and addressed, I have found significant value in examining and integrating principles and concepts derived from sources outside of the first responder experience, synthesizing them with first responder contexts.  These principles and concepts not only provide valuable insight into the marriage dynamic, but also hope, as first responder couples realize much of the discord they experience is common to marriage in general and not exclusively because of “the crap we see every day” (Davis & Grossman, 2019, p.1).

Almost twenty years in law enforcement, coupled with eighteen years of marriage, has been an exhilarating, challenging and fulfilling ride.  Like most couples, my wife and I have navigated our share of turbulent waters, sometimes experiencing the excruciating pain caused by marital discord.  Understandably, a significant portion of our past difficulties can be attributed to ignorance of the unique challenges of the first responder experience, as well as obliviousness of some of the healing agents of marriage.  Fortunately, we have found hope in our spiritual bonds to our creator, who wants our marriage to thrive, as well as in the joint pursuit of learning and growth.

Studying Marriage with my Wife:

My wife and I are like many couples who have sought assistance navigating our relationship from various professional sources, often with limited success.  However, recently the dynamic dramatically changed with a precious opportunity to assist my wife, as she studied marriage in a university context.  She was tasked with completing weekly quizzes and written assignments, assessing her knowledge of the course material.  Providing her proper support, required me to read her course material and discuss the embedded concepts.  This process allowed third party marriage experts to tutor us, serving as a nonthreatening source for personal reflection, enlightenment and growth.

Our learning provided insights and hope, as we realized many of our struggles were common to the marriage relationship, and not due to some insurmountable obstacle originating from my professional experience or even worse, irreconcilable character flaws destined to doom our relationship.  Even more exciting, the experience allowed us to enumerate the many positive aspects of our marriage relationship responsible for its longevity.  If you are like us, you have experienced more than your share of painful and frightening times, wondering if you would make it.  We learned you do not need to become an expert communicator, overcome all your personality flaws or demand your partner relinquish all their bothersome idiosyncrasies, to realize marital success.

Character Development Transcends Strategy:

Significant professional marriage advice, as well as general personal development literature, focuses on strategy over character development (Covey, 1989, Gottman, 2015).  For example, although effective communication can enhance relationship satisfaction, it is not a primary predictor of marital success.  Even John M. Gottman (2015), considered by many as the most prominent relationship expert, acknowledges that early in his career, he also focused on developing communication strategies, as the battle plan for saving marriages.  However, Gottman (2015) has discarded this as the optimal therapeutic strategy, due to empirical evidence derived from watching thousands of couples interact in his “love lab,” consisting of an apartment outfitted with cameras, microphones and couples wearing biometric devices to measure their vitals during their interactions.  I will discuss a bit more of Gottman’s (2015) research later in the article, but for now, it is important to note that becoming an expert communicator is not required for marital success, while building time honored character traits emphasized in the major world religions, philosophies, cultural traditions, and contemporary psychological and relationship research is critical.

One such essential character trait is humility, the antithesis of the pride often poisoning our marriage relationships and preventing the application of the healing balm of forgiveness.  In fact, I assert humility is a prerequisite for healing all our interpersonal relationships.  In his riveting account of his humanitarian mission during the battle of Mosul as a civilian, former Navy SEAL Ephraim Mattos (2018) described his fight to overcome the hate percolating inside him, directed at ISIS.  Although he would never excuse their brutality, he made a conscious decision to forgive the perpetrator of each brutal act he witnessed, because he concluded humans were not equipped to harbor hate, even if it seemed completely justified.  Likewise, our marriages will not survive if we choose to cling to real or perceived wrongs committed by our spouses.  Embracing contempt and refusing to forgive, will lead to both personal discord and marital destruction.  Conversely, forgiveness, empowered by humility, provides an opportunity to embrace the practices of who Gottman (2015) referred to as marriage “masters.”

Relationship Maintenance and Prevention:

After spending years analyzing couples in his “love lab,” Gottman (2015) identified four primary culprits that allowed him to predict a future divorce with ninety three percent accuracy.  These behaviors, characterized as the “four horsemen of the apocalypse,” include criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling.  Since most, if not all relationships struggle with all these weaknesses to some degree, their presence is not an insurmountable impediment to marital success, although contempt has been found to be particularly insidious (Gottman, 2015).  Fortunately, Gottman’s (2015) research also revealed a very comforting discovery.  How couples engage when not quarreling is the most important indicator of relationship success.  Many marriages flourish despite frequent arguing, provided they expend energy enhancing their friendship and intimacy.  This is realized by infusing three ingredients into the relationship, including creating robust “love maps,” expressing “fondness and admiration” and “turning towards” each other (Gottman, 2015; Gottman and Gottman 2006).

Although an extensive examination of these concepts is beyond the scope of this article, I will provide a brief explanation of each.  The development of detailed “love maps” entails creating substantial cognitive space for your marriage, enlarging a portion of your brain where you store “all of the relevant information about your partner’s life” (Gottman, 2015, p.54).  Expressing fondness and admirations is a self-evident construct, entailing the explicit demonstration of your positive views of your spouse through words and actions.  It is also the cure for contempt.  Turning towards a spouse includes any attempt to submit a “bid” for your spouse’s “attention, affection, humor or support” (Gottman, 2015, p.88).  According to Gottman (2015), acceptance of these bids creates a foundation of trust, passion, emotional connection and a fulfilling sex life, while repeated rejection of these bids creates substantial discord and if left unchecked, results in divorce.


If you are like many first responders caught in the cycle of hypervigilance and/or working excessive overtime, you and your spouse may need to make significant changes in lifestyle, necessary to create sufficient room for each other.  If your relationship is currently experiencing significant discord and hope for a meaningful marriage is dim, I urge you to consider your ability to revive your once thriving marriage, through humility and forgiveness.  Although this path is simple, I acknowledge it is not easy.  The process can be painful and arduous, but I testify the effort is worth the price and will eventually lead to redemption.  If Ephraim Mattos (2018) can forgive ISIS, we can certainly forgive our spouses and judge the prospect of renewed companionship as possessing substantial intrinsic value.


In several of my past articles, I have endorsed the concept of Post Traumatic Growth, as an alternative or transcendent path beyond our traumatic experiences.  A central component of Post Traumatic Growth includes the ability to identify purpose in ours trials, trauma and tragedies (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2003).  Just as law enforcement professionals can develop character and identify purpose in the aftermath of traumatic experience, we can apply the same process to reconciling painful aspects of our marriage relationships.  As we embrace humility and forgiveness, we can begin to recognize the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and realize the profound opportunity to not only redeem our marriages, but fortify our interpersonal bonds, as we overcome our previous dysfunctional behavior together.  In making these optimistic statements, I do not mean to imply that all marriage relationships can be saved.  I acknowledge there are circumstances that may be beyond reclamation, especially when one party refuses to move forward.  However, both research and anecdotal experience suggest most marriages can be saved (Gottman, 2015).  A wise, competent and compatible marriage therapist can also be extremely helpful in assisting couples, as they learn to heal and develop their relationships.

Renewing Commitment:

As we reframe destructive attitudes opposing the rejuvenation of our marriage relationships, we create the possibility to move forward on a fulfilling, meaningful and joyous path.  Of course, difficulty will remain our companion, but the power of two committed partners can transcend the toxicity of previous paradigms.  I have long been inspired by the phoenix, a mythical bird granted great symbolic importance by various cultural traditions and religions, including the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, as well as the Judeo-Christian ethos.  This magnificent creature has been associated with immortality and resurrection, as its life cycle is eternal, with one bird being consumed in a fire and a new refined bird emerging from the ashes (Himuro, 1998).  Perhaps we can allow the impurities and imperfections in our marriages, to be consumed in a refiner’s fire of our struggles, allowing us to emerge as new creatures, living with hope that we can yet create a beautiful partnership.  Further, like the phoenix, we can repeat this process in an infinite loop, provided we are willing to renew our commitment to each other.  Marriage is difficult, and at times, achieving a more idealistic partnership can seem hopeless, but I assure you there is a way forward, if you deploy the courage to pursue it.

Sgt. Joshua Browne, M.P.S. is a police sergeant, adjunct professor within The George Washington University’s Master of Homeland Security Program, and founder of Heal the Badge Consulting.  He authors articles and provides training courses in the realms of emotional resilience and altering organizational culture towards wellness.  His efforts seek to realize the goal of fortifying law enforcement professionals, leaders and their families, by providing the necessary resilience tools for success within, outside and beyond the law enforcement career.  He also utilizes his law enforcement and academic experience, to lead individuals outside of the first responder community, towards reconciling their traumatic experiences and realizing the meaning and growth embedded therein.


Chopco, B. A., & Schwartz, R. C. (2009, October). The Relation Between Mindfulness and Posttraumatic Growth: A Study of First Responders to Trauma-inducing Incidents. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 31, 363-376.

Conn, S. M., & Butterfield, L. D. (2013). Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress by General Duty Police Officers: Practical Implications. Canadian Journal of Counselling and Psychotherapy, 47, 272-298.

Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York, NY: Free Press.

Davis, A., & Grossman, D. (2019). Bulletproof Marriage: A 90-day Devotional. Savage, Minnesota: Broad Street.

Gilmartin, K. M. (2002). Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and their Families. Tucson, AZ: E-S Press.

Gottman, J. M., & Gottman, J. S. (2006). 10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage. New York, NY: Crown.

Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York, NY: Harmony Books.

Grossman, D. (2004). On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace. Belleville, IL: PPTC Research.

Himuro, M. (1998, December). The Phoenix in the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. Renaissance Studies, 12, 523-544.

Mattos, E., & Mcewen, S. (2018). City of Death: Humanitarian Warriors in the Battle for Mosul. New York, NY: Center Street.

Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2003). Routes to Posttraumatic Growth Through Cognitive Processing. In D. Patton, J. M. Violanti, & L. M. Smith (Eds.), Promoting Capabilities to Manage Post-Traumatic Stress: Perspectives on Resilience. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *