Valentine’s Day is coming. The stores are festooned in red hearts. Every possible retail commodity, from jewelry to automobile tires, has been formatted as a romantic gift guaranteed to please that someone special.
I’ve been interested in love for a long time. I’ve written two books with love in the title, I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know and I Love a Fire Fighter: What the Family Needs to Know; plus the Dot Meyerhoff mystery series featuring a semi-autobiographical divorced protagonist who thinks the time people spend on blind dates looking for love would be better spent shoving sticks under each other’s fingernails.
Call me a slow learner. I’ve been married for 42 years to three different men. (Number three, I’m happy to report, is still going strong after 18).
Love comes in many formats, of which romantic love is the most exciting and the most perishable. There’s also the love of family, love of country, love of fill-in-the-blanks (music, dance, books, artichokes, puppies) and the most challenging of all, love of self.
Relationship is different from love. Relationship needs more than candy and cards. Relationship requires intention, emotional regulation, a judicious amount of compromise, the ability to laugh at oneself, and good luck avoiding catastrophic health problems and financial disasters.
Relationships are often at the center of my work with police families as well as at the core of my mysteries. I hope this goes without saying, but police families are just like the rest of us, only a bit more complicated. Relationships are comprised of three parts: you, me, and us. Police families have four parts: you, me, us, and the job. Each part needs care, attention, and respect. Neglect one and there’s trouble ahead.
Marriage and family life are never easy to sustain, regardless of what you or your mate do for a living. There are times, I am sure, when we are all amazed at how two or more separate human beings with different backgrounds, values, communication styles, and biological and sexual needs can form an enduring partnership. Even those of us who are partnered with someone quite like ourselves recognize we have many irreconcilable differences.
What we bring into our adult relationships from our families of origin and our cultural conditioning in terms of expectations, attitudes, self-esteem, needs, and interpersonal skills is as important an influence on family life as is the work we do. It is true that habits learned at work, particularly police work, can be hazardous to relationships. The skills needed to be a good street cop are frequently at odds with the skills needed to be a good spouse, lover or parent, as are the culture of hyper-masculinity, rugged individualism and the constant exposure to negativity, both on the street and in the organization.
Gottman’s essential advice for boosting positivity in relationships is to respond when your partner makes a bid, obvious or subtle, for your attention. Avoid interactions that are contemptuous, critical, or defensive, and avoid stonewalling (withdrawing physically or emotionally) during a conflict.
One way to think about a relationship is to visualize it as a bank account. When you’re running low on funds with more withdrawals (negative interactions) than deposits (positive interactions), then each successive conflict brings you closer to bankruptcy. All couples fight. But when you make sure there’s a continuous supply of money (positivity) on deposit, the occasional withdrawal won’t break the bank.
I wish all my readers a happy Valentine’s Day, every day of the year.
Gottman, John (1999) The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Crown, New York
Kirschman, E. (2015) Burying Ben: A Dot Meyerhoff Mystery. Oceanview. Sarasota, Florida.