3 Tips for First Responder Spouses to Maintain a Happy Marriage


Dr. Rachelle Zemlok

Have you heard of the relationship guru John Gottman? If you haven’t, check him out! He has a lot of books, published research, and in-person workshops built to improve your marriage. What makes him different than all the others? Well, he can predict whether or not a couple is going to divorce with over 90% accuracy just by observing them discuss a conflict! Crazy. This is from his long-term studies and observations of couples. We have learned so much from his in-depth research. He taught us that couples relate the same over time, meaning we are very predictable in the way we approach each other and that doesn’t change much throughout our marriage. He also found that couples usually have conflicts about the SAME issues throughout the whole course of their marriage. He discovered that couples often discuss unresolvable perpetual problems and these come up over and over throughout a marriage making up 69% of the conflicts we have.

So, if the same conflicts are showing themselves, how is he able to predict whether a couple will divorce or not? He makes it very clear that it’s not how much conflict you have but how you work through that conflict that makes the difference. Dr. Gottman discovered that “Stable” relationships demonstrate a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions during conflict. This means for every one negative comment, look, or gesture they have 5 positive ones during their conflicts including humor, affection, and empathy. On the other hand, “Unstable” couples demonstrate a ratio of 0.8:1 during conflict. Meaning for every 1 negative interaction they show 0.8 positive ones. In reality this might feel like equal positive to negative interactions. But remember his research found that couples do best long term when the positive dominates the negative interactions during conflict. So, by watching a couple discuss a conflict and tallying these interactions he can see what ratio they more closely model and then predict their fate with scary accuracy. Yikes! Here are 3 things a police or fire spouse can do during conflict to support your marriage long term.

  1. Add More Humor, Affection, And Empathy
  • Laugh at yourself! Make a joke about how you both got there. This is the opposite of being defensive.
  • Sit next to each other and be affectionate by placing your legs over your partners or touching in some way.
  • Plan a good time for you both to discuss the matter, versus having the discussion in the heat of the moment, so you’re in a better place to empathize with your partner.
  1. Use Breaks During Conflict
  • Discuss ahead of time a signal when one of you needs a break or get better at noticing when your partner needs one.
  • One effective intervention Gottman experimented with was when an individual’s heart rate was going too high during conflict (indicating they are likely overwhelmed or “flooded”) he had the couple take a 20-minute break and just read something. This allowed their heart rates to normalize and upon returning to the discussion they were able to find humor again and show affection.
  1. Limit These 4 Things

Gottman’s research found these to be EXTREMELY detrimental to a relationship long term and found them to correlate directly with divorce. So much so that he refers to these as the “four horsemen of the apocalypse.”

  1. Criticism
  2. Defensiveness
  3. Contempt (disgust, blowing them off, disrespect)
  4. Stonewalling (when one individual becomes so flooded they shut down and stop responding or walk away)

Your marriage is the foundation that your first responder family was built on and needs constant effort and thought invested into it. If you’re interested in a free 30 min phone consultation, you can contact me here.

About Dr. Rachelle Zemlok

Dr. Rachelle Zemlok is a licensed clinical psychologist in California specializing in working with first responder families and supporting parents with children diagnosed with ADHD or pose behavioral challenges. For more information on Dr. Zemlok or to connect with her please visit her website at https://www.firstresponderfamilypsychology.com/