Advice to First Responders on Keeping a Happy Marriage


Dr. Rachelle Zemlok

Photo Courtesy Landon Jensen

Due to the additional stress placed upon first responder marriages, we actually need better communication and more trust than the everyday couple in order to navigate the additional challenges and relationship stress the lifestyle brings…

Those traits we fell in love with: the protector, helper, fixer, their passion to be great… can also be the same traits that get in the way of effectively navigating the marital landmines set by the first responder career.

Research tells us that the number one trait a woman looks for in a man is trustworthiness. We’re not talking about the trust you have because you have no reason not to. We’re referring to feeling emotionally connected and physically safe. The famous marriage expert John Gottman has research that suggests women who feel these things within their relationship also tend to have more regular physical intimacy with their partners. All that sounds great! So how do we hold on to that?

Like all good things, there’s no quick fix.This type of trust is built over time. Good news is you have many opportunities. In every given moment with our spouse we have the opportunity to add to our trust bank or deplete it. When we choose to engage and connect on a deeper level about the topic at hand we build trust overtime. When we stop listening or ignore and disengage in the topic we erode trust overtime.

The math is simple… the more a couple uses the following tools the more trust is built within a relationship overtime. The greater the trust bank the more connected and safe a woman feels and in turn the more intimacy a couple shares.


  • Put your experience and feelings into words

  • Ask your partner open ended questions about their experience (ones that keep the conversation going and cannot be answered with yes or no)

  • Listen and aim to really understand their perspective (whether you agree with it or not)

  • Express empathy for one another’s feelings

  • Discuss topics non-defensively

ALL relationships have betrayals that come up regularly. Contrary to common belief, betrayal is not actually heavily associated with mistrust. Instead, mistrust develops when betrayals are not addressed in a way that reflects that list above.


  • Misunderstandings

  • Unmet expectations

  • Poor choices made

  • Bad coping behaviors engaged in

If you live the first responder lifestyle, you can see why your marriage is at risk for more betrayals on a weekly basis than other couples. The more betrayals that come up the more opportunities we have to build trust and connection or deplete it and become more distant.

We all screw up in relationships, I repeat… ALL of us! We disagree, poorly word things, react when we shouldn’t. Luckily our relationship’s long term happiness is not dependent on whether these happen, but on how well we repair these. Can you say sorry, own up, take responsibility, and use those things on the BUILD TRUST list regularly? The relationship expert who has studied successful and unsuccessful marriages for over 30 years doesn’t think it takes emotional maturity or self awareness to keep a marriage happy. He explains that it takes ONGOING investment to implement these things and repeated efforts at connecting and learning together throughout your marriage.

Relationship problems is one of the most common factors associated with officer suicides. So if you could use some help with this, get it! On average, research suggests couples reach out for help 6 years too late! Don’t do that! Give your relationship the tools it needs along the way. If your partner’s not interested right now, no excuses, getting support for yourself can be a start in organizing your own thoughts and experience so you can communicate it to your partner effectively.

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