By Karen Jackson
Relationships are central to our happiness and even our physical health. Yet we all know that the divorce rate for firefighters is high—much higher than the already 50 percent for the general population. There are various reasons for the high divorce rate, but in this article, I will talk about one common problem: control.
All relationships have some degree of a power struggle: parent/child, wife/husband, sibling/sibling, friend/friend, and so on. There are some relationships that are appropriately hierarchical, such as in a fire department, military structure, and parent/child, for example. But, there are also relationships that should not be hierarchical, including romantic partners. The quality of a romantic relationship is in part dependent on the equality of the relationship. For simplicity, in this article I will call the whole range of possible romantic relationships “partners.”
Do It My Way
Have you ever been accused by your partner of being controlling? Have you ever accused your partner of being controlling? That term, “controlling,” can be a hard one to nail down in a precise definition, so I like to use examples.
Let’s say that you absolutely, without a doubt, know the ultimate way to load the dishwasher. And now let’s say that you explain this method to your partner, yet your partner continues to load the dishwasher the way he or she wants to.
Are you thinking: “But I DO know the best way to load the dishwasher!”? Okay, let’s say that you DO. Hands down, you are an expert on loading dishwashers. You don’t have the right to demand that your partner do it your way.
You may be thinking, well, if I DO know the best way to load the dishwasher, why doesn’t my partner just graciously accept the knowledge that I am willing to impart? Why should I be burdened by dishes that don’t get clean because of faulty loading? Here are three principles that will help you address this issue and others like it.
Principle #1: Treat your partner with respect and dignity. In this situation, one person is attempting to impose his or her will on the partner—that is, YOU NEED TO DO IT MY WAY. In this situation, there are two principles at stake. The first principle is the (alleged) best way to load the dishwasher. The second principle is treating one’s partner with respect and dignity. I go back to my earlier statement: You don’t have the right to demand that your partner do things your way. If you insist on instructing your partner on a simple domestic chore, you are treating him or her like a child. You are imposing a hierarchical status on what should be a partnership.
Does this mean that one can never expect anything from his or her partner? No, not at all. Certainly, there are covenants that partners have with one another. For example, most partners agree to be faithful, honest, and so on. But, this is not really one person telling the other person what to do; rather, it is an agreement that the couple makes as they enter a serious and committed relationship.
What if one person tells the other that he or she drinks too much? Is that being controlling? The answer is that it depends. That is, if someone is having one glass of wine (a regular-sized glass to be sure) every evening, and his or her partner rolls their eyes and comments each time, it sounds like it is controlling behavior. What about when a person clearly has a problem with alcohol? In this case, let’s say the person gets drunk until he or she passes out every night, has had a DUI, and frequently calls in sick to work because of a hangover. Does a person have a right to say something to that partner? If he or she does, is he or she being controlling? In the case of substance abuse, one person’s behavior is having a significantly negative impact on the other person, and thus he or she has a right to address it. Pointing out a substance abuse issue can also be a form of being loving and concerned. However, one person still does not have the right to demand that his or her partner stop drinking. Neither does he or she have the right to treat his or her partner in a demeaning manner. However, he or she does have the right to say that if his partner continues to choose to abuse alcohol, he or she may choose to leave the relationship.
Principle #2: Be quick to praise and slow to criticize. Throughout a given day or week, notice how often you criticize vs. how often you praise your partner. Notice the same thing with regard to how your partner treats you. Sometimes it’s important to bring up an issue that’s chronic and really bothering us. If we let things go because we don’t like conflict, eventually they build up into much bigger problems. But sometimes we need to let trivial things go and not mention them. Here are some examples of trivial things that should not be mentioned: “Why do you always pick the slowest lane to drive in?” “Why can’t you park the car straight?” “You’re not really very good at telling a joke.” “The coffee you make is terrible.”
Other topics that should not be brought up to a partner are basic characteristics that are not easily changed. If this is the case, making a statement about it will only serve to hurt your partner. Unfortunately, these comments are often made with just that intention in mind and are not actually based on reality. These include statements like: “Why can’t you be more _____ (funny, masculine, feminine, sexy, smart, muscular, thin …)?” If you’re thinking, “Do people really say things like that to each other?” good for you. But yes, there are those who make cutting remarks to their partners on a regular basis.
It’s not only important to be careful about refraining from being overly critical, it’s also important to let your partner know the things about him or her that you appreciate and admire. So, even if the coffee is too weak or too strong, it would be great to mention how nice it is to get up to a pot of coffee. Telling your partner how attractive he or she is goes a long way, too. Infusing a lot of good will into your relationship helps to strengthen it to get through tougher times. Frequently doing small things to make your partner feel cared for and loved is a strong predictor of a strong marriage.
Principle #3: Fight nice. How couples resolve conflict is the biggest predictor for whether they stay married or divorce. Those couples who are happier and tend to stay together are gentler with each other. Couples who get very angry, yell, or say hurtful things during a conflict are not only less happy, they are less likely to stay together. John Gottman, PhD, a family therapist and researcher, can predict with more than 90 percent accuracy which newlyweds will divorce by observing how they communicate (refer to Principle #1). In summary, be kind, loving, and respectful to one another for a long and loving marriage.
Dr. Karen Jackson is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Denver, Colorado. For the past 10 years of her 20-year career, she has worked with firefighters. In addition to providing treatment for firefighters and their families, she also provides peer-support team training, development, and consultation. In addition, Jackson conducts training workshops for fire departments on PTSD, resilience, mindfulness, suicide prevention, healthy relationships, grief, and recovery from substance abuse. She serves on the committee for the Colorado Firefighter Peer Support Conference.