I learned early in my psychology career that family and couples’ therapy is often critical to child therapy. Children learn how to cope by watching their parents. The focus of this article is on law enforcement families. However, many of the problems described are prevalent in families from all walks of life (medical, legal, industrial, political, education, sports, fire fighters, retail, the arts, etc.).
Melody and Paul are fictional characters seeking counseling prior to marrying and blending two families. I developed their story to help illustrate some of the fears and frustrations families face. Any similarities to real individuals is co-incidental. The counseling exercises included in the story have been successfully used many times in my office.
It is my hope that this story will help couples and families understand the process and value of counseling. I prefer Imago Relationship Therapy because it is non-blaming, educational, and interesting to the clients.
The Counseling Session
The eyebrows of Ms. O’Neal, their new counselor, arched with interest; she smiled slightly to lighten the mood and keep it safe for continuing. “You have a criteria list for people you date?”
Melody nodded, matching O’Neal’s smile. “I didn’t the first time. I was too young to think of anything but my emotions. My first marriage was to Chad, a policeman in another city,” the new client clarified. “His shift work, long hours and extra jobs robbed our family of a dad and husband. Chad was never home. Eventually, it felt as if I was a single parent at our children’s school meetings, plays, ball games, and even on holidays. It seemed as if I was raising our children by myself.
“The worst part was that Chad seemed to drift from our family, even as early as his rookie years. His partner and other officers he worked with became more important. We stopped having fun together and no longer had anything to talk about. He was too tired or disinterested to spend time with us. But, apparently it was relaxing and okay to spend our limited income on fishing, hunting, poker or staying out to drink beer with the guys … and sometimes gals.
“In the end, I believed we were more of his burden than his family. Our relationship fell apart in every area. When it began to destroy me emotionally and physically, I got out of the marriage. I don’t want to go through anything like that again.
“I’ve been single for more than five years now. I didn’t think I’d ever want to remarry at first. Personally, I’ve grown. During my marrage with Chad, I seldom felt competent. Becoming independent, finding a career I am proud of and enjoying supportive friends have helped me feel successful in many ways. I suppose I’ve formed ideas about the kind of people I want in my life, hence, my criteria list.”
Melody turned to gaze warmly into her fiancee’s eyes, then continued, “I’ve known Paul long enough to appreciate the kind of person he is, despitebeing a policeman.”
Paul squeezed her hand and winked at her. Encouraged, Melody continued, “I’ve seen how important family is to him. We met at our sons’ baseball games. Our children are good friends. Eventually, we began sitting together at the stadium to watch and cheer them on. As we talked more, I learned that we’ve been through similar experiences. Single parenting has been hard on both of us and our children. Since meeting Paul, I’ve begun to miss being a complete family.” Paul draped his arm around her shoulders protectively.
Ms. O’Neal wasn’t surprised Melody was considering marrying a police officer despite her experiences and criteria. She explained, “People tend to be attracted to what is familiar to them. Changes to unknown situations can stimulate releases of neurochemicals that cause discomfort while our defense systems determine safe responses. Our subconscious minds recognize good or bad situations that we’ve had to cope with before. Some experts predict that people tend to select mates similar to one of their parents.”
Paul’s brow furrowed as he considered her words, “I’ve never thought of that. My ex-wife is easily angered when she’s worried or her expectations aren’t met. She can express concerns loudly, yelling instead of talking about things. My dad is quick-tempered like that. Maybe I married my dad first.
“I’ve always been impressed by Melody’s calmness and ability to hold things together when under pressure. My mom is like that; she quiets Dad’s storms and keeps their home feeling safe.”
“That’s a good lead-in for discussing some of the storms that law enforcement families face.” Ms. O’Neal gave them a handout to study and led them in a discussion about it.
Both Melody and Paul related to the hazards that police families experience. The couple agreed that seeing the written list of typical problems made them more aware of and better able to recognize when they were experiencing similar situations. Paul asked how they might be able to change behaviors and responses that would help face them.
Ms. O’Neal emphasized, “Marriage should be one of the most important contracts that people enter. As in business organizations, couples should develop plans to apply in the event of adversities.” For homework, she gave them a list of helpful strategies which can prevent or lessen family difficulties homework exercises:
The success of every kind of relationship (marital, parent, intimate, friendship, business) requires mutual commitment. We tend to make commitments to causes that we want to succeed in. Melody and Paul were wisely seeking premarital counseling before entering a second marriage for each, blending their families.