Strengthening communication, connection in first responder relationships

by Colleen Hilton, Marriage & Family Therapist, CEO at Alli Connect

June 18, 2024

As a licensed therapist with over 2 decades of specializing in first responders, and the former spouse of a first responder, I understand the critical role communication plays in healthy relationships. Most couples who are seeking counseling know they need help in this area. But they may not realize the importance of communication in building and maintaining a better connection with their partner.

Understanding conflict, communication

Relationships naturally include conflict from time to time, and these conflicts are even healthy if navigated properly. First responder relationships come with additional challenges -- including shift work, organizational stressors and the experience of far more trauma than the average couple has to manage. This makes how we navigate conflict even more important.

Pioneering researchers like The Gottmans, who have studied what makes couples successful over the long term, identified critical patterns that can predict relationship challenges and even divorce. Most famously: “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” are behaviors that, if left unchecked, can destroy connections between partners. And they can ultimately lead to divorce and the end of wonderful relationships.

Breaking down critical patterns

Let’s break these down and give some practical context so you can work to identify and avoid the four horsemen in your own relationship.

  1. Criticism: When you criticize your partner, it often comes across as a personal attack, suggesting something is inherently wrong with them. This approach internalizes the issue, making it part of your partner's identity – often with phrases like “You always” or “You never.” Such statements can make your partner feel attacked, triggering a defensive response. The fix… try expressing a specific complaint that focuses on the behavior rather than attacking your partner’s overall character. For example, instead of saying, “You never take out the trash,” try, “It upsets me when the trash is not taken out as promised. Could you help by following through?”
  2. Defensiveness: This is typically a response to feeling attacked. When you respond to perceived criticism by counterattacking, you are engaging in defensiveness. This behavior prevents both partners from acknowledging their own roles in conflicts and tends to escalate negative interactions. Rather than escalating the conflict, acknowledge your part in the issue. For instance, if accused of being late, instead of retaliating, try, “I apologize for my lateness, let’s focus on how we can avoid this issue in the future.”
  3. Contempt: The most harmful Horseman, contempt involves speaking from a place of superiority, such as mocking, name-calling, eye-rolling, or expressing disgust. It is considered the most damaging of the Four Horsemen because it can erode the mutual respect essential for love. The remedy lies in addressing underlying needs and expressing them constructively. Replace sarcastic remarks or eye-rolls with honest expressions of your needs, which fosters respect rather than resentment.
  4. Stonewalling: Stonewalling occurs when one partner withdraws from the interaction, either by physically leaving or by shutting down and ceasing to engage in the conversation. While stonewallers, may appear indifferent, they are usually feeling overwhelmed and are attempting to self-soothe. Unfortunately, this strategy often fails, as their partner might interpret this withdrawal as a lack of care or interest in the discussion. This misunderstanding can lead to a destructive cycle where one person presses for dialogue while the other seeks an exit. The solution is to take a break if needed but communicate openly about it. A simple, “I need a few moments to calm down before we continue,” can prevent misunderstandings.

Building positive connections in first responder relationships

Enhancing communication is crucial, especially in first responder relationships which often face higher levels of stress and challenges. Effective communication not only strengthens the bonds between partners but is also vital for maintaining emotional well-being amidst the unique pressures faced by first responders. Creating an environment where gratitude and admiration are expressed can help reinforce the connection that is critical in high-pressure relationships.

Improving how we communicate requires effort and patience, but the benefits are profound for first responders and their partners. It leads to a stronger, more resilient partnership that can better withstand the stresses inherent to their roles. By consciously working to mitigate negative communication habits, first responder couples can enhance their connection, offering each other greater support and understanding through their unique challenges.

Colleen Hilton, MA, LMFT, is CEO & Founder at Alli Connect Inc. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist and serial entrepreneur in first responder and military mental health. As the CEO of Alli Connect, Colleen aligns her clinical expertise and business leadership to tackle the biggest challenge in 21st century policing – Officer Mental Health & Wellness. Colleen brings a unique perspective to mental health for first responders as a licensed clinician, strategic business leader, military family member and former police spouse. She is outspoken on national podcasts and stages, on the mental health crisis in the first responder community and the need to challenge the status quo, shifting to a preventive and proactive approach to psychological resilience. She holds a master’s in counseling psychology and a bachelor’s degree in psychology, with a minor in criminal justice. Colleen maintains certification in mass disaster mental health and CISM, with expertise in department program development and response. Colleen is proud to have worked with agencies at both the local and federal level including Seattle PD, Bellevue PD & Fire, King County Sheriff, the DoD and the American Red Cross.

To learn more about Alli Connect, read the Alli Connect Blog.