Secondary Trauma: Spouses and Couples of Law Enforcement

Police officers endures highly pressured incidents on a regular basis during their routine. For example, “a sudden death in the line of duty, serious injury from an officer-involved shooting, exposure to intense trauma on a call, a physical or psychological threat to the safety or well-being of an individual or community, regardless of the type of incident.” (Rousseau, 2021). Moreover, as explained in the incident involves any situation or event faced by police officers that causes a distressing, dramatic, or profound change or disruption in their physical. (Rousseau, 2021). Trauma can not only affect the officer themselves, but it can also impact those around them. For example, during daily routines an officer with a heightened sense and trauma may be triggered during an encounter, arrest, or stop and have the trauma affect their decision making. Such decision making can escalate encounters that did not need to result to in excessive or deadly force. There are multiple signs that may attribute to trauma that is fatigue, difficulty breathing, confusion, poor decisions, poor concentration, anxiety and much more. Therefore, it is hard for others to pick up the sense that an individual has encountered a life changing event and may be suffering from it. Specifically, it may be hard for a spouse or significant other to pick up that their loved on is suffering from trauma, especially if they have a career in law enforcement.

Photo by: Police lifePTSD Awareness Poster | Police Life

            Although many research suggests that law enforcement professionals (LEP) are directly affected by trauma, few have focused their attention on the secondary trauma of their loved ones or spouses. A study was conducted, where an in-depth qualitative interview on eight spouse of law enforcement. In a summary, the results had shown that trauma creates a domino effect onto the spouse, however, the upside to this is that it appears that such couples show a strong bond and how they cope with the trauma.

            As stated, police officers encounter crime, violence, and life-threatening events on a daily basis. Because of the dramatic exposure such exposure can impact an LE spouse or family. “The investigations that have focused on LE spouses suggest that police work has a detrimental impact on LE spouses and that those in close contact with the traumatized person also experience symptoms of traumatization.” (Landers et. Al., 2020). “Family support is critical for reducing the negative impact” of stressful work in the criminal justice profession. (Landers et. Al., 2020). Moreover, it is noted that family members play a role to support their partner that is in the LE career. Such role may include, but not limited to, additional responsibilities, creating coping mechanisms, social support, and developing a great way to communicate. Interesting, it is encouraged for spouses and family members to be quite involved because the high prevalence of trauma and the idea that the spouse can help assist clinicians to better understand how trauma affects the couple relationship and how to reduce its negative impact. (Landers et. Al., 2020). However, secondary trauma is described as a natural consequence of behaviors and emotions resulting “from knowing about a traumatizing event experienced by a significant other-the stress resulting from helping or want to help a traumatized or suffering person.” (Landers et. Al., 2020). However, when a spouse wants to help their significant, they may to subject themselves to the secondary exposure to trauma. The reason for this is because family members influence the quality of family relationships. Spouses endure the challenges that’s comes with a significant other that works in a highly stressful profession. Behind closed doors, spouses are the ones that see their professional spouse through it all, mental breaks downs, anxiety, distancing and much more.

In a study, interviews of LAE spouses all had to think of an occasion when they had noticed their partner is going through a traumatic event and how it directly affected them. At the end of the study, it was shown that partners are exposed through many different types of traumas i.e. death, injury etc. However, it was also noticed that such trauma may cause a ripple effect as in the LE may begin to have mood swings, changes in behavior and that may affect the spouse. For example, one spouse stated that they fear every time their spouse goes to work and other states that if their LE doesn’t scan the room, then it feels as if she does because she adapted a sense of insecurity. But because of such issues and the domino effect of trauma, spouses have developed a sense to cope.

Coping mechanisms has allowed for spouses to develop better coping mechanism and provide mutual support by understanding each other’s position. For example, “if something bad happens, we get really cohesive.” (Landers et. Al., 2020). Open communication about the traumatic event exposure and the pressure of the trauma appears to be a very important coping mechanisms for a couple’s relationship. By tackling on LE family or spousal health it illuminates the importance of the supportive role that they play.

Landers, A. L., Dimitropoulos, G., Mendenhall, T. J., Kennedy, A., & Zemanek, L. (2020).Backing the Blue: Trauma in Law Enforcement Spouses and Couples.Family Relations, 69(2), 308-319.

Rousseau, D. (2021). Module 6: Trauma and the Criminal Justice System. Boston University Metropolitan College: Blackboard.



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