Strength Under Fire: 5 Marriage Lessons from a Firefighter’s Wife
Growing up in a military town, I swore I’d never marry a military guy. I didn’t want anyone owning my husband more than I did. Years later, I found myself falling for another type of man, one who runs into fires when everyone else rushes out. There were lots of things I didn’t know before falling for my firefighter, but thinking about it now, the lessons I’ve acquired as a firefighter’s wife are valuable for any marriage.
I learned quick that being a “fire wife” wasn’t for the faint of heart. When my new date was called to work the wildland fire in Paradise, California, he told me he’d text me with updates. Five days ticked by with no messages as I watched the news report that the town of Paradise was burned off the map. Soon, his apology texts poured in. He explained when the fire got too hot, the cell towers melted down, making it impossible to get any signal in or out. He’d only just been released home after an accident involving an axe in the burning forest.
I was so grateful he was alive, scheduling our next date ASAP. With each “sounding of the tones” for a call at his station, I began to understand more intimately the tools needed in my own arsenal for this life.
5 Marriage Lessons from a Firefighter’s Wife (That Are Valuable for Any Marriage)
Strength. While I’ve heard partnership is give and take, I like the idea that marriage is giving 100% and expecting nothing in return. From that viewpoint, I find it easier to hold it together on the days I really want to unravel, letting my husband feel the brunt of my frustrations. Practicing empathy is a huge asset when I’m choosing how to respond to my husband. I don’t know what happened during his days at the fire station, so it might be completely unproductive to unload my complaints right when he walks in the door.
Make no mistake, I’ve done it. A lot. Many a day he has come home from something crazy only to encounter me acting crazy. He always tries to be gracious with me, but the reality is we’re both humans, so sometimes it can be ugly. Life is hard.
After making the mistake of unloading on him in poor timing, I’ve learned other ways to fortify myself and build my own strength for dealing with situations when he is unavailable. Always a huge advocate for therapy, I feel sometimes it’s nicer talking to a trained professional about my problems over someone untrained anyways.
Journaling, daily time of meditation and prayer, an exercise routine, a community of friends for serious chats and other friends for good light-hearted fun—these are a few places from which I derive strength. No husband can be our everything. No one person can be our everything. Being a fire wife challenges me to get strength from other relationships, from my own hobbies, from my own faith, from the things I pursue while we are apart.
Support. Two things about support as a fire wife, you’ve got to be prepared to give it and to get it. Just as I need to gain strength from sources apart from my husband, I support him in doing the same. He needs friends, family, hobbies, faith, good food and exercise to flourish in his roles as a firefighter and husband.
I personally feel like our marriage vows mean I assumed the role of supporting him, not just expecting him to support me. Sometimes the best way I can support him is taking a step back and allowing him quiet time, other times the best thing is to plan us an event with friends we haven’t seen in a while.
It’s an organic process, feeling out the best way to support someone regularly exposed to the world’s worst traumas and perpetrators, but it is worth it to keep trying. Being silent and giving him the space to process before he opens up in his own time is another way I’ve learned to support this guy who, like most guys, has a hard time opening up about his feelings.
As for getting support, we’ve got to be willing to ask for and accept help. There is no shame in asking for help and being vulnerable enough to tell a friend or family member when we need a chat or a shoulder for crying. First responders’ spouses are similar to military spouses in the way they bond over difficulties of the lifestyle and grow closer because of it.
There are chunks of days where he gets “mando,” or mandatory overtime we weren’t expecting. When we make plans with friends, they’re always flexible in case my firefighter doesn’t get to come home. Our social lives creep along as weekends are a rarity for us, but weekends are also the time when everyone else typically hangs out. The sacrifices of being in a fire family are real, but so worth it when you can’t imagine being married to anyone else.
There is no shame in asking for help and being vulnerable enough to tell a friend or family member when we need a chat or a shoulder for crying.
And I’m not going to lie—not everyone is a safe place for our dynamic. There are friends and family members who have complained about our lack of availability, taken offense to the missing of birthdays or holidays due to his unpredictable schedule. This lifestyle isn’t for everyone, and not always easy to understand. Thankfully, I found people in my life who are available when he is gone, supportive of the lifestyle we lead, and flexible enough to wait for when we can all get together as a family.
Sleep. As a parent, a working woman, or just a human in general, I realize the value of sleep. It’s easy to make excuses for our own grumpy behavior, our own impatience, or any of our flaws when we’re coping with a lack of sleep. As a fire wife, I’ve realized how important it is to be gracious with my husband in this area, too. Surprise, men can suffer from lack of sleep! Early on in our marriage, I thankfully found a blog post written by a seasoned fire wife advising to always ask your husband about his night to set a barometer for the quality of your day.
Sometimes my husband would come home with the tired visible on him. Other times, he’d come from the fire station “as right as rain,” having had a regular shift of ladder drills and cooking with the guys at the station. Other days, he’d come home seemingly energetic only for me to discover he was running on an adrenaline high from a long night of horrific, sometimes traumatizing, calls. Horrible car accidents. Gunshot victims. Suicides. Sleep is never a given when the tones sound throughout the night during his 48 to 96 hour shifts.
With the same grace I’d like for my bad moods when I’m exhausted, I should treat my husband as another human being with equal limitations.
Self-sufficiency. Every relationship requires balance between connection and autonomy. Being a fire wife requires a unique balance of needing, wanting, and being self-sufficient apart from my often-absent husband. Social media is full of partners, both female and male spouses, jaded from growing used to their spouse’s absence. It’s easy to become so self-sufficient our partner doesn’t seem needed anymore.
Gradually, I’ve learned to leave some jobs around the house undone because A.) They’re just not my skill-set and B.) I want my fire hubby to know that he is still a much-needed member of this household. I feel the same way about fun events.
Sure, I could plan any and everything with the girls, but sometimes it’s worth the wait to bring along the man with whom I chose to spend my life! If it’s something we’d both be excited about, I try to save it for a day when we can both thoroughly enjoy it. We prioritize weekly, sometimes bi-monthly, date nights with the same fervor as we prioritize caring for our health.
I’ve found a rhythm of activities and events best served when he is away at the station for days. Some “girls days” with my friends are better spent when the hubby is at work, giving us ladies hours to catch up without worrying about “when to get home.” Sometimes it’s super lonely when he is gone for four consecutive days at the fire station, but it also gives me a chance to do all the fun things I know he doesn’t really enjoy!
Even sitting down to write, I get more done when he is at work than when he is home. I’d always rather have him home, but I’ve learned to live with the absences in productive ways. In the rare chunks of time where we find ourselves together for days, it’s easier to thoroughly enjoy one another’s company, then separate a few hours to pursue our own interests. We’re constantly perfecting the balance of being autonomous yet deeply connected.
Sacrifice. Watch any first responder movie and this one goes without saying. If you’re in for a tear-jerker, watch something about the Granite Mountain Hotshots or the firefighter families following the 9/11 terror attacks. I’ve learned the sacrifice required by marriage compounds in the sacrifice of marrying a firefighter.
Sure, there’s the loneliness, the finicky schedule preventing us from planning with friends or family, and the lack of celebrating holidays, but it’s the constant threat against my husband’s psyche and physical being that really keeps me on my knees praying. While our suburban home area gives him respite, when he is at the fire station located in a bad part of the city, he is always on high alert. The injuries, attacks, and illnesses he responds to daily not only put him at risk but translate to fears and anxieties back at home.
I’ve learned respect his wishes when it sounds like he is being overly cautious, realizing I don’t know the details of what he just witnessed only hours before getting home. After his closest coworker was shot at taking out the trash at the fire station, he asked me not to come visit them for a while. It’s hard not swinging by the station to see him when he can be gone for days on end, but the reality is he wouldn’t ask without a reason. Our family feels the sacrifice of what he does, vowing to support and carry him when there are calls too difficult to process alone.
Firefighters, at least the ones I know, are wonderful human beings. They have huge hearts, are great cooks, find their firehouse to be a family, are constantly at risk, and really need and appreciate any love and support afforded to them. I’m honored to be a firefighter’s wife, with all the pressures and perks coming with the role. Some marriages are work, but this one is fire.
Want more marriage advice? Tune into this podcast episode: How Do I Build a Healthy Marriage? – 178