People who choose high-risk careers, such as police officers, military personnel and firefighters, are often warned of the high risk for divorce that goes along with their profession. In fact, this was such common wisdom that Suzy Gulliver, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine, would speak on the topic during health service conferences she held for firefighting personnel.
During one of these meetings, several of the firefighters — all of them in happy, long-term marriages — asked if there was any empirical evidence to support this long-held idea.
Gulliver started to investigate and found there weren’t any peer-reviewed studies showing higher divorce rates for firefighters. Seeing a gap in the literature, she called for more research on the topic.
“We should all be interested in the work done to keep us safe,” said Gulliver, director and chief of the Warriors Research Institute at Baylor Scott & White Health,. “We wanted to determine if there was any proof that there might be negative consequences in the personal lives of this very important population.”
At the same time, some of Gulliver’s colleagues in Kansas City had similar ideas. “They were analyzing the data from one of their large surveys, and found that female firefighters had somewhat elevated divorce rates,” she said.
Specifically, they found that female firefighters had a divorce rate of 32.1 percent, compared to 10.4 percent of women in the general population. Male firefighters, however, showed no such effect, and in fact had rates similar to men in other, less dangerous professions.
Although the reasons for these gender differences are unknown, Gulliver does see the trait of resilience as a buffer against the kind of life stress caused by a dangerous job, as well as the kind of stress that can lead some couples to divorce.
For example, couples who are high in resiliency may use their relationship to cope with on-the-job stress and have lower stress levels, even in the face of negative life events, and they may have correspondingly low divorce rates.
“These findings have implications not only for firefighters and their spouses, but also for professionals who might be interested in helping them,” Gulliver said.
“I want to emphasize that male firefighters’ marriages seem to be just as stable as those of the general population, although more research needs to be done to determine why the same isn’t true for those of female firefighters.”
Those employed in other types of high-risk jobs may show similar trends, although that research still needs to be done.
Gulliver’s next step is to examine how to build resilience. For example, peer support systems for firefighters might be able to aid their family members — particularly their spouses — as well.
“The spouses of firefighters represent an underserved population,” Gulliver said. “By studying both partners in firefighter marriages, we can gain a deeper understanding of how to reduce stress and help them sustain their marriages.”
Source: Texas A&M University