Recent Research: Job Stress and Marriage in Police Couples

By Lewis, J. Dufton | Canadian Journal of Police and Security Services, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Recent Research: Job Stress and Marriage in Police Couples


Lewis, J. Dufton, Canadian Journal of Police and Security Services


Roberts, N.A., & Levenson, R.W. (2001). The Remains of the Workday: Impact of Job Stress and Exhaustion on Marital Interaction in Police Couples. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63, 1052-1067.

It is clear that policing is one of the most stressful and physically challenging occupations that an individual can engage in. Research consistently indicates that the stress and physical exhaustion police officers experience leads to a myriad of psychological, lifestyle, and relationship problems including divorce, alcoholism, domestic violence, and emotional disturbances. What is less clear in the research, however, is identifying how stress and physical exhaustion are related and how they manifest themselves in an officer's relationships with others--especially with regard to their marital interactions.

In order to address these two important issues, Roberts and Levenson conducted a study to evaluate the degree to which stress and exhaustion experienced by police officers impacted their emotional responding during interactions with their spouses. Specifically, the authors were interested in scientifically determining the degree to which stress and exhaustion are related to lower levels of emotional responding in police officers by examining their physiological and affective responses (i.e., their levels of physiological arousal and mood states). In addition, the authors were also interested in assessing how the lower levels of emotional responding would impact marital interactions and, ultimately, marital discord.

Based on the results of earlier studies, the authors hypothesized that exhausted and stressed officers would display increased autonomic nervous system (ANS) arousal (i.e., increased heart rate, pulse pressure, skin conductance, and general somatic activity), decreased positive affect (i.e., self-reports of lower levels of happiness), and increased negative feelings during conversations with their spouses. Roberts and Levenson further surmised that the increase in physiological arousal would lead to poorer control of emotions and difficulty in thinking which would, in turn, produce problem solving performance and less effective communication.

In order to test their hypotheses, the authors had 19 male police officers and their spouses fill out a daily stress diary as well as participate in four interaction sessions during a 30-day period. Interaction sessions were videotaped and both partners were attached to monitors that measured various physiological levels (i.e., heart rate, pulse pressure, skin conductance, and general somatic activity). After the interaction sessions, participants reviewed the videotapes and reported their mood or emotional state throughout the course of the conversation. This data was subsequently compared against the stress and exhaustion scores in their daily diaries for that day.

In general, the results of this study lent support to the authors' hypothesis that job stress does have a significantly negative impact on marital interactions. Officers reporting higher levels of stress in their daily diaries demonstrated correspondingly higher levels of physiological activity during the interactive sessions as well as reporting difficulty in thought control and problem solving abilities. These findings are significant given past research in this area indicating that similarly high levels of ANS activity during marital interactions are strong indicators of both marital discord and marital break-ups.

In addition to the above, the findings of this study also demonstrated an interesting phenomenon in regards to the response of the spouses during interactions on high stress days. Specifically, as a result of their husbands' stress, wives tended to also have high ANS arousal, yet minimal body movement. The authors described this reaction as a "freeze response", often associated with high levels of fear. …

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