The Impact of Authoritarian Spillover on Law Enforcement Relationships

There are different ways that behavioral conditioning from working in law enforcement and policing spillover at home and in relationships. One of those is Authoritarian Spillover.


What is Authoritarian Spillover?

Authoritarian spillover is caused by the regular act of having command presence on the job. Command presence is necessary for law enforcement officers to have control of a scene. This behavior is what keeps them, the public, and a scene safe many times. It keeps them coming home at night.

What does command presence look like?

Command presence involves any behavior that an officer may use to have command or authority on a scene or with the public when necessary.

Voice: Their voice becomes firm, stern, and many times short and clipped. Their voice can become staccato, meaning direct and to the point in a short period of time. Phrases like, “You. Sit.” are staccato.

Posture: Officers use their body to exhibit command presence. If you are a spouse, you have seen this posture. Their hands may be in strategic positions where they are ready to use them in whatever capacity they need to use them. Blading is another posture in which officers stand almost perpendicular to the situation or individual in order to reduce the amount of body mass available to hit or injury. Blading is also effective to reduce access to an officer’s weapon.

Other ways of gaining authority may include facial expressions, such as stern looks of the “thousand yard stare” and gestures such as pointing.

Why does authoritarian spillover occur in law enforcement relationships?

Command presence is a conditioned behavior. Officers are trained to use these skills daily in order to have control of scenes and protect themselves and the public. These behaviors become engrained and habitual. When officers are at home and feel that they want to move something along, get control, or fix a problem or situation, the brain may take over and use the trained behaviors and habits that it knows to get this done. My husband says, “It becomes easier for an officer to communicate in an authoritarian way because their brains “fix the problem and move on through that type of communication.”

What authoritarian spillover looks like at home.

Authoritarian spillover can present in several ways at home. The easiest way to identify it is through the behavior mentioned above such as voice, tone, posture, or gesturing. It can also present through wanting to have the last word, insisting or proving that you are right, or reacting larger and with more emotion than necessary to a situation. It may include telling a person what they need to do rather than requesting. For example, saying, “You need to….” Instead of, “Would you please…”. It can also involve telling a family member or spouse what they need to do rather than listening and providing empathy.

The impact of authoritarian spillover

There are consequences to authoritarian spillover on the family and the officer. The behavior can lead family members to view their officer as detached, not caring, rude, and controlling. Family members and spouses may feel like they are on eggshells and adjust their behavior to avoid the spillover behavior. This can include not sharing information that might be seen as negative or resulting in a reaction. Families and spouses may believe they have to adjust their behavior in order to avoid behavior that comes from authoritarian spillover. Ultimately, if the spillover and behavior continues, it can result in misinterpretation, disconnection, loneliness, and resentment for both the officer and the spouse. Children that are impacted by spillover may choose to disengage with the officer parent.

How to impact authoritarian spillover in your law enforcement relationship.

There are several ways to impact authoritarian spillover individually and as a couple.

Lt. Bobby Doyle (Ret.) recommends officers do the following.

1. Leave it at work: Recognize that it presents a problem to you and your relationships. Work on changing your mindset as you are on your way home and thinking about the person you want to be for your family instead of focusing on officer behavior.

2. Be mindful: Become more mindful of your own behaviors to recognize the problem. Be aware of reactions and statements from your family and adjust accordingly.

3. State feelings: Learn how to identify and state your feelings about a situation rather than reacting or fixing a situation at home.

4. Rules for Engagement: Just like at work, have rules for engagement. Learn to take timeouts before reacting. Implement tactical breathing to calm down and then re-engage.

Cyndi’s recommendations are the following.

1. Help your spouse to recognize the problem: Understand that conditioned behavior spillover and authoritarian spillover is one of behaviors. It is important to be able to reflect what you are seeing in a non-judgmental way. You can use a phrase such as, “I notice that your posture just changed and you are giving me ‘the look’.” OR, Talk to your officer to determine how they would like you to help them recognize the shift in behavior.

2. State your feelings and needs: Understanding that short and direct is effective and a type of communication that officers are used to having. Spouses like it too! Learn how to state how you are feeling and what you need. DO NOT say, “I need YOU to….” Instead say, “I am feeling overwhelmed/angry and need to step away for 20 minutes.” OR “I am feeling on eggshells and need us to determine a different way to communicate.” You might check out Episode 80 for more communication hacks.

3. Take ownership and change: There is nothing more powerful to a relationship than owning bad behavior and stating how you will change it in the future. If you want to apologize at the end of that, even more brownie points!

4. Live B.I.G.: Have grace for the behavior. Allow for do-overs when necessary and if you see your spouse trying to become more aware or change. It is also important to have boundaries to the behavior. The two can exist together. Listen to Episode 63 for more information on this.

Have a conversation about authoritarian spillover

Ultimately, it is important for couples to have an open and honest conversation about when authoritarian spillover occurs in their relationship and family. Decide as a couple how you would like to communicate about the behavior and how you would like it to look differently in your relationship. We are here to help each other counter the impact and spillover that can occur.

If you want more information about authoritarian spillover, check out my book, Hold the Line, The Essential Guide to Protecting your Law Enforcement Relationship. I talk about spillover as well connection, how to have better communication and intimacy in your relationship.

Until next time, Keep it Code 4.


The Impact of Authoritarian Spillover on Law Enforcement Relationships

There are different ways that behavioral conditioning from working in law enforcement and policing spillover at home and in relationships. One of those is Authoritarian Spillover.




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