When a Firefighter is Irritable, Grumpy, and Disengaged When He’s Home

by | Behavioral Health, Best of Fire Family Life, Communication, Difficult Calls, Everyday, From the Firefighter Perspective, Wife Advice

This article is so important because we’ve all been there yet so few admit it and talk about it. There is no shame in relating to this or even sharing this post. You never know who is suffering and needs these words.

Let’s just start with these words straight from the wife of a young fire family:

I am so frustrated and angry at my husband right now. He just came off shift and what is seeming more and more like the norm, he is in a cranky mood. He says he is so done running all these B.S. calls and apparently that must be the whole family’s issue. The whole house must be quiet and walk on eggshells otherwise we all get to hear about it. Our boys are 5 & 7 so as I am sure you can imagine there is not much quiet in our house. 9 times out of 10 he is either watching TV or has his eyes in his phone and acts annoyed if anyone is talking to him. I try my best to keep our boys busy and either outside or doing something to entertain them but damn it I am not a single mom, this is supposed to be a partnership. We go to marriage counseling already which usually helps for a couple days after but quickly fades back into the same thing. I get having a bad day now and then but every day is getting old. I have tried to tell him how I feel and he just gets defensive. I have been understanding and tried to be extra sensitive, I have asked that he either deal with what is bothering him or to leave it at the door.”

I empathize entirely with this post because our family experienced our own share of moments much like this. (and I feel 100% confident in writing that because I’m certain every fire family has felt that to some extent, especially if their firefighter runs in a busy district.) From the wives perspective, it’s a really raw deal. When does she get a partner in parenting and marriage? If he’s coming home so beat up and unable to function, is this job worth it? What happened to having the “dream job” as a firefighter?

Every single firefighter has at one point or another said they may have reached their limit. Almost none act on that and quit.

Firefighters are generally strong people who have accomplished much just by landing the job. Still, much is asked of them and they are human and breakable too. The wife may be the first and only person to see just how broken they can be and certainly the one who observes the first signs of an issue.

Because we see variations of this story so often within our communities, we decided to ask the men in the Honor Guard what they would do.

If you knew a firefighter on your crew was going home just to be disengaged and irritable, what advice would you give him?

In short, they said this:

1. If you are burnt out like this, change things up. Move crews, stations or even go to an admin job for a while. Even quitting a second job may take some of the pressure off.

2. Get counseling. These problems are likely deeper than the fire service and while the job doesn’t help, it may not be 100% the blame.

3. Take time to be alone with your wife. Reconnect.

4. A guy like this may not show much negativity at work but you will notice he has withdrawn a bit and isn’t the go-getter they used to be. Watch your crew and be aware of guys slipping into this place.

5. This person must recognize and make the choice to change. No one can do that step for them.

6. Talking to someone who can empathize and whom they admire is essential. Often, the spouse is not in a place to be this person but a seasoned mentor in the fire service can be.


Here are their words of advice:

“The hardest thing I do is when I come home to leave problems at the door. But for some reason it seems like the BS runs are a secondary problem and an easy excuse and there is a deeper unhappiness happening. If he truly is burnt out from work then maybe switching things up wouldn’t be a bad idea. Whether it’s a detail at work or going to another house for a bit could help, to just switch up the norm. If the problem is at home, then counseling is a great place to be at and hopefully the more you go the longer that effect will be. It sounds like a weekend away with just the wife in a nice place would do wonders. Try to have then reconnect, fill their love tank and help show him what’s important.”

“This sounds very familiar. …. when I was working 48s, this was me! He may not show as much negative attitude while at work, but it is more than likely withdrawn from the Company. He’s probably doing the bare minimum as far as drills, calls, and station duties are concerned. …. probably not getting near enough sleep either due to calls or his mind won’t shut off, which compounds the problem. I don’t really have a clear cut solution as an employee, friend, or company officer other than talk to him and relate…. I’ve been there…. the only thing that worked for me was quitting my second job… too much of even a good thing is not a good thing!! If he feels like he is not getting any support from either home (fire or family), he will look for it elsewhere… and may already be, hence the nose in the phone all the time. … may also look into self medication with alcohol or drugs as well. Ultimately, he knows there’s an issue but not how to fix it, acknowledging it and having someone to relate to is the key. An attitude adjustment is in order and he needs to figure out what’s important to him! We all have bad shifts from time to time but if it’s the norm, a change needs to occur for his sake…. mentally, emotionally, and physically…….”

“This happened to me near the end of my time being spent on the line before I moved to Prevention. I talked to my dad (retired FF) about the situation and he sat me down and said that those calls we think are BS are the patients worst times and they have called us to save them. To the victim, we have saved the day no matter how minor the call may be.”

“Another great idea would be to speak to the spiritual side and explain to him that Christ brings us through different seasons in life for different reasons. When we first got on the job we didn’t care why the tones went off because it gave us an excuse to fly down the road making a lot of noise with flashy lights. The longer we are on the job we go through a season of boredom, at least I did, where I only wanted good calls. This is not God’s plan and we must endure the mundane to experience the excitement.”

“My wife said that I was an A-Hole for a few yrs early in our marriage, it would seem that I displayed a lot of the above, there was still a lot of ‘toughen up’ and ‘just deal with it’ mentality when I entered the Fire Service, gladly that is changing!”

“It took ME finally admitting to myself that I was the problem, not home and family. I was on antidepressants for a while, which helped some (but I hated), I also went and saw a professional counselor, one who did ride a longs with police and fire and knew exactly the type of stuff that we’d all seen. That was the best thing that I ever did! He was great.”

“I’ve also followed all this up with seeing my Dr. regularly and found that my testosterone was low, once I started getting shots (there are side affects), per my wife, I improved – better than the ‘old’ me she has just informed me!”

“I’ve also been a lot more open with her since all this happened, I leave out gory details, but I share how the shift went and/or if I’m having issues at work and she just listens – if I had a long shift or bad calls she usually can tell and she lets me wind down and then asks about it or if I’m tired and grumpy she’ll just tell me to go take a nap!”

“Until the firefighter starts to look at himself and figure out what is bothering them the situation will remain or spiral downward. I had some issues many years ago and thought my job might be in jeopardy. I contacted EAP and went to see a counselor and then a psychologist. Lisa and I also went to counseling. We learned a lot.”

“Like many first responders, I have attention deficit disorder (ADD). My psychologist believes that folks with ADD/ADHD are attracted to fire/EMS because it works for us. However, when you stop working it can work against you at home.”

“Not surprisingly I was also diagnosed with depression, although I believed I was a pretty happy person! Apparently you can do both at the same time.”

“Now that we addressed my issues and some of hers we took action. I have focused on my behavior at work and try every day to be conscious of the words I use, phrasing and how I interface with the crew. Having the awareness is huge. I also take medication which may be helping but I’m not sure. I stopped one medication and no one seemed to notice any change. I still take one for depression.”

“There are still shifts when I come home like a zombie and just want to flop in front of the television and pass out (yesterday). The difference is my wife knows why I do this and she knows I’ll talk about it when I’m ready. She used to hate that I could fall asleep during the day because she just can’t do that. Over time she has learned to accept that there are some days when I just need a break.”

“For all of you who may hesitate to seek help, I would urge you to get it. There is no shame and it can only help you, your family and crew.”

“Our firefighter spouses don’t really get a break. They are the constant in the family.”

“When my wife and I were dating/engaged she completed the county fire department’s citizen fire academy. That opened her eyes and she started to understand what we did on shift. I even ran a few calls with her and went to two-thirds of her training and her graduation.”

“The last point is to address all issues that prevent peace in the family immediately. It is important to address the challenges early. Otherwise you will lose the structure. It is a lot like firefighting.”


I agree the behavior may be due to an underlying issue that is job related. Identifying the exact issue is tough and takes commitment from him. Counseling works, whether it is a peer or a professional. Each person is different and they need to find what is best for them. I learned that just because you pick a counselor, it might not be the best fit for you. I was told if the counselor does not fit you after 3 sessions, try another one until you find one that fits. Also, you cannot “make” someone go to counseling, it will not be productive. The person has to reach the point they want to fix the issue. (or work on themselves, the wife cannot fix his problems).

How do you convince him to work on it? Here’s how – DIVORCE SUCKS! I know from past experience. It is worth the hard work and time it takes for good marriage.

Trust me, he’ll look back and be thankful, his wife will be thankful, and most important his kids will be thankful. Remember the kids have absolutely no control over the situation, but the results have a huge impact on them.

Finally, a good marriage takes two people willing to work at it. This will take work from both to be a success. Best wishes to the couple!


Love the point of addressing the issues early “before you lose the structure”. Spot on.

It’s almost always a symptom of a much larger problem and not actually the job. We have to be honest with ourselves, or forced to be…

But how do we get out of these places?

That’s the burning question. It feels good to know that others are also experiencing this. And to see that they made it through to the other side, but how? We all want a silver bullet, a time machine to zip past this stage and a potion to fix it all. We also know that isn’t reality. However, when we are IN the midst of a challenge it can feel so permanent and exhausting with no end in sight. Yet we never know when that “aha” moment is going to occur and the right person says the right words at the right time to begin that journey towards healing.

When a spouse who is beaten down, irritable and depressed RECOGNIZES the need for help, a huge relief is immediately lifted. Yes there is still hard work ahead but you are both encouraged by the fact that help is out there and you don’t have to live with this burden always. Every step is worthy of celebration.

So how do you get someone to recognize the need for help? What words can you say to turn things around?

We asked these same guys what was the turning point for them. It’s different for everyone but there were 2 common denominators:

1. They had to decide for themselves

2. Words had to be spoken to them from a source they trust (spouse, mentor, friend) to help them recognize the pit they were in.

Here are some of their own examples of turning points:

“When my wife started making comments like ‘I feel like a single parent’; and I was a stranger to my own kids and wife…. I thought I was trying to make a better life for them, but what I was really doing was alienating myself from my family. … I quit my second job last year and things have drastically improved. The biggest factor was I found my wife was having an emotional affair that was very close to being physical. . .. she never tried to blame my work schedule and my resultant attitude…. but who wants someone who is never there, and when they are, they are irritated, distracted, and distant??? I know that I wouldn’t. ….”

“I think the key is that FF admitting the problem he has. It sounds like he’s not alone with his situation and I’ll honestly admit that was me, I was hearing those same words. It took a lot to get me to a point towards a better path and I’m not sure if it was just the time or it was the point where our relationship was about to actually end. Yeah we did the counseling thing which in my view is more of a mediator then anything which was still a good thing. The truth was I needed the slap in the face to realize I was mentally and emotionally exhausted. I’ve had a lot of stuff happen in my past that I closed in and caused many problems by bottling it up. Looking back now I see how toxic I was to my family and it’s still a work in progress every single day but it’s exponentially better now because I finally was able to realize how depressed and shut off I was to everything around me.”

“There was never an ‘I can’t do this anymore’ moment. There were moments when I said that I didn’t know what to do to change my perspective and get back to the mentality I had when I first got hired and that’s what caused me to reach out.”

“Man, I can relate to a lot of what the others have already said. The turning point for me is when I realized my kids, who love me and look up to me, didn’t want to be around when I came home like that. For me, I sought out my pastor, developed a deeper relationship with God, and started finding friends outside of emergency services. I found several hobbies outside of the fire service. Just to help take my mind off things when I wasn’t at work.”

Wives, let’s drive home some important points about the role your words and actions can play in these situations:

You must speak the words.

He can’t read your mind. Huffing and puffing and passive-aggressive frustration about what’s going on is only going to inflame the situation. Your words must be clear and direct. (and fair and truthful but spoken out of love and kindness…read on)

You must use the right tone and talk fair.

Yes you are angry and hurt and bitter (and perhaps hating his job like I was). But words spoken out of anger seldom hit home. Strong truthful words can be direct and firm but screaming or hitting “below the belt” only does damage.

Healthy example: “I see that you are more irritable and grumpy lately. It’s affecting the mood of our household and most importantly I see it dragging you down. You haven’t done the things you love lately. I’m sharing this because as your spouse, I want only the best for you.”

Unhealthy example: “If you weren’t laying around all day not helping around here, we might have gotten that done. When are you going to get help?”

Direct, truthful words do not try to cast blame or hurt. A person who is experiencing this is most likely already beating themselves up enough and not sure how to get out of it.

Don’t take ownership of their issues to try to avoid a blow-up fight.

No we aren’t perfect but when one spouse starts “owning” the others behaviors and modifying the household to accommodate grumpy moods, suddenly those grumpy moods are easy to stay in. You become an enabler of them. Set a healthy boundary to not let the moods drag you down but also don’t make it a comfortable norm for the grumpiness to hang around. If you catch yourself saying often “Today is not a good day to ask that of Daddy” you may be skirting around a big issue that needs to be addressed. It takes a brave bold conversation to go there which means growth on your part.

Advice from a counselor for spouses of people who experience depression: When they are having a bad day, spend 15-20 minutes just being with them to show you are there for them in their sadness, anger or frustration. Then, move on with your day. Their mood should not dictate your mood.

There are two favorite resources for this topic. One is Crucial Conversations and the other is Boundaries in Marriage.

Ultimatums Are Not the Answer

If you’ve ever watched that reality TV show “Intervention”, you’ve seen families come together and give family members ultimatums regarding their addiction habit. Those are extreme situations in which someone may likely kill themselves due to their addiction. In marriage, you are your spouses closest supporter and cheerleader. The one thing a depressed, burnt out, possible PTSD sufferer needs is to know their spouse is on their team. An ultimatum looks like an impassable mountain. If you feel like you are at an ultimatum point, find ways to lift yourself up. Build up your support network to get through this difficult time. When a spouse is depressed, they aren’t able to be there for you. A safe (same-sex) friendship can truly keep your strong and healthy to be there for your spouse in this season.

Find Your Way through the Fire Life with Fire Wife Academy

This self-paced course covers all of the best topics from our book, Honor and Commitment: Standard Life Operating Guidelines for Firefighters & Their Families.

It's designed for women who are new to fire life.  From just engaged to newlyweds, to long-time wives who find themselves thrust into a new life when their spouse becomes a firefighter later in marriage.  This sister, is for you!

This course includes an intro, overview, additional resources and challenges for each of the 17 chapters you'll find inside of Honor and Commitment.  Plus a Bonus Module: More Than A Fire Wife.

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On a mission to be and inspire us all to be better humans, to strengthen fire families & marriages, to nurture and encourage fire wives, do "good business" in all areas of my life and of course, love on my 4 kids.

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  1. Mindy Gabriel

    My husband and I are both full time firefighters. We have 3 young children. I am excited to see the opportunities for fire families to connect and grow but I am not sure where I fit. You say “guys” for the honor guard section-I fit in this category more than I do the sisterhood based on how it is described. Please advise how it is best we plug in. Many thanks for what you are doing!

    • Jessica Jackson

      Hi, Mindy!
      Yes, the Honor Guard is for male firefighters. We do not currently have a space for Female Firefighters, no one has stepped up to lead and we haven’t had enough interest to press forward.
      With that said, the Fire Wife Sisterhood has several female firefighters who are also fire wives. I personally think you would find value of the Sisterhood, and can add value as having a little insider view of the profession too. You could check it out, see if it fits a little better than you think 🙂


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