"Having someone wonder where you are when you don't come home at night is a very old human need." --Margaret Mead
A long time ago, in a first aid squad far, far away, I sat in my very first EMT class, raptly listening to the instructor lecturing us on the finer points of patient assessment. He told us that we would be having "hands-on" practice later, which elicited the usual ripple of snickers and comments about palpation and the necessary details of any thorough head-to-toe assessment. Once the giggling subsided, the instructor informed us in a very stern voice that we could put that out of our heads right now; that there was "no sex in first aid."
Two weeks later, he asked me out to dinner.
And therein lies the first lesson when it comes to the age-old dynamic of men and women in EMS: There are two sexes, not one. We're not talking rocket science here folks...just basic biology. Let's take a man and a woman, put them in a confined space for hours at a time, and then, just for giggles, subject them to emotional, physical and environmental extremes without any advance warning. They work through hours of boredom with only each other for company, along with intense periods where they must work on, over and under each other with fierce intent in order to help save someone's life. You don't need to be an Iron Chef to realize what recipe comes out of those not-so-secret ingredients.
The lesson to take from this is that it is statistically far more likely you will have some level of romantic relationship with a partner or co-worker at some point in the course of your career than of being hit by a meteor, or just about anything else. One could almost say it's inevitable. Know what the acronym used in studies for "extramarital sex" is? You guessed it: EMS.
The idea of a workplace relationship, regardless of where that workplace happens to be, is usually deemed a bad idea. However, in a career-focused society, you are more likely to meet someone from or related to your work environment than anywhere else. Again, not complicated. It's a simple matter of compatibility that comes with common territory. In a recent poll in Marie Claire regarding office relationships, approximately 60% of those polled had slept with a co-worker and 30% had married someone they dated at work. Those numbers are across the board, not EMS-specific. So every workplace has its soap operas, but, subjectively speaking, I don't think I have ever seen an industry as inbred as ours. I would argue that our numbers are higher--way higher. There are plenty of solid reasons for that.
EMS and, by extension, emergency services in general, is such a unique environment that it requires its own skill-set to successfully navigate. It has its own rules, its own language, and requires a level of emotional and practical understanding that is unmatched in most other professions. We can communicate in a bizarre patois of acronyms and abbreviations, go for days with little to no sleep, and we find the more gruesome aspects of life quite funny at times. Is it really a shock that we tend to only socialize within our circle? It's not like we make very good dates at a formal affair. Well, we can--most of us clean up pretty well--but inevitably someone asks about work, usually during the entrée.
Even if the person you're seeing is not in the middle of EMS, he or she can usually see it from the police, fire or emergency department. It's rare to see a career EMS provider in a long-term relationship with a completely non-EMS person. Where I'm from, most paramedics have two jobs at minimum and work in excess of 60 hours a week. It doesn't leave much time for traditional socializing. Anyway, we suck at small talk; it always turns to work.
So if we're so made for each other, why do we fail miserably so much of the time? Why is it when you ask people if you should date in or out of EMS you just get hysterical laughter in response? I mean, you have a common language, you often do the same job (even in the same place), and the nature of your relationship allows you to spend all that extra time together. One would think if you date someone in the field they would be more understanding and you would be able to communicate more easily, which is the key to any successful relationship--right?
I will give you all a few minutes to compose yourselves.
If EMS relationships are so bad for us, why do we keep doing it? What is it that draws us back into the cycle, often time and again? Let's look at the good, the bad and the obvious.
MEN IN UNIFORM
The Good. Ok, it's cliché, but hot damn if it isn't the truth. There is just something to be said for a man who can wear a uniform well. It smolders with an undercurrent of authority that many women feel the need to immediately challenge or see in action. This particular tidbit is obviously not isolated to EMS; it extends to our brethren in the other services. Remember that the male/female ratio of our profession and the others is still tipped in the guys' favor, which leaves you about as many choices as a Sunday brunch buffet. And before any of you gasp in disgust that I would even insinuate such a base attraction, remember that I know a lot of you and your penchant for well-oiled holsters or turn-out gear. And if it still smells like smoke, bonus! (Guys who happen to have smoky turn-out gear might want to file that particular tidbit away.)
The Bad. Everyone you see is in uniform! Seriously, go through a day at work and do a rough tally of how many uniforms you're around and the percentage of men to women. In all seriousness, it can mean that when you're vulnerable, you might decide to engage in a relationship you normally wouldn't. It can also put you on the receiving end of attention you don't necessarily want. And let's not forget that if they look good to you, they likely look good to other folks too. I mean, why not worry about the competition? At the end of the day, everyone's human.
The Obvious. The reverse is also true: Women in uniform (and out) can be equally attractive to the opposite sex. Even in a platonic relationship, if there is physical attraction, there's the chance that a romantic relationship might develop. If you weren't actively seeking one, look beyond the cut of the shirt and decide if it's something you truly want to pursue or you are just acting on attraction.
The Good. A good partnership (regardless of gender) is a rare and beautiful thing that can be almost seamless in its ease of communication. Partners know each other intimately on a personal and emotional level. There are inside jokes, good days and bad, highs and lows that often have no real parallel in "outside" life. Through it all, you and your partner are there to work things out and have each other's back.
The Bad. Is it a stretch to think that a sexual relationship would be a natural next step? I talk about this carefully, because I don't want to generate unwanted bias against significant others who have partners of the opposite sex. It is not inevitable that partners will sleep together. But we are human, and if you think the idea never crosses you or your partner's mind, "I'll take 'Let's Complicate My Life' for 200, Alex."
The Obvious. It is very easy for our perception to be influenced by our emotions. Someone you were not initially attracted to can change with time and familiarity. I can remember the exact moment someone from long ago went from "barely noticed" to "meow" for me, and I had known him for two years. Inside jokes can turn to flirting with a flip of the hair. If you find yourself on the verge of taking your relationship outside the professional arena, remember that it's a one-way trip. For better or worse, that partnership will change in tone and dynamic after the deed is done. You cannot take it back, so think hard about whether it's something you are ready and willing to explore.
The Good. Convenience! EMS seems almost ideal for the "friends with benefits" scenario. You see people with history all the time, yet it changes almost nothing with their working relationship. It's like shopping for a car: Take one for a test drive and, if you don't like it, drop off the keys; no harm, no foul. Working in the same environment you can commiserate freely on management, the equipment, the day-to-day drama (skipping over the chapter you've generated by being together of course). Shared history is very often the foundation of a strong relationship. Just because we're looking at all the craziness that can also happen does not mean that lasting, meaningful relationships don't come out of the workplace. It's important to realize the scope of what you're getting into.
The Bad. Everyone knows your business. Do not think for a moment that they do not. You might be able to hide it for awhile, but eventually one of you will slip up. One other side-effect of a successful career in EMS is the ability to read body language. Ladies, you know what I mean. You start sporting lip gloss, doing your hair for an overnight shift, or people start thinking, aren't those the same pants she had on yesterday, and darn, isn't she in a good mood lately? You will survive that, of course, but it has its downside. If the relationship is rocky or fails, they will know that, too. Your mutual circle of friends might not be as mutual any longer, since people tend to take sides or withdraw. It can make work a lonely and alienating place.
The inability to keep secrets in EMS will have another unfortunate result--it can damage your professional reputation. Regardless of how equal your footing is in your current department, it will still reflect poorly on you if you take one too many "test drives" or allow your personal life to be aired on the public laundry line. It can take a long time to overcome that with your professional successes.
You might also lose some of your individuality at the workplace. You will both be in the same environment, having similar experiences with the same people over the course of your day. If you're on the same tour, or the same truck, it can limit communication out of work. How can you talk about your day when your other half was there all along?
He might feel the need to be manly, especially as your relationship progresses, and you'll find him becoming overprotective or reacting to something at work that you were able to handle just fine on your own, thank you very much. It's not a bad thing, but it can be awkward and certainly grounds for a fight if it interferes with your ability to do your job.
The Obvious. If you find yourself dating a co-worker, enjoy it, but try to keep it to yourself, at least in the beginning. Not everyone you work with is your friend or wishes you well. Neither of you need that kind of negative involvement. Become familiar with your company's policies regarding relationships or code of conduct. You don't want a burgeoning relationship to get you in trouble at work (outside of gossip). If you find that you are getting serious, consider the long-term ramifications of both of you working in the same department. Most companies have explicit rules about dating subordinates. Will that affect your future should one of you get promoted?
DATING YOUR BOSS/CHIEF/COORDINATOR
Bad idea. Don't do it. You won't get anything out of it professionally, and chances are you are breaking a policy by just thinking about it. Move along--nothing to see here folks.
PEER RELATIONSHIPS (OTHER PARAMEDICS OR EMTs)
The Good. You both speak the language! By working in the same field, you have a huge leap on most couples. Even if something is specific to your practice, you will not likely have to work very hard to explain it. The acronyms, the shifts and the things you find funny can all be shared. When you can't answer the phone, or you have to cancel a reservation because of that bloody late job, it's less likely to become a crisis than with someone who doesn't understand the nature of the job. You can laugh over the same awful things and not think less of each other. When you need space or time to process a bad call or day, your partner will be more likely to understand why. You can take pride in each other's accomplishments and engage in joint activities that will interest you both, like an interesting CEU class or conference.
The Bad. If you really want a chuckle, ask someone in EMS what it's like to work with the person they're dating or married to, as on the same truck. The displays of horror are dramatic and satisfying. In most cases, two people who are involved find that actually working together is a nightmare. Why? Ok...if none of you will say it, I guess I have to. Because somebody has to be the boss, and when it comes to the "job," the girl won't always give in and not be the alpha. She would not be where she is if she did.
EMS encourages independent thinkers who must organize a lot of non-related information into a cohesive picture and then make rapid and appropriate clinical decisions. The ability to think on your feet and make the call is certainly not gender-specific. That means just because I let you pick where we're going for dinner does not mean I'll let you decide when we're going to intubate a patient. That goes both ways, ladies. If you call the shots at home and now you find him telling you exactly what needs to get done, it's hard not to take that personally or read more into it than what's really there. We are competitive by design--by the nature of what we do.
Working with your significant other can be a distraction as well. You might have personal baggage from home that you forgot to leave at the door, or one or both of you might be overly solicitous or protective of the other. If the truck gets in an accident, you are both out, so who takes care of whom?
Then there are the exes (insert dramatic music here). If you do this job long enough, it is very likely that one or both of you will come into contact, or even work with, your significant other's "ex." My advice here is that if you're going to be in a long-term relationship, a judicious full disclosure is probably prudent. You would not want your boyfriend/girlfriend ambushed by this information at an inopportune moment, and I'm sure your patient will appreciate it too.
You cannot always mesh your personal relationship with work. I've heard plenty of successful relationships that believe "work is work and home is home." They also make it a point never to work together.
The Obvious. If you're involved with a peer, you actually stand a much better chance of long-term success if you work in different departments. This gives you common ground to draw from, along with the ability to understand your significant other's specific joys or frustrations without sucking you directly into the actual issues. Establish rules early on. Know yourself and your boundaries, and do not be afraid to discuss them. Fear creates communication rifts that grow to abysses that can't be repaired. If you can hold together a mangled body long enough to get help, standing up for yourself isn't any harder. Avoid spilling your guts to casual co-workers at your respective departments. This is a small field, and you do not need half-truths trickling back to your other half, complicating your lives. Use your strengths to build a solid foundation so you can both weather the unique business that is your life.
The Good. They have no idea what you're talking about most of the time. With no work-related drama, they bring to the table an entire circle of friends and set of experiences that you may have no history with. They likely find you hot, exciting (see Uniforms), and there is a small element of the hero archetype regardless of whether you're a man or a woman. You should not lack for things to talk about, especially if you are both from different fields and have daily experiences that are unique and unfamiliar to the other person.
The Bad. They have no idea what you're talking about most of the time. It can be very difficult for someone outside of EMS to understand the implications of the "late job" or why we can just not go or hand it off to someone later. They will not speak the language, understand the acronyms, the amount of importance some things have over others and what impact it may have on a person's life. They will not get your jokes and are not likely to understand why you found someone's tragedy funny. They do not have that insulating layer of clinical objectivity that the rest of us develop like a callous on our brain, allowing us the distance to function like a somewhat normal human being. Our version of a bad day is very different from most people's. Everyone processes things in their own way, and they may find it difficult to understand when you need to withdraw and just be left alone, or why you sometimes refuse to talk about work or can't stop talking about it until it's done.
A friend of mine is married to someone outside of EMS, and they've been together a very long time. We were recently discussing this topic, and I asked him about his relationship. One of the negative aspects for him, he told me, "I get very tired of having to explain everything."
There is also jealousy on a level that can be difficult to handle. Saying "Let's put the man and woman alone in a confined space" is likely to elicit some type of response. I know women who had to defuse their boyfriends on a regular basis, based on who they were scheduled to work with. They had to have a discussion every time they were scheduled with someone of the opposite sex, and no amount of reassurances seemed to help. It was difficult for some of them to understand that in EMS women are likely to have a lot of male friends.
The Obvious. Some people find that love outside of EMS brings a balancing force into their lives. For the sake of the relationship they adapt, because that is what we do, isn't it? We take the impossible and try to turn it to our advantage, even if for a little while. Be patient with them, but be honest; we can't function in this job if we cannot allow ourselves to fully process how we feel about what we see and do. Allow your non-EMS partner to pull you into their sphere and see if you can be happy there too.
TO BADGE OR NOT TO BADGE: THAT IS THE QUESTION
All of these observations about the good, the bad and the obvious when it comes to dating within EMS come from my own experience and from my friends. Our world is too unique and emotionally charged to not be a minefield. Navigating it will come with mistakes, and there is no good advice that will fit every circumstance. Step back, look at your relationship (or flirtation) and see if you can figure out what you want out of it. Be honest about what you want or need for yourself and make your decision from that place.
And for the record, I married my partner, and we just celebrated our 10th anniversary.
Tracey A. Loscar, MICP, is the training supervisor in charge of QA at University Hospital EMS in Newark, NJ. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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