“…the goal of our work and what we’ve found with couples is that if you can teach skills and experiences that enhance emotional literacy, emotional intelligence, you empower them to find almost the full range of solutions, to address services, to implement solutions in their own lives to take care of their own relationships. But without that foundation, the best interventions in the world are often hijacked by the stress and anxiety of the events that we go through over the course of our life.”
–Seth Eisenberg, PAIRS CEO
The Annie E. Casey Foundation and the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center (NHMRC) collaborated on a groundbreaking effort to convene many of the best minds on the subject of the intimate relationships of National Guard service members and their families.
The day and a half event held in Tampa, Florida included more than two dozen respected leaders, advocates, clinicians and researchers devoted to understanding and supporting intimate partner relationships and identifying best practices among existing and developmental marriage/relationship education and treatment programs. Particular attention was paid to the role of relationship and marriage education in helping couples and single parent families navigate the stress of multiple deployments and disconnection from the services typically afforded other military families.
The Guard faces challenges unique from other branches of the military. For example, Guard families may not be located near a base where services are available; they may not know other Guard families; Guard families are less likely to be prepared for a deployment than active military families; and there is often a disconnect between “citizen” and “soldier” resources. Programs have emerged to care for the family and relationship aspects of the Guard. Chaplains and Family Readiness Groups (FRG) are internal resources provided by the military, but most are tasked with a variety of needs across the Guard and their services can vary greatly by state. The group discussed the aspects of emerging programs that are effective and the need to expand and diversify services for Guard members and their families.
The overarching theme that emerged from the discussion was the importance of relationships in identifying and effectively dealing with the stress of multiple deployments for the “citizen Soldier.”
Meeting participants identified a variety of challenges and stressors placed on these families. Issues such as deployment, post-traumatic stress, unemployment, navigating multiple systems, and lack of support networks among Guard families arose as key challenges. Participants also discussed various research findings and lessons from the field that create a framework for delivering marriage/relationship education programs to singles and couples in the National Guard.
Specific recommendations for further research and action were categorized into three general areas:
Gaps in Knowledge
- A nationally representative needs assessment of Guard/spouses/families should be conducted.
Gaps in Connectivity
- An insufficient system is in place to connect spouses with services and people in the unit and other supporting structures. While there has been significant work done to provide online services, military spouses and families are in desperate need of “low tech/high touch” systems of service and connection to prepare families to successfully handle issues and prevent crisis. To build both military and civilian connections, one suggestion is to recruit, train, and deploy Guard spouses as peer mentors to offer education-based peer support.
Gaps in Structure
- Developing and managing “Family Readiness” across the National Guard is a dire need and difficult to address without buy-in across states and units. Family programs should be tied to deployment and continued throughout the entire time of service. It was recommended that a “Relationship Core” be developed and implemented as a part of basic training for all service members and then reinforced at re-enlistment.
To evaluate the outcomes of these recommendations a “Return on Investment” study was suggested. This study would quantify the long-term health care and recruiting savings of better preparing Guard personnel and families for the emotional, relational, and familial stress of deployment.
Rob Henthorn grew up in a military family in Arlington, Virginia. His father served in the U.S. Army’s light infantry during WWII, the Ar