Supporting Military and First Responder Marriages

Supporting Military and First Responder Marriages

Social Work, Chris Kyle Frog Foundation Partner to Develop Specialized Program for High-risk Occupations 

Marriage enrichment programs are a long-standing focus in Baylor’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work (GSSW); however, a partnership with the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation is breaking ground by developing such a program specifically for couples tied to high-risk military and first responder occupations.

“I have kept up with marriage enrichment literature for decades,” Dr. Preston Dyer, professor emeritus and a pioneer in the field of marriage enrichment, said. “To provide an evidence-based marriage enrichment program and curriculum for active military and first responder couples, helping them specifically as they navigate the unique challenges they face, is something that I’ve never seen done.”

The partnership began this fall by providing Mastering Your Marriage enrichment training to 21 active military or first responder couples. Baylor received a $100,000 grant from the Kyle Foundation to develop curriculum and a program focused on such occupations to help couples build stronger, more resilient marriages. 

Dr. Dennis Myers, The Dorothy Barfield Kronzer Endowed Professor in Family Studies, said people rarely consider the mindset it takes to be a first responder or active military member.

“Our participants were so open in sharing the pressures that come from a job where you’re protecting others, then you come home and accommodate for another type of relationship,” Myers said. “Sometimes, the traits that make them successful in police work or the military aren’t conducive to a successful marriage relationship, and it was amazing to talk about that and work through that with them. We learned as much from them as they did from us, and it was an honor to stand in the gap with them and work to build stronger families.”

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When grants from the Kyle Foundation became available to build marriage enrichment programs, GSSW Dean Jon Singletary recognized it as an opportunity exceptionally suited to the mission of Baylor Social Work. 

“This has been a great fit. We’ve had faculty who have done military-related projects and faculty who have done marriage enrichment for decades,” Dr. Singletary said. “It’s a great opportunity to engage in something mission-centric that we can grow to serve even more military and first responder couples in the future. To be able to serve those who serve our country is incredibly meaningful.”

The Chris Kyle Frog Foundation honors the late Chris Kyle, who told his story in his book American Sniper—leading to the 2014 movie of the same name. Kyle’s wife Taya started the foundation to provide programs and experiences to strengthen military and first responder families. 

Baylor’s GSSW program is distinctively designed to meet the needs of military and first responder families, reinforcing central messages over a six-month span. 

The participating couples came to Waco in October for a retreat filled with speakers and workshops on communication, conflict resolution, intimacy and resilience. The couples continued to receive and participate in regular, online programming—through an app developed to provide easy access to lessons and to broadcast video conferences featuring Baylor professors. It also aids communication with other military and first responder participants. The follow-up programming will continue through the spring.

Baylor professors hope the consistent, longer-term learning opportunities help participants avoid a pitfall that Dyer calls an unsustainable “mountaintop experience.” He says couples who participate in marriage enrichment tend to be on a natural high immediately after the program and sometimes the initial rush isn’t backed up with actions. 

Sustainability comes with how well the couples remember what they have learned and integrate those skills with the pressures of everyday life. The electronic contact and delivery will help reinforce the program’s lessons and skills as couples deal with the everyday demands of life.

GSSW will be measuring participants’ response to the program through surveys, interviews and participation in web-based programming, which will be compared with the outcomes of other evidence-based marriage enrichment programs. GSSW faculty want to use the curriculum to create a certificate program that will prepare social work professionals to serve military and first responder families.

“We wanted to provide evaluation and evidence-based models that others can use,” Singletary said. “We know marriage enrichment works, and we’re thrilled to see it put to work for these couples. 

“We’re excited to provide what looks to be the nation’s first model of an outcome-based service to military and first responder families that therapists, clinicians, churches and others can use to gain competence and skills when working with these families who give so much of themselves to serve our communities and our nation.”