By Gary Westphal, Chief of Police (Retired), Mesquite, Texas; and Linda Openshaw, Associate Professor of Social Work, Texas A&M University–Commerce
Law enforcement officers have one of the highest divorce rates when compared with other groups of professionals. The development of interventions, specifically marriage education focused on improving the lives of law enforcement professionals, is a critical first step in increasing the likelihood of long-term marital satisfaction.
ccording to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Center for Health Statistics, in 2005, marriages occurred at a rate of 7.5 per 1,000 people, while divorces occurred at a rate of 3.6 per 1,000 people. These numbers are reflected in the staggering statistic that 48 percent of marriages fail in the United States. Past studies have indicated that law enforcement officers have one of the highest divorce rates when compared with other groups of professionals. Law enforcement officers and other first responders face extraordinary challenges in marriage and family relationships due to factors such as chronic job stress and irregular work schedules. Studies have shown that law enforcement officers who experience ongoing stress are more likely to display anger, distance themselves from their family members, and have unsatisfactory marriage and family relationships. In addition, domestic stress and crises often affect the job performance of first responders. Some of the unique stressors experienced by law enforcement officers include carrying a gun, working hours that are unusual or interfere with holidays or family events, and being on call for emergencies. These individuals, whose service is vital to their communities and their country, are at high risk for divorce.
As most studies focus on the negative impact of vocational stress on law enforcement officers and their families, there is a great need for research investigating the factors that might provide positive support for these individuals and their families and increase the likelihood of long-term marital satisfaction. The development of interventions, specifically marriage education focused on improving the lives of law enforcement professionals, is a critical first step in this process.
The chief of the Mesquite Police Department (MPD) wanted to do something about the problems related to failed marriages and poor family relationships in his agency. The MPD serves the city of Mesquite, a suburb of Dallas with a population of approximately 135,000 that is located in Dallas County, which has a population of over 2 million. Working with two Texas A&M University Commerce professors, department leadership developed the Law Enforcement Healthy Marriage and Family Project for officers and their families.1
The project began in January 2005. The program goals and objectives directly coincide with allowable activities for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families’ Healthy Marriage Initiative demonstration projects.2 The primary goal is to provide general marriage education for law enforcement officers and their spouses to enhance marital satisfaction and increase marriage skills. A secondary goal is to reduce the number of divorces in the high-risk population of law enforcement officers and other first responders through the introduction of marriage education developed specifically to meet the needs of this special population. Training programs, seminars, and retreats in close proximity to the participants’ places of residence make marriage education more accessible to these couples and more relatable to the reality they face every day.
Project directors developed the curriculum after a review of the literature and a survey of MPD law enforcement officers and their spouses. A needs assessment questionnaire dealing with such topics as communication skills, job-specific stress, family stress, and financial stress was distributed among officers and their spouses. The needs assessment revealed several concerns. Officers’ greatest concerns were shift work, time away from their spouses, and a lack of understanding and respect from the public. Meanwhile, spouses indicated that their primary concerns were the time away from the family, lack of openness in marriage or an inability to communicate and share emotions, changes in personality or callousness and lack of joy, their spouses’ safety, and the lack of treatment as an equal by spouses who remain in “police mode” even when off duty.
The marriage education program is provided through retreats and weekly seminars. The present program involves four sessions that can be held during a weekend or in a few evenings over a period of four to five weeks. The MPD conducted a pilot program in which 30 officers and their spouses participated on three different occasions over a two-year period. A fourth program was then expanded to include 12 officers from three other law enforcement agencies and their spouses. The success of the program led to increased interest; several other police departments indicated a desire to participate.
The curriculum includes several areas related to healthy-marriage education and combines these with issues faced by families of first responders. A primary focus is education concerning the unique stressors with which these families deal and the relationship of depression and anxiety to stress. Symptoms associated with a level of stress that is too high are described, and stress management techniques are presented. The difference between characteristics that bring success at work and those that promote healthy family relationships is discussed. One of the aspects of the curriculum that the participants have indicated to be most helpful is the discussion of family culture and law enforcement culture. This is especially helpful for the spouses and provides an opportunity for sharing and gaining new insight into the impact of the job on family life. The curriculum also includes building problem-solving skills and communication skills. Gender and personality differences that can cause conflicts are applied and related to the area of finances. Special emphasis is placed on meeting spouses’ emotional needs, sharing emotions, and communicating love. A final area that has been shown to affect participants is a discussion of forgiveness and boundary setting for the protection of the marriage relationship and the family. Many of the principles offered for marital issues can be applied to parenting issues as well.
Although the program evolved from a general marriage education curriculum, results of evaluations from the program retreats over the last three years and comments made during sharing sessions of those retreats indicate a clear need for a specialized type of marriage education designed specifically for law enforcement officers. Participating officers indicated that in their profession, there is a sense of family, which leads to relationships with colleagues and superiors built on trust. However, this trust is not usually extended to “civilians” in the interest of maintaining a professional demeanor. Officers stated that as a result, their ability to show emotion, relax, be natural, and share with individuals who are not in their profession is diminished. They also believed that civilians cannot understand their attitudes and the daily challenges they face. The commonalities of officers’ job experiences draw them together and encourage learning and participation by both officers and their spouses.
Throughout the process of implementation, it was discovered that several factors could affect the success of the program and should be kept in mind when implementing the program. The officers and their spouses who participated in the marriage education pilot project expressed concern over issues of disclosure and trust. Rank, professional discipline, and other factors should be taken into consideration when grouping participants for marriage education training. For example, groups consisting of participants from multiple agencies might be less effective if there exists a sense of competition between agencies or a perceived need to maintain a professional demeanor. Program managers will attempt to vary the composition of participant groups to determine which groupings are most effective and will continue to emphasize confidentiality related to disclosure within legal limits. The possibility of including police officers and their spouses as trainers alongside professionals is also under consideration.
Feedback and Community Support
Program participants have rated the program as highly successful. Words of praise from them include the following statements:
- "Even offering such a retreat speaks volumes about our department’s dedication to its employees and their families."
- "Both my wife and I learned several new ways to discuss our problems so they don’t become major problems in our marriage. I learned I need to listen more to my wife."
- "It was so nice to be able to talk with women who understand what it is like to be married to a police officer."
- "My wife was able to get a better perception and understanding of the things that police officers are faced with and also how important the spouse’s role is in helping us deal with them."
The project has received extraordinary community support and involvement through the participation of a significant number of police departments in the area. In light of the success of the project, numerous police chiefs in the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex area have indicated their interest in the expansion of the study to include their cities and their law enforcement personnel. They will market the project to their officers and their spouses, participate in the research, and provide funds and a location for the training as necessary. As the project develops, other police departments will be included. The Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas is also collaborating by providing financial support for trainers and supplying the curriculum.
The view that a particular type of employment is a factor of high risk for lack of marital satisfaction and divorce is not new. However, the development of a marriage education program designed specifically to meet the needs of a particular high-risk group of this type is unique.
The Law Enforcement Healthy Marriage and Family Project began with a single department because of the vision of one police chief. The project originally designed in Mesquite is now expanding to other law enforcement agencies throughout Texas. The Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas is currently working in conjunction with project facilitators to schedule ongoing retreats, and continuing education credits are being given to officers who attend through the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education. The project curriculum and the delivery of the service have been and will continue to be developed for first responders who deal with the ongoing stressors of their professions. ■
1The curriculum was developed by Linda Openshaw, DSW, and Cynthia Harr, Ph.D. The curriculum was based on a needs assessment developed by Hugh Clark, Ph.D., Linda Openshaw, and Cynthia Harr from Texas A&M University–Commerce.
2More information on this initiative can be found at the Healthy Marriage Initiative Web site, http://www.acf.hhs.gov/healthymarriage/about/mission.html (accessed December 5, 2008).