RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas —
The Domestic Violence Prevention Month observance in October calls attention to a problem that pervades American society, affecting couples and families regardless of demographic.
With stressors such as deployments, temporary-duty assignments and permanent changes of station, the armed services face unique challenges in dealing with domestic violence.
The Family Advocacy Program, mandated by a Department of Defense directive implemented in Air Force Instruction 40-301, has family violence education and prevention as one of its charges.
Mitzi Wood, 359th Medical Operations Squadron FAP intervention specialist, said she sees few cases that escalate to physical violence, but she frequently works with couples who are trying to work out problems that could lead to abuse. For her, lack of communication is one of the greatest factors that damage relationships.
"I try to help couples understand that communication is really the key to having a healthy relationship," she said. "If they don't know how to talk to each other, it just won't work."
Despite all the distractions in their lives, a couple should take the time to talk to each other every day, Ms. Wood said.
"Couples should carve out some time where they will talk to each other, and they should learn how to listen to each other," she said. "They should be talking to each other on a regular basis."
For some couples, those one-on-one conversations only come at the worst times - when something bad has happened - and become confrontations marked by finger-pointing, name-calling and, at their worst, physical violence, actions that also damage the children who witness them.
"Emotional abuse, such as name-calling, make people feel less about themselves," Ms. Wood said. "Doing it just one time can be damaging. People don't realize the impact of what they say. It's important how you're perceived by your partner."
When couples don't communicate on a regular basis, negative feelings can build up and then dominate those infrequent interchanges.
"Everything snowballs," she said. "Little things start to matter all of a sudden. Couples start picking on little things they've never liked."
Ms. Wood said conversations should be civil and never start with phrases such "You never" or "You don't."
"Start with something positive, like 'I appreciate how you fixed up the yard,'" she said.
Ms. Wood said neither partner should be angry when a conversation begins.
"Time out is for adults, too," she said. "The angry partner should calm down and the couple should agree to a later time for discussion."
Ms. Wood advises that the angry partner "move away from the situation."
"Do something you like to do," she said.
Exercising, watching a favorite TV program, deep breathing and positive self-talk are some of her recommendations.
Ms. Wood said professional help is necessary when couples' verbal sparring becomes a frequent occurrence.
"That's when couples say things like 'We fight almost daily' or 'We can't get out of each other's face,'" she said.
Family Advocacy Strength-based Therapy can help couples when they reach that stage, especially if they realize they have a problem and come voluntarily, Ms. Wood said.
According to AFI 40-301, FAST services "are designed to provide psychosocial assessments and therapeutic interventions to families at risk for family maltreatment where there is no open maltreatment record and the family is not eligible for NPSP," or the New Parent Support Program.
"It's prevention treatment to keep maltreatment from happening, before it gets to an incident," Ms. Wood said. "If they come voluntarily, there's so much more I can do for them."
Other resources for dealing with relationship problems include the Military and Family Life Consultant Program, Military OneSource and the Air Force Chaplain Corps.
Ms. Wood said there are two books that can also help couples strengthen their relationships. They are "Getting the Love You Want" by Harville Hendricks and "Non-Violent Communication" by Marshall B. Rosenburg.
Deployments, particularly the reintegration phase, are a common stressor for couples and families, but Ms. Wood said she also finds that some young Airmen have difficulty with their transition from single to married life. One of the major distractions in the lives of younger couples is gaming, but there are others as well.
"People spending too much time online, and it's ruining relationships," she said. "With all the distractions we have such as TV, video games, cell phones and iPods, it distracts us from our real lives. Turn all that stuff off and spend time talking to each other."
Marital issues such as infidelity "start off with poor communication between couples," Ms. Wood said. "If couples feel connected, there's not as much need to look outside of their relationship for validation."