Military divorces are at a twelve-year high, military families are struggling with repeated combat deployments, and even when at least one spouse has a steady—if dangerous—job, the poor economy makes running a household that much harder and the idea of leaving a secure job unpalatable.
Yet after studying this bleak landscape for more than a decade, UCLA psychologist Benjamin Karney draws one strong conclusion: military unions are surprisingly robust.
When Karney and two coauthors from the RAND Corporation, David S. Loughran and Michael S. Pollard, compared military members and civilians similar to them based on age, race, education, and employment, the researchers found they were more likely than their civilian peers to be married, and the service members were no more likely or even less likely to get divorced.
In head-to-head comparisons for groups at elevated risk for divorce in the civilian world—African Americans, Hispanics, couples in their 20s, and the low income—the divorce rate was lower in the military. “You have these groups that don’t have a lot of support in the civilian world,” Karney said, but when you put them in the military, he finds that their divorce rates aren’t higher than anyone else’s. The difference was less pronounced among older service members and officers, whose lives more closely resembled civilian families.
(Earlier studies, notably University of Massachusetts’s social demographer Jennifer Hickes Lundquist’s 2007 look at the dawn of the all-volunteer military—1979 to 1985—did find higher divorce rates, especially among the very youngest enlisted members.)
Given the gantlet of stress couples must run, what is the military now doing right, Karney asked. “How would the civilian divorce rate change if there was an excellent national health care system in place? How would the civilian rate change if there were guaranteed employment?”
While the stresses of military life are obvious, Karney argues that its institutional structure offers benefits, fiscal and mental, that buffer stress. Things like combat pay, housing supplements for married couples, childcare, health care, support programs, and a tight-knit community of like-minded individuals in similar straits creates pragmatic and emotional ties that apparently do bind.
The U.S. military’s institutional focus on the family unit, and its camaraderie both in the ranks and in the community, and the many programs meant to strengthen families, all contribute. (And in looking at other studies, Karney’s found a similar trend for resilient marriages among Israeli and British military families.)
“People choose to be in the military. People choose to reenlist in the military and at high rates do reenlist in the military. Even married people. Even people with children,” Karney noted. “This suggests that there has got to be some benefits.”
As his paper reads, “The financial benefits associated with deployment in a combat zone may alleviate or even outweigh the emotional costs of separation from family members, especially for the large majority of service members who return from deployment without traumatic injury.” In fact, he has found that for active duty and reservists deployed, divorce rates are lower than for service members who didn’t deploy.
There are caveats, of course. Divorce rates for female service members are, and historically have been, off the charts, something Karney terms an “untold story.” And his current study only draws data from male service members from between 1998 and 2005, while military divorce rates have been rising slowly since then (as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan lingered).
The Pentagon put the divorce rate for soldiers, sailors, and airmen for last year at 3.7 percent, the highest that figure has been since 1999. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the rate for all Americans—not just those matched to the military demographics—has been falling for years and stands at 3.4 percent (as of 2009).
“Even if they are a little higher comparable to civilians now,” Karney said of the military divorce rate, “it’s still really noteworthy that they aren’t skyrocketing.”
Meanwhile, divorce—while a useful black-and-white tool for data-gathering—is a blunt yardstick that doesn’t account for other factors, from marital satisfaction to domestic abuse, which decide if a relationship is truly successful or not.
As military wife Heather Sweeney wrote in the New York Times’ At War blog in February, “It’s impossible to determine if military life was the cause of my marital issues or if it was simply a contributing factor. I have no idea if my husband and I would have the same struggles if he hadn’t pursued a career in the military. But even if the military wasn’t the direct cause, it certainly didn’t help.”
Karney, who is a civilian, started studying marriage in 1991. He was a decade into his work examining how external stress affected the institution when the Pentagon came knocking. They wanted to know the same thing. “The military turned out to be a fantastic opportunity to study those exact issues in a context where they were really relevant … that’s a very stressed group that is very highly likely to be married.”
He admits it’s reasonable to think that the stresses of the “long war” (and the “long recession”) should be pushing divorce rates sky-high. And the popular conception, both in and out of the uniformed services, is that divorce is rampant in the military.
“But we’re not seeing that,” Karney said, “at least not between 2002 and 2005,” which were the first fours years of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. While his latest paper in the Journal of Family Issues ends there, Karney continues to study military marriages. He is coleading the Deployment Life Study, a longitudinal study conducted by the RAND Corporation to “open up the box” across a deployment cycle to see how military families cope and adapt before, during, and after an overseas deployment.
In the meantime, Karney, while hesitant to make policy recommendations, did urge that existing support programs be maintained and that the Pentagon examine the pace and length of future deployments, especially when moving families from base to base throughout a military career, if it wants to keep the (family) unit whole.