There have been numerous reports that the marriages of military couples are under threat due to the stress of the recent wars and the long and dangerous deployments. Lizette Alvarez writing in the New York Times in 2006 states, "Military deployments have a way of chewing up marriages, turning daily life upside down and making strangers out of husbands and wives."
Yet is this really what the data show us? No one would want to underestimate the challenges faced by military couples in this time of war, but it is important to more carefully look at the overall picture. Benjamin Karney (UCLA) and John Crown (RAND Corp) conducted an analysis of this issue by looking at the recent personnel records of the entire U.S. military to estimate the effects of time deployed on the risk of divorce.
The study included over one-half million service members who were married after 9/11 and who served between 2002 and 2005. Data were collected about the gender, race and presence of children among the couples. The study included all branches of the service and reserves.
The findings provide some general insights into which service members are at more risk of divorce. Similar to other studies of the general American population, couples who get married when they are younger are more likely to divorce. Also, these findings show that women serving in the military were more at-risk of divorce, although female Army officers did not fit this pattern. The presence of children resulted in mixed findings. Among the general population, a couple who has children are less likely to divorce and this was the case for Active duty military including enlisted members and officers in the Army. The results were more complicated for the Reserves--Navy enlisted Reservists with children were more at-risk of divorce, and there were no differences among other groups of reserved service members.
In the general US population, divorce rates are about twice as high for black couples compared to white couples. Among service members this held true only for blacks in the Army and among Navy officers. In the Reserves, blacks in the Army were at greater risk of divorce, but black Navy and Air Force enlisted personnel were at much lower risk of divorce. There were no racial differences among any of the reserve officers in any branch of the service.
So what about the effects of deployment on marriage? Karney and Crown conducted separate analyses for each branch of the service and looked at both officers and enlisted personnel. In the 20 different tests, they found that in only two did deployment result in greater risk of divorce. Both active duty officers and enlisted Air Force personnel were at more risk of divorce due to deployment. In the other 13 tests, the results were in the opposite direction--longer deployment was associated with lower risk of divorce. The authors of the study write, "for the vast majority of the U.S. military--the longer that a service member was deployed while married, the lower the subsequent risk of marital dissolution.... Deployment appears to enhance the stability of marriage, the longer the deployment, the greater the benefit" (p. 37).
Contrary to expectations, deployment lowered the risk of divorce for couples who were married younger, couples with children and for women. In short, deployment seemed to lower divorce for the most vulnerable service members.
When these results are compared with the usual reports in the press and many an armchair analyst, the results are completely different. Rather than think about deployment as a crisis similar to illness, or natural disasters, "deployment" for military couples is a normative event--a challenge to be dealt with not a crisis. Deployment is difficult, but manageable and sometimes may even strengthen couple relationships.
Karney and Crown also note that the military provides many services and supports to service members that are not always available to non-military families. These supports are both concrete (for example, child care, health care and housing assistance) and emotional support that may offset the stresses. In the end, we may have much to learn from the military service about supporting marriages.