By Tom Philpott
Despite enormous stress on military families from repeated wartime deployments and long periods of living apart, service marriages are showing a level of resilience that social scientists can’t explain.
Military divorce rates have climbed only gradually in recent years and, according to a report in the Journal of Family Issues this month, have not exceeded the rate of broken marriages reported among their civilian peers.
Competitive wartime pay, extra allowances for being married in service and family support programs could be factors. Another might be the respect service people hold toward institutions in general, including marriage.
An exception to surprisingly positive data on military marriage is the divorce rate for female service members. Though excluded from closer scrutiny in the new report, marriages among female troops continue to dissolve at rates double that of military men, and at a significantly higher pace than reported for female civilians of similar age and educational background.
A total of 29,456 service members were divorced in fiscal 2011, a dissolution rate of 3.7 percent. That was slightly higher than 3.6 percent in 2010, continuing a gradual rise from 3.1 percent reported in 2005.
In 2000, however, a year before U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan and three years before the invasion of Iraq, the military’s overall divorce rate was 3.7 percent, which matches last year’s divorce rate after a decade of war.
The scholars who cowrote the journal article — Benjamin Karney, David Loughran and Michael Pollard — argue that these annual divorce statistics can’t be used to judge the “vulnerability” of military marriages in peace or prolonged war unless benchmarked against divorce rates for employed civilians of comparable age, race and education level.
Their study does that, and “the results speak to the resilience of military marriages,” the report concludes. “Despite the demands of military service and the threat of long separations, service members are nevertheless more likely to be married than matched civilians.” More significantly, though military divorce rates have been rising, the report finds, “service members are still no more likely to be divorced than comparable civilians.”
To make their comparisons, the authors studied marriage and divorce data for male service members for years 1998 through 2005 — a four-year stretch before the recent era of conflict began, and another four years after the onset of war in Afghanistan and, by 2003, in Iraq.
For data on civilian marriage and divorce, they relied on statistics for identical years from the Current Population Survey of U.S. households, which the Census Bureau conducts for the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Past studies of divorce rates show that marriages are more likely to fail when couples marry young or when couples hail from segments of the population that are “relatively disadvantaged,” which would mean non-white or lower-income couples, enlisted vs.officer, for example.
What research to date hasn’t shown is how differences in divorce patterns between military and civilian might have changed during recent conflicts, influenced positively by factors such as extra deployment pay or negatively by the added stress of long and frequent wartime deployments.
Data comparisons in this report confirm that service members are far more likely than civilians to be married, and this difference holds true across age ranges, racial groups and in both pre-war and wartime periods.
Though more service members are married, the data show military divorce rates to be the same or lower than civilian men of similar education, age, race and employment status. For white enlisted men, divorce rates were lower rates than comparable civilians “at almost every age group.”
But did these divorce-rate differences with civilians change after wartime deployments began? Not by a lot, the report found. The exceptions were enlisted white men, ages 38 to 41. Their lower divorce-rate gap with civilians “widened significantly” after the onset of conflict. Yet for enlisted black men of a broad age range, 33 to 41, the divorce gap narrowed, showing an increase in broken military marriages for this segment alone.
Overall, however, divorce data comparisons “mostly demonstrate continuity (of divorce rate differences) over time, despite dramatic changes in military stress across the two periods,” the report found.
These analyses “fail to support the idea that military marriages are more vulnerable than civilian ones, or that the relative risk for divorce within military marriages has changed since the onset of the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the report said. “On the contrary, with one exception, service members were either equally likely or significantly less likely to be currently divorced than comparable civilians, and this difference was generally larger within the older age ranges.”
Why is the likelihood of military divorce not higher than for civilians? One possible answer is that the military population is different “in ways that protect marriage.” Deciding to serve, for example, might show a favorable attitude toward traditionalism or toward institutions, which could also motivate members to stay married through tough times.
It might also be true that military pay and benefits, particularly the extra pay given married members or the value of military benefits compared to civilians, are barriers to divorce, even in wartime, just as they are incentives to marry while in service. The authors encourage a separate study to identify “sources” of marriage resilience for the military.
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