In Love and War

Divorce rates actually decline with deployments, study shows.

When it comes to marriage and multiple deployments to combat zones, perhaps absence does make the heart grow fonder. Since the start of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the more often service members were deployed overseas, the less likely they and their spouses were to call it quits, according to a surprising finding in a study by RAND Corp. The likelihood of divorce actually declined the longer family members were deployed.

The study's findings challenge media reports that highlight the damaging effect of combat deployments on military family life, lead researcher and behavioral scientist Benjamin R. Karney said in an October briefing on Capitol Hill.

The report, which analyzed divorces, annulments and separations, noted only a gradual increase in marital dissolution among all services since 2001, after they had been falling prior to 2000. The rate is about 3 percent annually, the same level it was in 1996.

"It's a story of resilience, really," Karney said. "Unquestionably, demands on military families are as great as they've been in the last several decades. Yet no matter how hard we look, we're not seeing the predicted drastic breakups of families." This suggests the military's extensive family support systems may well be working and that service members are committed to each other and to the mission, he said.

Karney said certain benefits related to deployment, including higher pay, could compensate for the emotional costs. Also, service members are trained to do a job, and deployment is an opportunity to do that job and realize career advancement, he said, which might lower the risk for divorce. Military support to families, such as health care, child care and housing subsidies, also compensate for deployment stresses, he noted.

Today's military often is called a "military of families." More than 50 percent of its members are married; more than 70 percent have children. In fact, nonmilitary dependents outnumber service members. Karney said military members with children were even less likely to end their marriages after deployment.

The RAND research team set out to test the "stress hypothesis," which suggests that divorce rates rise and fall as demands on the military wax and wane, and predicts drastically higher rates of marital dissolution during wartime. They analyzed records from 6 million military personnel who served in the past 10 years.

To date, no direct evidence shows that deployments cause a spike in divorces. Those findings are historically consistent. After Vietnam, divorce rates of those deployed were no different from for those who weren't. The same was true after 1991's Desert Storm campaign.

Looking at the active-duty members of the Army and Marine Corps, the services most affected by repeated combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, divorce rates are about the same as they were 10 years ago. Divorce rates among Army and Marine Corps reservists also have been flat. Among Navy personnel, divorce rates rose sharply immediately after 2001, but have declined during the past two years.

Only in the Air Force did data show that the more time officers and enlisted personnel spent deployed, the greater the risk for marital dissolution. For the other services, the longer the deployment, the less likely personnel were to divorce. Divorce rates tend to be lower among officers than enlisted personnel, who typically are younger and less educated, Karney said. He noted that higher ages and education levels are associated with lower divorce rates.

Female service members are twice as likely to end their marriages than are males. RAND is looking into why. One reason, Karney said, might be that civilian wives supporting military husbands is consistent with the social roles ascribed to women in society, but the same might not be true for civilian husbands of female service members. Also, he noted, family support systems tend to be geared toward civilian wives.

One of the limitations of the data is the inability to determine who had seen combat and who had not, Karney said, adding that combat-related stresses likely raise the risk of divorce.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec