The divorce rate among female active-duty military members continued a downward trend in 2013, while the rate among active-duty males stayed the same at 2.9 percent, according to Pentagon statistics released to Military.com on Monday.
Since reaching a high of 8 percent in 2011, the female divorce rate has gone down -- hitting 7.9 percent last year and 7.2 percent this year. Female military members consistently have a much higher rate of divorce than their male counterparts across all services. The rate among males -- 2.9 percent in 2013 -- has fluctuated slightly up and down since 2005, a change that analysts consider insignificant.
Military divorce researchers and experts see the drop among women as a continuing sign that rates may be on a long-term decline.
"Over the last three years we're seeing a gradual but steady decline in divorce rates for women, and that's really interesting," said Benjamin Karney a researcher with the RAND Corp. who has studied military divorce. "Men are, on the whole, pretty stable. But for women in multiple branches there seems to be, over the last couple of years, a decline in their divorce rate, and that's interesting."
The overall average divorce rate across all services and genders fell from 3.5 percent in 2012 to 3.4 percent in 2013. Karney, however, warned that looking only at the overall average can be deceiving because it hides the drop among females by combining those numbers with the relatively stable rate among males.
Between 2012 and 2013 in the Army, Marine Corps and Air Force, the overall average rate went down slightly among both men and women, enlisted and officer. In the Navy, the overall rate remained the same at 3.5 percent.
"The health and well-being of servicemembers and their families is a priority. Strong relationships are important to our readiness," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a DoD spokesman.
The military divorce rate is measured by comparing the number of married military members at the beginning to the end of the fiscal year while taking into account attrition, new recruits and new marriages.
The most drastic change occurred among Marine Corps enlisted women who have long held the record for highest divorce rate. In 2013, their rate fell to a recent low of 7.4 percent, or 348 divorces out of the 4,730 married enlisted female Marines, from a high of 10.4 percent, or 502 divorces out of 4,823 marriages, in 2010.
Marine Corps and Family Programs officials said they have multiple programs such as Marine Corps Family Team Building aimed, at least in part, at strengthening marriages.
"The Marine Corps has remained committed to providing Marines and their families with a comprehensive and effective support system, as readiness on the home-front ensures mission readiness," Heather Hagan, a Marine and Family Programs Division spokesperson said in a statement. "The Marine Corps is committed to the Marine and their family during their entire lifecycle through separation or retirement and beyond."
But Karney said the reason for the decline may have less to do with military marriage programs and more to do with the drawdown. Past research has shown that the marriages of female servicemembers are at a higher risk for divorce as a result of deployment than those of males, Karney said. A steady reduction in deployments could translate in a steady decline of the female servicemember divorce rate, he said.
"There's a significant drawdown and there's some evidence that deployments hurt women's marriages more than men's," Karney said. "If that was true, you would see a drawdown effect on women's marriages earlier than you would see that on men."
Military marriage support experts see getting the overall rate to drop even further as a matter of research and prevention. Beth Allen is an associate professor who helped develop the Army's Strong Bonds marriage support program known as PREP.
"There's been a lot of talk about the stress that military families have been experiencing through these operations, and how resilient they are," she said. "But what we still need to learn more about is how couples are doing post deployment, and how they are facing various challenges and changes in their relationship. Then we could evaluate which approaches really serve to keep couples strong over time and which approaches predict divorce."
Allen is currently looking for military couples to participate in a compensated study to help answer those questions.
"What we are finding, with very strong research methods, is that couples assigned to PREP for Strong Bonds have a lower divorce rate. So we know the program can help," she said. "At the same time, we can do more. We are hoping that Army couples will take our survey and tell us, for them, how things are going and what they are doing. This kind of research can really help us improve the interventions by being able to guide participants through what works, and what doesn't work, for other military couples so they can consider it for themselves."
The civilian divorce rate stands at about 3.6 percent as of 2011, according to the most recent data. Military and civilian divorce rates cannot be accurately compared because of differences in tracking methodology.
While the divorce rate in the military is based on personnel data used to distribute benefits, the civilian rate is calculated on a per-1,000 person basis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC's calculation, however, only accounts for 44 states and the District of Columbia because several states, including California, do not track or report their rates.