Spouse Satisfaction with Military Life at a New Low, DoD Survey Finds

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Couple holds hands at Marine Corps Base Quantico.
Couple holds hands at Marine Corps Base Quantico’s monthly spouse appreciation event at the Clubs of Quantico, Jan. 21, 2014. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Samuel Ellis)

The percentage of military spouses who say they are happy with military life and would support their member staying in the service has sunk to the lowest point in nearly a decade, according to Defense Department survey results released last week.

Satisfaction with the military lifestyle dipped below 50% for the first time since 2012, with only 49% of spouses who answered the DoD's 2021 spouse survey reporting that they were content, a drop of 15 percentage points from 2012. Those saying they favored their loved one remaining in the military dropped to 54%, down from 68% in 2012 and 59% in 2019.

The survey doesn't explain the reasons for the declines, but Kelly Hruska, director of government relations at the National Military Family Association, said several factors may contribute, including continued high rates of spouse unemployment, which have hovered at 21% since 2015, as well as inflation and loss of a sense of purpose, given that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have ended.

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"We're not really sure what's going on there, but today, largely, you need two incomes, and military families are no different. The stresses of moves, having difficulty finding employment, and, well, when we are at war, there was a clear mission. When you don't have a war, it's a little harder to define 'Why are we doing all this?'" Hruska said during an interview with Military.com.

The survey was fielded from late July through November 2021 as the pandemic continued across the United States; results were released last week. The Department of Defense did not respond to questions regarding the delay. Previously, results of the 2017 survey were released in May 2018; the 2019 survey results were released in December 2020.

Of the nearly 60,000 active-duty spouses solicited via mail, roughly 11,800 responded, a rate of 21% that was significantly higher than the 2019 response rate of 16.5%.

The survey found that the COVID-19 pandemic heavily influenced access to child care for about one-quarter of respondents, while three-quarters of dual-military families could not place their children in their usual child care as a result of lockdowns.

According to the report, the lack of child care resulted in lower levels of financial well-being for affected families, poorer mental health, and lowered satisfaction with military life and marriages.

"Child development centers not having the capacity to support dependents, leaving us struggling to find not only safe child care but also affordable care. This puts undue stress on both the service member as well as spouses," wrote a junior enlisted spouse in a separate supplemental survey accompanying the scientific poll.

DoD surveys of active-duty spouses have been conducted in some form every two years since 1985 and are considered the "gold standard" for assessing the state of military families. The results are used to direct policy and program decisions for supporting those families.

The most recent survey asked the usual questions about employment, child care and satisfaction but also queried about COVID-19 vaccine status, food security and voluntary living separations, or geo-batching.

In terms of the COVID vaccine, 76% of respondents reported receiving immunizations, with the more educated -- college degree and above -- and higher ranks reporting the highest rates. Among the services, Navy spouses had the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates, followed by the Air Force. The Army and the Marine Corps reported the lowest rates; just 66% of Marine Corps spouses surveyed said they had gotten the shots.

Those who skipped vaccinations cited concerns about side effects, said they planned to wait and see, or didn't think they needed the shot.

While rates of unemployment remained the same as they have been for the last several surveys, the outlook for spouses has improved, according to the survey results, with 62% reporting they are working in the field for which they were trained or educated, up from 54% in 2015.

While spouses said they were stretched financially, 58% reported positive financial well-being, as defined by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau scale – higher than the national average of 55% recorded in 2020.

Nonetheless, one-quarter of spouses reported having low or very low food insecurity, defined as the availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or the ability to acquire them, with the lowest ranks, E-1 to E-4, reporting the most food insecurity.

“We found this to be concerning. I mean, NMFA has been working this issue for about a decade, and we've always been met with, from DoD, 'If they're food insecure, it's a financial management problem with the family.' ... Now, people have really started picking up on this," Hruska said.

Regarding permanent change-of-station moves, families reported that the biggest issues they faced following a move were being unable to find employment afterward, loss of income as a result of the move, paying out of pocket for non-reimbursable costs, or having difficulties with damaged goods claims.

Seven percent of respondents said they skipped their most recent PCS move altogether, saying they had chosen to live separately from their spouses -- geo-batching -- when the survey was taken. Roughly 16% said they had geo-batched at least once during their spouse's career.

The Department of Defense will begin fielding the 2023 spouse survey in the coming months.

Patricia Barron, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy, said she is grateful to those who take the time to share their experience and opinions in the surveys.

"The Survey of Active Duty Spouses is an invaluable source of data and insights into the well-being of military spouses and their families," Barron said in a released statement. "The results of the latest survey allow us to prioritize solutions that meet their most pressing needs."

– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime

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