It isn’t the ‘better or worse’ that breaks up a military marriage. It is the deployment—especially for younger couples in the post-9/11 generation.
This week researchers at the RAND Corporation released a new study that shows the accumulated months of deployment significantly increase the probability of military divorce.
So I called two of the authors of the study, Sebastian Negrusa and James Hosek, to discuss what this research means for military families.
They told me that most important finding of the study is that for the first time the researchers can prove what so many military couples have suspected for years.
“More months of deployment cause divorce,” said Hosek.
These results are contrary to a 2007 RAND study that showed that there was virtually no effect on the military divorce rate following deployment.
Negrusa said that difference between the two studies is that this one uses more data taken over a longer period of time so the results of deployment had more time to play out.
The research focuses on military members married between 1999 and 2008, so it encompasses those who joined before 9/11 and those who joined after. Researchers found that int he post-9/11 generation, it was the accumulated months of deployment that tipped more couples over the edge.
Negrusa pointed out that it didn’t matter whether the servicemember deployed for 12 to 18 months at a time or racked up months of deployment at shorter intervals. It was the number of months apart that made the biggest difference.
Like a rubber band that can stretch so many times before it breaks, or a tire that can go so many miles before it risks a blow out, a military marriage is more likely to fail if a couple spends too much time apart.
This does not mean that after a certain number of months apart your marriage is sure to crumble. What it says is that there is a cost to families who experience continuous deployments that our leaders must take into consideration.
“We are trying to understand the impact of deployments,” Hosek explained. When setting policy or funding programs, having scientific proof that deployment causes divorce is much more impactful than just seeing that the two things go together.
One of the things I found most surprising was that this finding held true no matter what your MOS might be. Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, the researchers were able to control for branch of service and MOS and they still found that the most significant variable was the number of months couples spent apart.
Although the data set shows whether servicemembers were in hostile or nonhostile environments, it doesn't show exactly what happened to each individual.
“Our data lacks information about what happened to a servicemember during their deployment,” said Hosek. “We don’t know whether they were fired upon, where they slept, how they communicated at home, whether that communication helped them or stressed them out.”
Although previous studies have shown that time in combat increases the risk of PTSD which decreases marital satisfaction, this research shows that we all bear the cost of repeated deployments.
Some more than others. Once again, female servicemembers paid a much heavier price for deploying. Even though females are less likely to deploy due to their MOSs and deploy on average for fewer months, they were much more likely to divorce than their male counterparts in the same MOS. Couples who were dual military also had a higher risk of divorce.
So what do we family members do with this kind of research? This is where the science ends and the craft of military life begins. Here are some things I plan to keep in mind:
Time apart is a time of risk. Couples grow apart when they spend too much time apart. What do we do as a couple that makes us feel closer? What kind of things do we do that make us feel more distant?
Think more about young couples in new marriages. The majority of couples in the military are young because the majority of servicemembers are young. If we know these young couples are have a higher probability of divorce the more time they spend apart, what is our obligation to them as a community?
Dig into old couples.One finding in the study was that the longer military couples were married, the less likely they were to divorce. The researchers hypothesized that this was because couples learn the skills of deployment. So what are those skills exactly? And how can the rest of us learn to do those things sooner?
We all know that there is a personal cost to war. Now we have proof. The question is what do we do next?