RAND Study Finds Divorce Among Soldiers Has Not Spiked Higher Despite Stress Created By Battlefield Deployments

For Release

April 12, 2007

Despite greatly increased stress on the U.S. armed forces since the start of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, divorce rates among military families have increased only gradually, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

After several years of decline, marital dissolutions among military members began increasing in 2001, according to a study by the nonprofit research organization that analyzed records from about 6 million men and women who served in the United States military during the past 10 years.

The steady increase in divorce, separations and annulments increased the rate of military breakups to about 3 percent annually in 2005 — the same level observed in 1996, when soldiers did not routinely face the battlefield deployments that are common today.

Researchers examined overall trends in the breakup of military marriages and the specific effects of deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. Contrary to expectations, married service members who had been deployed were generally less likely to end their marriages than those who had not been deployed, and longer deployments were associated with greater reductions in risk.

Lead researcher Benjamin Karney and RAND colleague John Crown analyzed Pentagon personnel records on all people who belonged to the U.S. military from 1996 through 2005 — five years before and five years after the start of recent military operations. The analysis included members of the active military, reserves and the National Guard.

To control for the length of time that couples were married prior to being deployed, the RAND researchers also conducted separate analyses on couples married after 2002 — the newly married who would normally be at highest risk for divorce.

“We found no spike in marital breakups among members of the military, including those who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Karney, a RAND behavioral scientist. “Military families certainly face high levels of stress, but thus far it has not resulted in similarly high rates of divorce.”

The researchers noted that although deployments are undeniably stressful for couples, deployments may also benefit families in some ways, such as providing higher earnings from combat pay and the potential for career advancement. The military also provides other forms of support to military families — such as health care, child care, and housing subsidies — that may offer some protection from the negative effects of stress.

The researchers also noted that personnel records only provide information on service members while they remain in the military. “Negative consequences for military couples may emerge later, or families may be experiencing problems that have not been measured,” Karney said. “The full impact of these conflicts on military families may not be known for years.”

The RAND study was requested by Pentagon officials in response to reports that the stress caused by deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan were leading to a surge in divorce among members of the military.

Other findings of the study include:

  • In every service of the military, female service members are more than twice as likely to end their marriages as their male peers. The marriages of female service members also benefit significantly less from being deployed.
  • Enlisted service members are more likely to end their marriages than officers. This is mostly likely due to the fact that officers tend to be older, and older couples are generally less likely to end their marriages.
  • Marriage rates and divorce rates in the military have followed a similar pattern over the last decade, with more service members getting married in recent years.

The analyses revealed similar trends in marriage and divorce across the services, and within the active and reserve components.

“The lack of major differences across the services suggests that decisions to start and end marriages may be influenced by policies that affect the entire military,” Karney said.

“Overall, the story is one of resilience,” Karney said. “Although military families have been under greater stress than in prior decades, so far they have not been breaking up at measurably higher rates.”

Researchers suggest that Pentagon officials conduct additional studies of military marriages to better understand how battlefield deployments impact relationships and families over the long term. “There is a limit to what service records can tell us,” Karney said.

In addition, the study says officials should further examine why women suffer from marital breakups at significantly higher rates than men. It may be that existing programs provide too little support for the families of married women, according to researchers.

Pentagon officials also should examine how service members make the decision to get married, the study says. Restricting certain benefits to married couples, such as the ability to live off base, may encourage young couples to marry who otherwise might postpone marriage or not marry at all.

The RAND findings are similar to those from previous research that has examined earlier conflicts. Studies of married service members who served in Vietnam found no link between deployment and divorce. A study of the 1991 Persian Gulf War found that women who served were significantly more likely to divorce, but found no such trend among men.

The report was produced by the RAND National Defense Research Institute, which conducts research and analysis for sponsors including the Office of the Secretary of Defense, defense agencies and the U.S. intelligence community.

The report, “Families Under Stress: An Assessment of Data, Theory, and Research on Marriage and Divorce in the Military,” is available at www.rand.org.

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