Divorce Is on the Rise for Military Families: How Do We Help?

Melba Newsome
March 3, 2017

With frequent moves and long spans of time spent apart, military marriages face extra challenges.



Several years ago, Congress asked the Institute of Medicine to assess ways to help returning veterans readjust to civilian life. When the results of the two-year study were released in March 2010, there was sobering news for military marriages. The report concluded that injuries resulting in long-term changes in behavior or abilities can seriously challenge marriages and increase the likelihood of divorce.

Learn how to explain divorce to kids 

None of this comes as a surprise to Amy Navarez, who saw her 15-year military marriage end painfully. She and her Marine staff sergeant husband, Hector, had hit rough patches during their relationship but always managed to hold it together. However, Hector was sent to Iraq and Afghanistan a total of five times following 9/11, leaving Amy as a de facto single parent to their three young children. Their strain in their marriage increased with each successive deployment. When Hector returned home from his fifth combat tour, he asked for a divorce, saying he just couldn't handle the responsibility that came with being part of the family any more.

"I had watched Hector become angrier and more detached from me and the kids," says Amy. "But I thought things would get better if I gave him time and space. I was blindsided when he said he wanted a divorce. I never thought our marriage would end like that."

Moving every few years and spending months away for training can make military life stressful for families even under optimal circumstances. But a decade of war accompanied by multiple deployments is asking more than usual of today's servicemembers than of previous generations. As a result, the military divorce rate has surpassed that of civilian couples.

"Separation leads to several issues," explains Tina B. Tessina, PhD, (aka "Dr. Romance") psychotherapist and author of The Commuter Marriage: Keep Your Relationship Close While You're Far Apart. "The spouse at home feels that all the responsibilities of home, work and family have landed on him or her. The away spouse feels disconnected and alienated. If the communication and partnership between the spouses isn't skillful or effective enough, the bond can break, especially if the bonding wasn't really solid to begin with."

According to the Pentagon, the divorce rate for active-duty military personnel has risen from 2.6 percent in 2001 to 3.6 percent in 2009, when there were an estimated 50,000 military divorces. That's slightly higher than the civilian divorce rate of 3.4 percent. The Army's latest annual survey of troops in Iraq found that the percentage of married soldiers who said they expected to get a separation or divorce grew from 12 percent in 2003 to 22 percent in 2009.

UCLA social psychology professor, Dr. Benjamin Karney says that divorce rates are two to three times higher for female service members than for men. The highest divorce rate occurs with military women married to civilian men.

As disturbing as these statistics are, they don't tell the whole story because they don't include divorces among National Guard and reservists or account for servicemembers who divorce within a few years of leaving the service.

In retrospect, Navarez says she should have pushed Hector to get professional help. However, the Institute of Medicine report also concluded that there is a shortage of personnel to deal with the problems facing returning sevicemembers stating "there are not enough mental health providers to meet the demand, case managers and providers are overwhelmed, wait times are too long for appointments and between appointments for those in need of mental health and other services."

Tessina offers some well-worn advice for military couples: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. "Communication while you're apart is vital, but how you do it depends on what works best for both of you," advises Tessina. "If making contact is very difficult, keep a journal and write things in it, to be sure they won't be forgotten when you do make contact. Separation can be frustrating, so try to keep your frustration from hampering your conversations."

Learn how to help military families 

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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