According to the AP, 3% of men in the military got divorced last year, a rate comparable to that of the general population. But 7.8% of military women — and a full 9% of enlisted women — had a marital breakup. Some possible reasons for the discrepancy:
— Men and women have similar military responsibilities, but different family responsibilities. David Segal, a military researcher at the University of Maryland, tells the AP:
It's a strange situation, where there's a fair amount of equality in terms of their military roles, but as the military increasingly treats women the same as it treats men in terms of their work expectations, however, society still expects them to fulfill their family roles. And that's not equally balanced between men and women.
— Women are more likely than men to be married to fellow servicemembers, which can bring added stress to a marriage.
— The after-effects of combat are less accepted for women than for men. Says Kimberly Olson, who runs a program for female veterans,
It takes a while to get back into that tender, loving woman that's a mother. And if you're married, that tender loving woman that's the wife. And of course, a lot of people demand a lot of things from women, because we kind of have a bad habit of taking care of everybody else first and ourselves last.
Families may be more willing to tolerate symptoms of PTSD and other post-combat problems from men than from women. These issues are difficult for anyone to cope with, but while men have been coming home from war for generations, it's only recently that women have begun doing so in large numbers. Spouses and families may lack models for helping women heal, or, because of the expectations society places on women to nurture and give care, they may be less likely to accept things like anger or emotional distance when they come from female family members.
— Husbands of female servicemembers may have an especially hard time. Benjamin Karney of Rand Corp. tells Divorce360 that "it may be more stressful to be a civilian husband of a military wife than it is to be a civilian wife of a military husband." He also tells the AP that civilian husbands are less likely to have jobs than civilian wives, which could place added strain on their marriages. And, says Olson, "You've got to look at the realities of what military life is like on the family, and it really is kind of set up around a traditional married model of a husband and a wife that runs the house, if you will." Husbands who run the house instead may struggle with failure to conform to traditional roles, or with a lack of community, both of which could raise their divorce risk.
— Female servicemembers may simply be more likely to leave a bad marriage. Says Karney,
Another possibility is that women who are service members are different than men in the military in important ways. It has been said that the military recruits the most traditional men in our society. But the military recruits the least traditional females in our society. They are not the women who are most invested in the general role assigned to women.
If this last is true, then maybe military women's divorce rate isn't such a problem — and every time we look at divorce, it's worth remembering that the freedom to end a bad marriage isn't a bad thing. That said, Olson and Segal suggest that the military could be doing a better job of supporting both women and their partners (who, if the Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal ever takes effect, could also be women). Some military women may be iconoclastic, but they still deserve the same shot at family life as their male colleagues, and the military and society need to make sure they get it.