Another Life Event Stalled by COVID: Divorce

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A recently divorced Marine celebrates his freedom with a message on his car.
A recently divorced Marine celebrates his freedom with a message on his car. (U.S. Marine Corps/ Stephanie Ingersoll)

Fewer military members divorced in 2020 compared to other recent years, new data from the Pentagon shows.

But rather than signaling better marriage relationships for military families, the dip is likely simply linked to less accessible divorce proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Benjamin Karney, a researcher who has long studied military marriages for Rand Corp. Closed offices and delayed court proceedings made filing for and getting divorced harder, he said.

"Divorces are costly, and divorces require you to do stuff. You've got to go and meet with lawyers, you've got to sign paperwork, and when the country and the world is shut down, all of those things are harder," Karney said.

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Rather than those divorces being completely eliminated, he said, researchers instead expect the rate for 2021 to bounce back and then some.

"What you'll likely get for 2021 is all the divorces that were postponed for 2020 and all of the normal divorces for 2021," Karney said.

Of the 671,809 military members married at the start of 2020, 2.8%, or 18,494, got divorced, compared to the 3.1% who divorced over 2019, according to Defense Department personnel data released to Military.com. Among married Army enlistees, the largest subsection of troops at over 165,000, that rate fell from 2.9% in 2019 to 2.5% in 2020. For enlisted female soldiers, the largest subgroup of women at about 25,000, the rate fell from 8.2% in 2019 to 6.9% in 2020.

The military divorce rate is measured by calculating the number of troops married at the start of the fiscal year against the number of who reported a divorce to the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System. The data is separated further by service, gender and officer versus enlisted.

For example, the 2020 divorce rate among all military officers was 1.7%, compared to 3.1% among all enlisted service members. The 2020 rate among all women was 6.5%, compared to 2.5% among all men.

The rate among female service members is typically two to three times higher than that among male troops, likely caused by a combination of factors including stress of service and their comparatively small total number, Karney said. Additionally, research shows that more than two-thirds of all divorces, both military and civilian, are initiated by women. That means the rate of divorces among female troops would appear disproportionately high compared to those of their male counterparts, he explained.

The military divorce rate and the overall U.S. divorce rate are not comparable thanks to how they are tracked, Karney said. The U.S. rate, measured by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, is calculated per 1,000 marriages and does not factor in several states, including California, because they do not compile the information.

The national rate sat at 2.9% in 2019, the latest year for which data has been released. The rate was also 2.9% in 2018, according to the CDC.

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at amy.bushatz@military.com.

Related: Understanding Divorce in the Military

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