Why Divorce Is Particularly Hard on Military Families

Military couple working through their problems.
According to reports based on U.S. Census Bureau data, those who have served in the military have the highest divorce rate of any career field. (U.S. Army photo by Timothy L. Hale)

Jennifer Barnhill is a columnist for Military.com writing about military families.

"We don't have food in the house" was one of the scariest accusations I ever remember my mother leveling as a child. Maybe it's because it was shouted through the white corded phone affixed to the wall of my New Jersey home. Even at the age of eight, I knew that the back and forth of the call between my stay-at-home mother and always-at-work-father was not a good sign. They divorced a few years later.

It was the '80s, and nearly half the country was divorced. Researchers point to the feminist movement and new availability of no-fault divorces of the 1970s, which punctured some of the stigma surrounding divorce, as the cause of a surge in 1980s divorces and the drop in marriage rates. Fast-forward a few decades, and the divorce rate in our country has fallen to under 3% from 5.3% in 1981. While many point to lower marriage rates as the reason for the decline, I personally attribute it to my fellow Millennials, whose broken homes helped shape the ones we would later form, or choose not to form. We knew we didn't want to have marriages like our parents, and there were a lot of us. Little did I know that marrying someone who serves in the military might put me at a higher risk of divorce.

According to reports based on U.S. Census Bureau data, those who have served in the military have the highest divorce rate of any career field. Service members are married at higher rates than civilians, and our divorce rate is roughly 4.8%. In a time when the national divorce rate is low, why should military families be concerned about divorce?

"I put deposits down. 'You're gonna be in Virginia. I'm gonna move down to Texas where my family is and my support system is.' And he filed [for divorce] like two weeks before, and it kept me in New Jersey," said Lisa Chaisson, former Air Force spouse. "It really did feel like I was a prisoner, and was trapped all by myself without a single support system."

Chaisson thought she had a plan to separate until things became contentious and military orders complicated the process. She could not stay in her New Jersey home because her husband's housing allowance paid for him to live in Virginia. On paper, they looked like a geobaching family but, in reality, Chaisson was left to figure out how to remain in New Jersey on her own to take care of paperwork.

Because her ex moved to a new command, it was hard for her to know who to call and where to go for support. His last command tried their best, but because he was no longer there, they were limited in what they were able to do.

If you are stationed overseas, the military will move divorcing spouses back to the United States, but the same is not a guarantee if located in the U.S. These moving costs can be covered by divorce settlements, but they are not usually covered by the Defense Department. Additionally, covering those costs happens only if the couple is already divorced, something that was not the case for Chaisson, who was left behind prior to the divorce being finalized.

Another soon-to-be ex-Air Force spouse shared that she and her husband have to live together in Washington, D.C., despite being separated, because of the high cost of living. Although this is acceptable in D.C., many states have different policies that require couples to live under separate roofs before divorcing, adding unforeseen costs to an already expensive process.

For couples with children, the process becomes even more complex.

"At the time, he was getting deployed … I was the constant," said Paulette Fryar, Coast Guard spouse and the 2020-21 AFI Military Spouse of the Year. The Fryars are a blended family, with Paulette and her spouse each having been married before, with children from their previous marriages. "He would have never been able to be the custodial parent [of the children from his first marriage] because of the military; at least, that's the advice we got," said Fryar. It has been a struggle for them to stay connected.

"He was looking at having to give up his career in order to be available to his kids the way he wanted to be. … It was extremely expensive." The Fryars did everything they could to make custody agreements work, traveling all four children back and forth multiple times a year despite the expense, something they were happy they were able to afford. However, what is an option for a senior-ranking family may not be a financial possibility for junior members.

Who Is Getting Divorced?

Studies show that enlisted families are more likely than officer families to experience divorce. This is not because of rank itself, but age. The younger a couple is when they get married, the higher the divorce rates. This makes it seem like officer families have things sorted out, but in reality, they're just older.

Aside from rank, another demographic factor that brings a higher risk of divorce is being female. According to research produced by Rand Corp., female service members have significantly higher rates of divorce, with increased risk if the woman is married to a civilian male partner.

"My first husband was a civilian, and it was really hard for him to cope," said a female Army veteran who was married to her first husband for eight years before marrying another service member, to whom she is still married. "Things were said to him from my peers as well. Somehow, like you're not a man if you're not in the military."

Although she is still married to her currently serving spouse, she shared that the demands of being a dual-military couple contributed to her getting out of active-duty service. "The dual-military situation can also be very difficult because of the unrealistic expectations put on the female service member to be the caregiver for the children and there not being a lot of support or expectations being put on the male service member," she added.

In the military, simply being female increases the risk of divorce. This is what researchers like to call a "hazard." Common hazards are financial insecurity and stress, things that go hand in hand with the military lifestyle.

In addition to the inherent insecurity of being geographically separated from loved ones, deployments create a significant hazard, both by literally putting members in harm's way and increasing stress, which negatively impacts marriages.

According to research conducted in 2013 that examined the impact of deployment on divorce, couples enter marriage with expectations. Deployments change these expectations because the military is unpredictable. Deployments add stress and force couples to weigh whether the positive aspects of their marriage outweigh the negative.

But it is not just deployments that cause these hazards. It's the unknown, the back and forth and the lack of control. The same researchers studied marriages that were formed before and after 9/11 and compared them. They found that those who knew what they were signing up for (married after 9/11) were significantly less likely to get divorced than those who were thrown into the War on Terror unaware (married before 9/11).

And the longer and the more dangerous the deployment, the higher the risk of divorce. Deployments also negatively impacted female service members at higher rates regardless of the duration or danger of their deployments. The researchers' explanation pointed to mismatched expectations. "Couples of military women expect at the time of marriage a lower probability of deployment and form different expectations regarding the deployment experience, given that, historically, the role of women in the military has been different from that of males."

In other words, gender roles are in conflict with military realities and may impact a marriage's success.

What Military Spouses Need to Know About Divorce

"I always knew I wanted to stay home; however, I don't think I ever realized the disservice that I was doing myself because I was completely 100% dependent on him for everything," said an Air Force spouse whose divorce is still being finalized. "'You stayed home. You didn't earn anything. You could have worked, you know.' So, I have had to kind of fight for that, 'No, I did earn it. I stayed home so that you could work.'"

Despite research and policies that show military spouses experience unemployment at higher rates than civilian counterparts, many married and divorced military spouses feel as though they must justify the time they have spent out of the workforce. In 2018, the White House estimated that full-time working military spouses lose approximately $189,614 in income over a 20-year military career.

While civilian couples often have stay-at-home parents, military spouses may stay at home at higher rates due to a lack of affordable child care, combined with demanding military work schedules. According to the DoD's latest military spouse survey, only 43% of military households reported having both spouses in the workforce, much lower than the 65% of civilian parents with dual incomes.

Kathleen Foley, who has worked with more than 100 families helping them navigate divorce and spousal abuse, said that those years of supporting a partner in the military can leave spouses with a big gap in their retirement planning. "At the end of the day, you've supported someone for 20 years and have nothing to show for it."

For families who make the joint decision for the military spouse to remain out of the workforce, divorce may force the non-working spouse to quantify their contribution and ask for compensation for their unpaid household labor, something many struggle to do.

They are forced to bridge the military-civilian knowledge gap, conveying to judges what life as a military spouse is like and explaining that what may have looked like a choice, was in reality the only option for many families who could not access affordable child care or find employment in their field, or be forced to take lower wages due to frequent moves.

And all the while, they report being made to feel as though they are unpatriotic villains, trying to steal from those who put their lives in harm's way, despite having made very real personal and financial sacrifices of their own.

How the DoD Navigates Divorce

Resources like Military OneSource provide guidance for those seeking to divorce, offering counseling services, telling service members to consider state and federal laws, pointing to resources like the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), and instructing them to complete a family care plan. They even point to the availability of legal support to help military families during the divorce process and highlight rules that help enforce court-ordered child support and alimony payments. But what is absent from the site is any mention of what the DoD does to help service members stay connected to their children.

Wage Garnishment and Tricare

The Uniformed Services Former Spouses' Protection Act (USFSPA) helps enforce the collection of court-ordered child support or alimony. There are various eligibility requirements associated with these protections. For instance, the 20-20-20 Rule requires 20 years of creditable service, the marriage lasted at least 20 years, and 20 of those marriage years overlapped with their service for a spouse to be potentially eligible for Tricare.

Base Legal

Those I interviewed for this article shared very different experiences of the support that installation legal offices were able to provide. Like many things in the military, the service offered in one location may be vastly different in another. So I called five branch legal offices in California to see whether the variety shared with me was a fluke or something to plan for. This is what I found:

Representatives from both Beale Air Force Base and the Army's Fort Irwin told me over the phone that both parties in a divorce can use the legal assistance office, but they can not speak to the same lawyer. The Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton requires those seeking a divorce to attend a "dissolution brief '' before they can receive assistance from the legal office. The Navy's Region Legal Service Office Southwest based in San Diego provides legal assistance with personal civil legal matters "as resources permit," and they also require individuals to attend a "weekly divorce seminar" and help interested couples in filing paperwork. The Coast Guard legal office in Alameda indicated it could offer help, but required that I provide my name, my spouse's name and any children we have before they could determine what they could provide.


Military spouses need to consider how the SCRA impacts them during divorce proceedings. The act allows service members to delay court proceedings due to deployments and other factors. This understandably allows them to participate in court proceedings but is something that military spouses should take into consideration as it can delay the process and could cost both parties more in legal fees.

Assignment Coordination and Child Custody/Visitation

All branches require that single-parent service members create a Family Care Plan to accommodate for the care of their children. Currently, only the Air Force's assignment coordination attempts to facilitate child custody agreements, and is a relatively new policy. The Army reminds commanders to stress a soldier's obligation to the military so that they are aware they "will not receive special consideration in duty assignments or duty stations based on their responsibilities for family members unless enrolled in the Exceptional Family Member Program." The Navy "recognizes the unique situations that occur when single parents are assigned to some types of duty and duty locations; however, a preferential assignment policy regarding single parents would be discriminatory toward other members."

While there are programs like the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) that set a precedent on how detailers could prioritize assignment coordination to factor in family circumstances, DoD-level policies related to child custody agreements are nonexistent. While resources exist, they may not be clearly communicated to spouses in the middle of contentious divorces who feel abruptly cut off from the military community.

"I was a Navy spouse for 25 years until a very, very unexpected divorce. My husband was in the SEAL teams, and we endured 18 combat deployments," said Molly Harrison. "I wish there had been something to say, 'OK, this is how we can help you.'"

Like military spouses who are underemployed or out of the workforce entirely, my mom had to reinvent herself after my parents' divorce. I was a latchkey kid, and at the time resented my mom "leaving us" to get a master's degree in her 30s. Today, I look back at that time following my parents' divorce through a different lens. My mom was a badass. She did what she had to do with the resources she had. My dad did not have to do anything other than continue on in his same role, just in a new home and with child support payments looming. He had access to information and resources because his career drove their lives, and there was no learning curve. I love them both, but my mom had to fight to survive. My dad didn't.

Military divorces are both run of the mill and unique. Military spouses must fight to reinvent themselves, especially if they are out of the workforce. Service members must fight to see their children while also fulfilling their operational duties, forced to choose between pursuing a hard-charging career and being a present parent. While divorce may be unavoidable for some, keeping military spouses in the workforce and informed of available support during the divorce process may help make this inevitability less painful for both parties.

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