The Mil Life: Curbing extramarital sex and divorce among veterans

Aug 31, 2011

A recent study shows that extramarital sex and divorce is more common among veterans. But why, and what can military families do to curb that statistic?

In this week's Mil Life chat, researcher Andrew London, who conducted the research, chatted about what the study found, including how the research was conducted, details of the results and more. Stephanie Himel-Nelson joined in to answer questions about what military spouses can do to keep the connection with their deployed or recently returned servicemember.

Ask questions, get advice, share your own experience and weigh in on this military topic!

This chat is part of The Mil Life, an going chat series the Post hosts for military families. The Mil Life chats take place every Wednesday at noon ET.

Check out these military resources for you and your family:

Blue Star Families
Military Officers Association of America
Gold Star Wives

Hi everyone.. Thanks for your interest in our research and for your questions today.  I am looking forward to chatting with you.

Welcome to the Mil Life! This week we have Andrew London joining us.  Professor London is the Chair and Professor of Sociology, Senior Research Associate in the Center for Policy Research in the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, and Senior Fellow of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University. Professor London is the author of a recent study showing that infidelity and divorce are more common among veterans. He's here to answer our questions about his research.
I hope we'll also be able to have a discussion about how we can make our military marriages stronger and stay connected to our spouses with the current OpTempo.

What do you recommend we do if we notice that our friends are paying too much attention to someone other than their husband? We like to call these gals "deployment widows." and it's not a nice term ... thanks

This is a hard one. If it's a good friend, I would just sit her down and talk to her about it - in a nonconfrontational way. Take the approach of "Hey, I know you're really getting down during this deployment. What can I do to help?" And then follow through and spend more time with her. I think part of the time it's just loneliness.  At least I hope that's all it is!

Of course, if a friend really decides to cheat, there isn't much you can realistically do about it, but if you see it coming, reaching out to a friend could really help.

How much of this did you find had to do with age of the veterans? My husband just came back from a year in Iraq and he has commented on younger guys having problems (like "Dear John" letters) that he, who has been married 14 years, hasn't had to deal with.

Our research is based on a sample of ever-married adults aged 18-60 years that was collected in 1992.  This is important to understand, as it is an open question to what extent what we found holds for more contemporary veterans.  In our research, we found that age mattered substantially.  Older veterans were more likely to report that they had ever engaged in extramarital sex and they were more likely to report that they had ever divorced.  Older persons have more opportunity for both things to have happened in their lives.  This is why, as a social scientist, I am interested in looking at longitudinal data (i.e., I would like to follow people over time).  Unfortunately, we don't have those data at this point.

Andrew - I'm also wondering how your research squares with some recent information from the DoD showing that divorce rates among active duty military are lower than in the civilian population.

FROM ANDREW: This may well be the case.  Our data reflect a specific, mostly veteran population.  Recent DoD data showing that current, active-duty military personnel have lower divorce rates would not be inconsistent with our findings.  There may have been changes in who is serving and the context in which they are serving.  Also, our results include veterans, some of whom have been out of the military for decades. 


Why is there always a seemingly endless list of civilians who meddle in the private lives of the military? Have they nothing else to do? Did somebody ask them to "curb" certain behaviors or, as seems more likely, are they simply minding somebody else's business? If civilians don't have the guts to get really involved - i.e., put on a uniform - wouldn't we all be happier if they would just shut up?

I think I'm going to have to disagree with you here. As long as research is done and reported respectfully, we need to know what is happening with our military families and how 10 years of war are affecting us. Many of the programs we have now to strengthen our families might not exist if it weren't for scientific research showing that they are needed.

It would be nice if every person researching military families were a veteran as well, but that's not realistically going to happen. Let's not automatically assume that academics are trying to make us look bad. Let's assume that they truly want to help.

Here's a question/comment we got on the Blue Star Families Facebook wall for Professor London:

Data that is over a generation old is no longer relevant unless it's used for trending over time. Unfortunately, extramarital sex and divorce is a huge problem in our community, especially in this time of long separations due to the deployment tempo. Combine that with PTSD and the plethora of problems (like communication issues) that even civilian families deal with and it's not surprising that we have an issue. Is there currently anyone researching statistics since 2001 forward, since the wars started vs those recorded 20 years ago?

Your point about the datedness of the data is very important, and it is something we address in our paper.  As a social scientist, I would disagree that the data are irrelevant; publishing such findings, even if they are historical and contextually-specific, can help stimulate new research and data collection.  I do think they help establish a baseline.  My colleagues and I are working on a follow-up study with more recent data.  Unfortuantely, I don't yet have results to report as the data are very newly available.

The military eggs on teen and young adult marriage, with financial incentives, peer pressure, ceremonies like the sword arch and even references to personal life on ratings sheets. They push kids down the aisle. Over time, many of these immature folks act out, step out and bail out. The same would be true if you urged lots of civilian kids to marry. It's nuts, and it has been ever thus. Remove the overt and cultural incentives to too-young marriage: problem solved.

There is a lot of evidence that service members serving during the era of the All-Volunteer Force (since 1973) have earlier ages at marriage.  There are some incentives to marry, including off-base housing options.  So, some of the incentives are built into policies that may be changeable.  But, some other social pressures might not be as malleable.

So why are veterans more likly to have an affair than civilians?  What are the reasons?

This is a great question.  In our research, we can document an association between veteran status and extramarital sex, but we don't know whether the extramarital sex occurred prior to the period of active duty, during it, or after it.  Certainly, deployment-related separations may be a factor, but that may not be the only factor.  For example, if veterans are more likely to be in occupations that involve travel away from home, then they may have more opportunity to engage in extramarital relationships.  This would be one mechanism that could contribute to the association we observe.  We need new data to examine possibilities.

Do you have future researched planned to see when and why the infidelity is happening? It seems that information like that would be great practical data that the DoD could use to help marriages that might end up in trouble.

We are working with a group of researchers on designing a new survey that may allow us to include some questions that would allow us to better understand when and why infidelity is happening.  We do think these results would be useful to the DoD and others who work with military families.

From Stephanie:  Here's a question that someone emailed me for Professor London.


How do you define "veteran" in your study? It appears that active duty military are included in that definition even though the populations can be very different.

We had a relatively small number of active-duty service members in the sample.  We included them in the "veteran category".  The vast majority of persons in the study who had histories of military service were no longer on active duty.

From Stephanie: Another comment from the BSF Facebook page. Michelle writes:

This a hard subject because every persons situation is so different. Just because one person was able to survive without cheating doesnt mean those whose marriage didn't survive has any less love or intended commitment the cheating happens both abroad and at home with those left behind. Less face it with war and these long deployments no one knows 100% what they getting into. Throw in giving birth while dad is gone etc its hard sadly many marriages have become a casualty of these wars. For those whose marriage didnt make it stay strong.. For those who did you're blessed.

Steph here again - Michelle, I think you really hit the nail on the head. Every person and every marriage is different. There are tremendous stresses placed on military marriages these days and all we can do is work hard to make our own marriages the best that they can be. And from time to time we need to step back and realize how lucky we are in many ways.

Our results show that veterans are more likely to have ever divorced than non-veterans even when we take extramarital sex into account.  As we say in the paper, those results  are consistent with the notion that military and veteran families face substantial strains that are un-related to the occurrence of extramarital sex but increase the likelihood of divorce. 

From Stephanie: Another comment from the BSF Facebook page, not necessarily a question, but clearly people have some strong feelings on the topic of infidelity in the military. Christina writes:

Well I agree with the long deployments. Leave times are a joke. Yes please keep my husband out floating in the water for months on end for no reason other than to have him NOT use his studies he worked on for 2 years 16 hr days so he can serve fruit cups to people...And don't encourage them to cheat. Yeah I am saying it. It needs to be talked about. I can't count how many people have said crap to my husband trying to make him paranoid(higher ups more so than enlisted) and the guys trying to convince him to cheat as well during ports.

And they don't give two craps about families at all. They say they do during graduations and on websites for PR fluff. But when it really comes down to it, we have been shit on time and time again. I am in the EFMP and they STILL sent my husband to Hawaii for 3 years and refused to keep him here in the US since they consider Hawaii an over seas. They didn't care if I died or not.

Steph here again - I'm so sorry you weren't supported at a time when you really needed it. That's a situation that should never happen.

Steph asked if I could comment on our planned follow up to this study.  We are going to use another national study  to do two things.  First, because the question on military service was added back into the survey (on the basis of a proposal we wrote a couple of years ago) and the survey also includes a question on extramarital sex, we can replicate this study looking at more recent cohorts of veterans and non-veterans.  Second, we can combine data from earlier years of this survey that included both questions and look to see whether and how extramarital sex changes as people age.  This second analysis would be within a specific cohort that aged over a specific historical period.  Like all social scientific studies, it would have some limitations.  But, hopefully, these studies would contribute to knowledge and possibly policy or practice.  As I mentioned earlier, we may be able to collect some new data in the coming years.  I think there is a lot we need to know and I hope other researchers, both those working with survey data and those working with qualitative interview data, will take up some of these questions.

Another comment from the BSF Facebook page.

Tammie writes:

Here is some advice for ya.. dont keep the men on deployment for to long.. this will keep all marriages strong... also offer married couples some real time alone when he or she comes back... offer FREE child care of Free trips some place nice so they can reconnect without all the stress of family and him having to deal with work.. for some when they come home they dont get leave right away which is understandable but at least offer a place for couples to go with on sight child care

Tammie - That's an interesting comment about deployments. I have friends who say that they think their marriages are stronger because they are apart at times. And that it keeps the romance alive. Maybe the answer is simply shorter deployments? Ah, we can all dream, can't we?!

I expect that a lot of the strength of my parents' marriage is because of military service. My father was sent to Europ in the early 60s. She went too though that might have been a mistake (it was only 2 years and you were supposed to be away for 3 before being allowed to bring your spouse). They really had to rely on each other for support at a time when even phone calls were too expensive on his Air Force salary and letters took a while. They were very young - just 22 and 20 and had to finish growing up together. 50 years and counting.

You know, I suspect the same thing of my parents. They were 20 and 21 when they got married and then my dad was immediately off on bombing runs in Vietnam after his training was complete.  My mother gave up  a lot for the military life - career and aspirations of her own. But they've been married for 42 years and are still going strong.

This is an interesting question or hypothesis.  It is something I wish social scientists who study marital resilience would take up. 

Another comment from the BSF Facebook page. Jaclyn writes:

I agree with Michelle that every situation is different. I became an Army wife at 32, so fairly late in the game. Military marriages are just like any other relationship - where every day life can be hard enough. Add in the long separations, the availability and opportunity to go outside the marriage with a much lower risk of getting caught and we just have higher risk factors. I'm not saying it's an excuse for the behavior, it is an explanation for the behavior though. My marriage gets stronger with each separation. We trust each other. We're lucky enough to have nearly daily interactions, which keeps communication open and our emotional needs met - which significantly reduces (for us, anyway) the lack of getting physical intimacy needs met. We have excellent communication when he's home though, so it's just an extension of that aspect of our relationship. For couples who have issues communicating with each other, I can see how it would be exacerbated by deployments. Other couples I know, look forward to deployments - they are the only reason they are still married. They can only tolerate each other for about a year at a time and then they need the break. It's all very personal and something that the military needs to address on a broad level (considering you can have UCMJ action taken against you as a service member involved in adultry).

Steph here - I sort of look at being part of a military marriage as another major life stressor. We all know couples who got along great until they had children, or needed to take care of an aging parent, or lost a job and declared bankruptcy, etc.... Being in a military marriage is a similar kind of stressor. Once we know that, hopefully we can work to make our marriages stronger.

From Stephanie: Another comment from the BSF Facebook page to share. Joy writes:

As a long time military spouse husband has been in 17yrs I don't think a deployment can drive someone to cheat. I've stood by my husband during long deployments and he's done the same. He's been transferred to another state and it's been 13mths since we've lived under the same roof for more than a week at the time. I love him and he loves me. I trust him with my life, and my heart. Now we are so focused on what's in front of us (retirement isn't too far off). I stay busy with our children and he's extremely busy with his career. Trust me ladies if someone is going to cheat on you in a foreign port give them time and they'll cheat on you at home. We have seen it all. A man that loves you will hold tight to the love you give to him, and he'll respect and feel honored that you keep the home fires burning while he is away doing his duty for our country. After all these years the men he works with would never cross the lines of trying to introduce things that aren't proper into our marriage, rather I find they are often wanting to know what our "secret" is. Trust pure and simple. Once it's lost you can never get it back so guard it as a one time gift.

Joy - Excellent points.

They're not trying to curb extramarital sex among SINGLE veterans are they? Because that would be stupid and intrusive - you tell a young man or woman to go out and fight and die and kill in a foreign land, and then tell them they can't indulge in consensual sex with another adult?

The question about extramarital sex that we examine in our research focuses specifically on sex with someone else while married.  So, no, we are not looking at singles.

I appreciate Andrew London's point about establishing a baseline, but wonder if this publicity shouldn't be held for the results of the current study still underway. The conclusions drawn here apply to a very old group: "78 percent of the ever-married veterans in the NHSLS served prior to the era of the AVF, which began in 1973." Not that human nature has changed that much, but the military has. Reasonable people might think the headlines refer to some current boom in extramarital sex among recently discharged vets; after all, our minds are on today's wars, not Vietnam and earlier.

Thanks to everyone for your questions and comments.  Have a great day!

Thank you again, Professor London, for joining us here today and for letting us know about your future plans. Your research certainly tells us something about the health and strength of military marriages and I know we'll al be watching for follow up studies.

I also want to share some resources for our military readers:

  • The Deployment Cycle Support Program includes briefings for soldiers on how their absence and return may affect their family relationships and how they can cope with the inevitable changes;

  • The Strong Bonds marriage education program, which focuses specifically on issues that affect Reserve and National Guard couples.

Please join us next week for another Mil Life discussion!



In This Chat
Stephanie Himel-Nelson
Stephanie Himel-Nelson is the communications director for Blue Star Families, a national nonprofit supporting military families. She left her career as an attorney to advocate for military families three years ago and hasn't looked back. Stephanie grew up in the military as an Air Force "brat" and she is still immersed in the military life. Stephanie's husband recently retired after 20 years in the Navy and her brother, a former Army soldier, is now serving in the Ohio National Guard. She lives with her husband and two boys, ages 5 and 6, in Chesapeake, Virginia.
Andrew London
Andrew S. London is Chair and Professor of Sociology, Senior Research Associate in the Center for Policy Research in the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, and Senior Fellow of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University. He is the founding and current Co-Director of Syracuse University’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Studies Program, a faculty affiliate of the Syracuse University Gerontology Center, and a research affiliate of the National Institute on Aging-funded Center for Aging and Policy Studies. He received his Ph.D. in Sociology and Demography from the University of Pennsylvania in 1993. In broad terms, his research interests focus on the health, care, and well-being of stigmatized and vulnerable populations. With Janet Wilmoth and others, he is engaged in a multi-faceted research project related to military service and its consequences over the life course. This project has been supported by recent grants from the National Institute on Aging and the National Poverty Center, and includes a forthcoming edited volume entitled “Military Service in Lives: Perspectives on the Life Course,” which will be published by Routledge in 2012.
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