Attachment, Infidelity, and Divorce Among Military Spouses During Active-Duty Members’ Deployment

Heather Alvarado, PhD
Neuro-Educational Clinic, United States
Magy Martin, EdD (Corresponding Author)
Walden University, United States
Don Martin, PhD                                                                                                                                                        Youngstown State University, United States


Frequent military deployments have been associated with marital conflict, infidelity, and divorce for active-duty military members. The authors discuss the varied reasons for divorce rates among military couples. Issues such as deployment, coping strategies, and spousal communication are examined. Implications for practice that focus on increased attachment and communication are discussed, and programs that have been effective in helping military couples.

Keywords: military marriages, deployment, marital conflict


Active-duty military spouses face numerous challenges, and these couples face unique
circumstances compared to most civilian marriages. Those in military marriages are subject to
many stressors, such as frequent relocations, a partner’s possible exposure to combat, and limited communication between spouses (Gleason & Beck, 2017). As of 2016, there were 1,288,596 active-duty members in the US military (DOD, 2016a). Of these active-duty members, 53.5% were married, and 6.6% were in dual-military marriages, meaning that both spouses served in the military (DOD, 2016b). Within the Armed Services Reserves and the National Guard, there were another 818,305 military marriages (DOD, 2016a).

Because of these stressors, divorce among the active military is a concern, and data is hard to attain. Divorce rates are rarely listed according to branch, pay grade, or gender. Military divorce rates average about 3%, close to civilian rates, but this can be misleading. Black couples are twice as likely to divorce among civilians than their white counterparts. At present, African-Americans comprise 16% of the military, but nearly 31%f of military women are African- American (Patten & Parker, 2020). For individuals under the age of 30, military jobs are typical in the top 10 jobs related to divorce. Other jobs with a high divorce rate within the military include logisticians, chemical technicians, food preparation, and engine technicians. First-line enlisted military supervisors have divorce rates nearing 30% (Hogan & Seifert, 2014). Women in the military have a divorce rate nearly twice as high as their male counterparts. Many in the military tend to marry young, with over half of the military under 30 years of age and nearly 70% under 36. Similar to civilian life, marriages in the military have been declining in the last
decade (Bushatz, 2020).

A common problem among the deployed military is the fear of infidelity or perceptions among spouses in young military couples (Cafferky & Shi, 2015; Vincenzes et al., 2014). Much of the research regarding infidelity has indicated that both military spouses’ and active-duty members’ mental health are affected by deployment due to a lack of communication between spouses, which can lead to doubt and mistrust (Borelli et al., 2013; London et al., 2013; Urooj et al., 2015). Perceptions about infidelity often include military spouses believing that their partners will engage in infidelity while on deployment (Balderrama-Durbin et al., 2017; Kachadourian et al., 2015).

Couples exposed to military service are twice as likely to experience a relationship issue such as infidelity than the civilian population (Kachadourian et al., 2015). Prior research has also noted different aspects of infidelity, whether sexual or emotional (Urooj et al., 2015). Research on infidelity has also noted risk factors that may contribute to infidelity (Allen et al., 2013; Balderrama-Durbin et al., 2017). For example, previous experience with deployments, the couple taking steps towards divorce, and relationship issues before deployment are influential factors that can lead to infidelity and contributes to divorce among military couples (Allen et al., 2013; Balderrama-Durbin et al., 2017; Cafferky & Shi, 2015). The prevalence of infidelity coincides with increased probabilities of divorce for military couples. Typically, these associations are higher among military couples who experience combat-related stressors, such as the active-duty member having a traumatic brain injury, PTSD, or a substance-related issue (Wang et al., 2015). The prevalence of infidelity in military couples correlates with decreased marital quality and overall marital satisfaction (Allen et al., 2013). Research on infidelity during deployment has also noted that younger couples are more prone to experience infidelity (Cafferky & Shi, 2015). Therefore, as a decrease in marital quality occurs, the probability of relationship issues, such as divorce or infidelity, increases (Balderrama-Durbin et al., 2017; Knobloch & Theiss, 2012).

 Infidelity has been displayed specific to gender-related differences, and the impact ofinfidelity can have significant consequences for the romantic relationship. There are differences between females and males perceiving their partner as engaging in infidelity (Urooj et al., 2012). For example, females are more likely to report that they believe their partner may engage in sexual and emotional infidelity. In contrast, males perceive that their partner will more likely engage in sexual infidelity. Couples who perceive their partner as engaging in infidelity are more likely to  experience conflict, communication issues, and distrust within the marriage (Cafferky & Shi, 2015; Knobloch et al., 2016; Urooj et al., 2012). Either experiencing infidelity in the marriage or thinking that the partner will engage in infidelity is just as harmful to the romantic relationship (Kachadourian et al., 2015; Knobloch et al., 2013).

Marital Stress and Deployment

Deployment can be a significantly challenging time for military spouses, who may experience limits on communication, separation anxiety, and uncertainty concerning the active-duty member’s safety (Balderrama-Durbin et al., 2018; Knobloch et al., 2013; Riviere et al., 2012). Due to this forced separation, attachment becomes essential in understanding the military spouse’s emotional connection when the active-duty member is deployed (Alvarado, 2020; Cafferky & Shi, 2015). During separation, infidelity has been highlighted as a shared experience within this population (Foran et al., 2012; Knobloch et al., 2016). Challenges associated with deployment are primarily caused by environmental changes due to the active-duty member leaving home. At this point, the military spouse becomes responsible for managing a household, children, and financial matters and coping with the possibility of their spouse being in danger while unable to communicate with him or her. Military marriages are unique because these struggles differ from most civilian marriages (Balderrama-Durbin, 2018; Foran et al., 2012;
Knobloch et al., 2016).

A deployment can last anywhere from 1 month to 12 months. Extended deployments can range from 12 months to 18 months (Jordan, 2011). Deployments are events in which the active-duty member engages in duty-related activities that require physical relocation from his or her duty station. In many cases, deployments occur outside the United States, but they can also occur within the country. The nature of deployment is challenging, as the military spouse must adapt to a new environment without their romantic partner. In these cases, military spouses may have difficulty communicating with their loved ones and may need to take on the household responsibilities, financial and maintenance (Borelli et al., 2014; Cafferky & Shi, 2015). These added roles can cause stress and strain the romantic relationship (Knobloch et al., 2016). Some negative deployment associations can influence military marriage, such as drug-seeking behavior, aggressive behaviors, and mental health issues (Wang et al., 2015). Infidelity, anxiety, PTSD, depression, and substance use problems have also been associated with difficulties during deployment and post-deployment (Alvarado, 2020). Other adverse effects of deployment include negative emotional states in which the military spouse experiences anger or resentment toward the active-duty member. Military spouses are more prone to distress and adverse emotional states during deployments that exceed six months (Vincenzes et al., 2014). Therefore, the length of deployment is also associated with the military spouse’s well-being. Psychological distress is connected to the length of deployment and a spouse’s uncertainty concerning the active-duty member’s safety, lack of control, caring for household and children, and limited communication with the active-duty member (Balderrama-Durbin, 2017; Borelli et al., 2014; Marini et al., 2017). Military spouses and active-duty members also display depressive symptoms before deployment; thus, research has found associations between lower perceived social support, negative adaption to stress, and higher depressive symptoms (Marini et al., 2017). Other challenges noted in the literature include parenting, reintegrating into the family routine, revising roles and responsibilities, coping with work and financial issues, communication, reconnecting, and dealing with personality and emotion (Riggs & Cusimano, 2014; Wang et al., 2015). Usually, these factors are combined within military couples’ relationships before and after deployment (Marchand-Reilly, 2012).

Deployment can vary in length and the location of duty for the active-duty member. Researchers have noted two different deployment forms: combat exposure and non-combat exposure (Kelley et al., 2015). Depending on the military’s needs, active-duty members may experience combat-related war zones during wartime (London et al., 2013). However, some deployments are specific to the active-duty member’s job, not combat. These deployments do not have wartime-related stressors, but the inability to communicate ‘back home’ may remain in addition to the long periods away from home (Kachadourian et al., 2015). Researchers have noted that deployments with combat exposure influence active-duty and military spouses (Negrusa & Negrusa, 2014; Padden et al., 2013)). Some active-duty members may return home with a stress-related illness due to emotional or sexual trauma experienced in combat (Pistole et al., 2010). In these instances, a military spouse also faces challenges in reconnecting with the active-duty member, difficulty managing home and life roles without the support of active-duty members, and instances of stress due to the unpredictable nature of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Hogan & Seifert, 2014; Roy et al., 2012). Active-duty members may also have difficulty readjusting and adapting to home life after combat duty readiness (Kelly et al., 2015). These added stressors of stress-related illness on the marital relationship have been associated with more significant relationship problems, such as infidelity. Military spouses and active-duty members who experience their partner being unfaithful during or after deployment have higher perceived stress levels, anxiety, and depressive symptoms (Kachadourain et al., 2015). In many cases, the act of infidelity can also be viewed as a traumatic event in which the military spouse or active-duty member may experience PTSD symptomology (Roy et al., 2012)

Different deployment stages and each stage may significantly affect the sexual and mental health and communication patterns (Knobloch et al., 2013). The three major stages associated with deployment include pre-deployment, deployment, and post-deployment, with the levels of stressors impacted during each of these three phases (Riggs & Cusimano, 2014). The pre-deployment stage is the active-duty member’s preparation to be away from the family, during which roles are often reversed. More responsibilities for the partner-at-home are
discussed. In the deployment period, when the active-duty member is physically relocated to his/her duty station, family contact may be limited (Karney et al., 2012; Padden et al., 2013). Lastly, the post-deployment period is when the active-duty member returns from deployment. This timeframe can occur anywhere from one day to one year upon return (Vincenzes et al., 2014). Many studies focus on a military spouse’s experiences when the active-duty member is deployed (Balderrama-Durbin et al., 2018). This period provides valuable insight into how the military spouse copes with the active-duty member’s separation (Jordan; 2011; Padden et al., 2013). Positive coping has been associated with a better reintegration of the family after deployment and fewer relationship issues (Riggs & Cusimano, 2014). Some coping skills associated with deployment’s adaptive processing are confrontation, optimism, and supporting communication styles (Laser & Stephens, 2011; Padden et al., 2013). Coping is an essential part of the military spouse maintaining the marriage relationship and his/her psychological well-being during the deployment process (Cafferty & Shi, 2015; Leeker & Carlozzi, 2014). Online communication is a positive influence that allows the military spouse to cope with the active-duty member’s separation ( Balderrama-Durbin et al., 2015; Snyder et al., 2012). The role of online communication, such as Facebook or other social media, has been associated with higher social support levels for individuals and individuals’ better adaption to the deployment process (Balderrama-Durbin et al., 2017; Snyder et al., 2011). Communication needs differ from the active-duty member to the military spouse; consequently active-duty members value reassurance and support while military spouses value problem solving and disclosure (Balderrama-Durbin et al., 2017; Roy et al., 2012; Russell et al., 2013). Other researchers highlighted positive coping styles that strengthen a military couple (Knobloch et al., 2016). Some styles displayed as beneficial for the marital relationship are open communication, future planning, the reassurance of the safety of active-duty members, and topic avoidance (Borelli et al., 2012; Negrusa et al., 2014). On the other hand, maladaptive coping may be associated with experiences of relationship problems (Balderrama-Durbin et al., 2017). Interestingly, infidelity is a common relational issue and is most often experienced during deployment (Synder et al., 2012). During the deployment reunion period, when active-duty members are reintegrated into civilian life, there is potential for active-duty members to experience stress-related mental health issues. Combat-related experiences during deployment significantly affect the active-duty member and the military spouse’s mental health (Balderrama-Durbin et al., 2015; Snyder et al., 2011). More stressors within the romantic relationship create a higher prevalence of marital strain associated with relationship issues such as infidelity (Snyder et al., 2012). Another factor to consider during the deployment reunion phase is changes within the military spouse’s emotional connection. Upon returning from deployment, combat-exposed soldiers may struggle with disclosing combat experiences, limiting communication between spouses (Trevillion et al., 2015; Wolf et al., 2017). Additionally, upon return, soldiers may struggle with not feeling needed due to the home’s responsibilities maintained by the military spouse (Balderrama-Durbin et al., 2015). Spouses must readjust their home and life routines and struggle with reconnecting to active-duty members who have been exposed to combat. Denial or detachment are common emotional experiences of the military spouse, and these emotional states may impact the marital relationship (Cafferky & Shi, 2015). These emotional experiences are utilized as a coping mechanism to reintegrate the active-duty member back into home life (Wolf et al., 2015). In some instances, the emotional connection may be influenced by continued negative emotional states; thus, communication, co-parenting, and marital intimacy may be affected (Vincenzes et al., 2014). Researchers have also noted that relationship turbulence is common during the reunion period (Knobloch et al., 2012). Deployment is considered stressful, but some conflict within the romantic relationship is expected. Relationship uncertainty and depressive symptoms are significantly related (Knobloch
et al., 2013). Military spouses who perceive uncertainty in their marriage are more likely to experience depressive symptoms. Furthermore, military spouses with higher relationship uncertainty communicated less with active-duty members, increasing relationship issues (Knobloch & Theiss, 2012). Typically, military spouses face relationship uncertainty when they are unsure how to continue communication with the active-duty member and maintain sexual
and emotional intimacy. Family roles may change with the active-duty member’s re-inclusion, so the family must renegotiate finances, parenting roles, home life, and other familial roles (Knobloch et al., 2016).

The Link between Divorce and Communication Strategies

Military marriages experience many stressors, and in some instances, these continued stressors can decrease the marital relationship’s stability over the years. Karney et al. (2012) suggested a pattern that lengthy military marriages increase divorce risk, with older service members more likely to be divorced. A potential reason for this trend is that the long years of service are often correlated with more military stressors that impact a marriage’s stability. Research has also found a relationship between service length and decreased marital quality (Knobloch et al., 201; Leeker & Carlozzi, 2014). This lack of marital quality is associated with higher probabilities of military couples experiencing marital dissolution and infidelity reports (Knoblouch et al., 2016; Riviere et al., 2012). Another pattern noted is the deployment’s timing and deployment type. Negrusa et al. (2014) noted that divorce rates had decreased among military couples, but in 2002, an increase in divorce was observed. Some potential reasons for this pattern are that deployments became more frequent after 2000, and these deployments were more likely to be dangerous than many in combat-exposed environments (Laser & Stephens, 2011; Negrusa et al.,2014).

Interestingly, active-duty members who have experienced divorce are also more likely to experience multiple deployments. Specifically, divorced individuals have had prior deployments but are also more likely to deploy after divorce (Karney et al., 2012; Kelley et al., 2015; Russell et al., 2013). Divorce has been associated with adverse health outcomes such as PTSD, depression, smoking initiation, binge drinking, alcohol-related problems, and moderate weight gain (Trevillion et al., 2015; Wang et al., 2015). One of the significant adverse health effects extensively studied concerning deployments is PTSD and its role in marital relationships. Research has found that Army personnel who have been diagnosed with PTSD or display symptoms of PTSD are more likely to experience relationship issues, specifically divorce (Foran et al., 2012; Marini et al., 2017). Also it has been found that more female soldiers experience divorce than their male counterparts (Negrusa & Negrusa, 2014) and have a higher incidence of intent to divorce (Gleason & Beck, 2017; Wang et al., 2015). These rates are even higher with active-duty members with healthy mental symptoms but aggressive behaviors. Allen et al. (2013) found that individuals after nine months after deployment have a higher divorce intent when comparing four months after deployment versus nine months after deployment. This research suggests that military marriages need social and emotional support after deployments (Foran et al., 2012). The deployment length and combat exposure lead to a potential risk for some military marriages. Other research has attempted to understand the factors that lead to divorce in military marriages (Kelley et al., 2015; Knobloch et al., 2015). Specifically, Balderrama-Durbin et al. (2017) suggested that other issues may play with these incidences of divorce. Beyond infidelity, some of the potential factors that have been associated with divorce are domestic violence and mental health concerns (Kachadourian et al., 2015; Negrusa & Negrusa, 2014). An individual’s mental health is a critical factor that affects the individual and the marriage quality. Researchers have also noted that domestic violence acts impact martial quality and an individual’s intent to divorce (Foran et al., 2012).

Domestic violence can occur in physical, sexual, or emotional forms that cause undue harm to an individual. In the military branches, from 2008 to 2011, about 53% of domestic violence was physical, 32% was emotional, and 45% was indicated as sexual (Balderrama- Durbin et al., 2018; Roy et al., 2012; Trevillion et al., 2015). In examining domestic violence in military marriages, most perpetrators had mental health concerns, specifically PTSD (Kelley et
al., 2015). In military marriages, these domestic abuse perpetrators tend to be males with PTSD symptoms (Balderrama-Durbin et al., 2018). PTSD has primarily been noted as a mental health concern for active-duty personnel due to the levels of stressors experienced by this population, including combat exposure during deployment (Wang et al., 2015). Active-duty members often have challenges returning home from deployment to reconnect with family members and reintegrate into non-combat activities (Knobloch et al., 2013). Domestic violence in military marriages is more commonly observed within the first ten months following a deployment
(Kelley et al., 2015). In some instances, active-duty personnel who experience PTSD symptoms also engage in inadequate coping mechanisms, including substance use (Roy et al., 2012; Trevillion et al., 2015). The use of addictive substances has also been noted as an associated risk for individuals engaging in domestic violence (Foran et al., 2012).

The Need for Increased Education and Counseling for Military Couples

Unfortunately, few programs have been effective in helping military couples deal with issues related to deployment. Ironically, most research regarding military marriages focuses on deployment (Snyder et al., 2011). It is the most challenging experience for military members, and nearly 5% leave the military because of deployment. For example, nearly 10% of Army personnel are separated from their families at any one time, and about 40% are separated for over a month. Typically, separated soldiers are usually in the early stages of their military careers (Bushatz, 2020)

The difficulty with creating programming is that military couples’ problems are multifaceted. Couples need to be helped in all deployment stages, including pre-deployment, deployment, and reunion. Also, both spouses need counseling services wherever their location and the family undergoes a significant adjustment. In most instances, deployment is traumatic for the entire family (Leeker & Carlozzi, 2014). There is a condition called submariners wife syndrome in the Navy where spouses have uncontrollable weeping, loss of appetite, and significant depression. These wives often discuss an uncontrollable rage at being deserted (Balderrame-Durbin et al., 2017). Beyond mood swings and grief, increased spousal aggression is directly correlated to longer deployment lengths. Combat experience is the most difficult for marriages, with these couples having a 62% increase in the divorce rate (Ruger et al., 2002). Since World War II, combat veterans have been studied and understand post-traumatic stress among recent veterans. Combat marriages face unique challenges, often increasing conflict and decreasing marital cohesion. The military marital relationship often faces stressors different from civilian marriages due to the military spouses’ mental health and challenges related to deployments (Wolf et al., 2017). For example, veterans and veteran spouses who have experienced infidelity were two times greater than civilian couples who had no experience within the military (London et al., 2013; Snyder et al., 2012; Trevillion et al., 2015).

We believe one way to intervene and help military couples is to understand better the attachment bond needed between two partners who can experience intense and prolonged separation (Foran et al., 2012; Pistole et al., 2010). Communication has an influential role in the relationship between the active-duty member and the military spouse during separation due to frequent stressors such as noncommunication, shifting roles, and lack of physical proximity during deployment (Donovan & Emmers-Sommer, 2012; Gleason & Beck, 2017; Kelley et al., 2015). The available research on military spouses’ attachment and relationships describes the importance of the spouses’ emotional connection during deployment (Allen et al., 2012; Borelli et al., 2014; Fincham & May 2017). Researchers have discussed how military spouses and their active-duty members experience various relationship issues upon return from deployments, such as marital discord, infidelity, stress, substance-use issues, mental health problems, PTSD, and issues with reintegrating family life (Balderrame-Durbin et al., 2018; Balderrame-Durbi et al., 2015; Trevillion et al., 2015).

Military spouses who experience deployment engage in differing behaviors, including attempts to remain close to the active-duty member or avoid contact, not feel abandoned or experience negative feelings (Jordan, 2011; Lindquist & James, 2005; Snyder et al., 2012). Our view is that individuals with insecure attachments, such as anxious attachments, most likely display a higher probability of perceiving that their partners would engage in emotional and sexual infidelity acts during deployment. Military spouses with insecure attachments may engage in negative attachment behaviors or perceive some form of distrust or insecurity from their attachment figure, the active duty member (Donovan & Emmers-Summer, 2012). Some premarital counseling programs have been based on these models with sound effects (Gleason & Beck, 2017; Schumm et al., 2000). Generally, marital satisfaction improves for both husbands and wives with premarital counseling. More importantly, these couples are more likely to seek out family services in later years if their relationship has problems. These results were even more substantial for enlisted personnel than officers.

Several research-based programs have proven to be effective with military couples. Building Strong and Ready Families (BSRF) is designed to improve couple and work relationships. Couples in this program believed their relationships improved in their marriages, and results were as robust across all racial and economic categories. Most importantly, couples in this program felt more confident that they would not divorce (Stanley et al., 2005). The
Premarital Interpersonal Choices and Knowledge Program (PICK) helps military personnel recognize the family of origin issues that can impact a marriage. Nearly 90% of program participants indicated they planned to use the information they learned in the program, and most felt more knowledgeable about developing a healthy relationship (Van Epp et al., 2008). The military has created Family Readiness Groups (FRG) to help families deal with deployment. Unfortunately, these groups have been vastly underutilized, with over 1/3 of the military indicating they never knew they existed. Over half did not know how these groups would help them. Army Family Teambuilding (AFTB) is a course offered by the Army that helps families better understand the military’s nature and rewards. Couples who took this course were more satisfied with the military and were less stressed during military deployments (Lindquist et al., 2005).


Many military marriages face unique challenges. A military member often has the exact need for counseling as a civilian, but the military’s culture is very different. There is a unique emphasis in military counseling on PTSD and stress and specific concerns about the increased rate of suicide among the military. The stress placed on these families can be compelling and intense for military families, and counselors need to understand these stressors’ magnitude. There has been nearly a decade of overseas conflict and deployment for too many military members. Many of these service members have been deployed several times, often less than a year between deployments. These long separations can lead to infidelity, divorce, and damaging effects. Also, these families can be moved to different geographical locations and bases, which can cause even more difficulties. There is a need for research based programs that are effective with these families. It is essential to train therapists who can work with these couples and develop appropriate positive communication and support. Most importantly, the health of the military is inherently critical to the health of society.


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