Army Divorce Rates Drop as Marriage Programs Gain Momentum
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 27, 2006 Soldiers and their spouses are flocking to new and beefed-up programs to help them strengthen their marriages, and a dip in divorce rates appears to show it's having a positive effect, Army officials told American Forces Press Service.
Divorce rates among Army officers dropped a whopping 61 percent last year following a 2004 spike that sent shudders through the service. In 2004, 3,325 Army officers divorced, but that number dropped to 1,292 in 2005, Army officials said. Divorces also were down slightly among enlisted members, from 7,152 in 2004 to 7,075 last year.
Army spokesman Martha Rudd said percentages tell the story more clearly, particularly in the officer corps. In 2004, 6 percent of married officers divorced. In 2005, the figure dropped by more than half: 2.3 percent of married officers divorced.
Army Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Pete Frederich, family ministries officer for the Army Chief of Chaplains, said there's no concrete explanation for why divorce rates climbed in 2004 or why they dropped last year. "There are many, many anecdotal reasons," he said, noting that every marriage and every divorce is different. But most likely, the stress of multiple deployments and an increased operational tempo throughout the Army played their part in the 2004 increase, Frederich acknowledged.
The divorces mounted at a time when re-enlistments surged in the Army, possibly an indication that while soldiers are committed to military life, their spouses may not be, noted Chaplain (Col.) Glen Bloomstrom, director of ministry initiatives for the Army Chief of Chaplains. An informal survey conducted by the Army in February 2005 showed that soldiers and their spouses or significant others rated the loss of a relationship as their top deployment concern -- above death or injury, Bloomstrom said.
Recognizing the stresses military life and multiple deployments put on couples, the Army and other services have stepped up their efforts to help military families strengthen their relationships and avoid the divorce courts. The programs recognize the fact that strong, happy families are more likely to stay in the military and that troops not distracted by relationship problems are less likely to be able to focus on their mission, officials said.
In response, a full range of programs -- from support groups for spouses of deployed troops to weekend retreats for military couples -- aims to help military families endure the hardships that military life often imposes. These programs are offered through the services' family support, chaplain and mental health counseling networks. For example, the Army's offerings include:
- The Deployment Cycle Support Program, which includes briefings for soldiers on how their absence and return may affect their family relationships and how they can cope with the inevitable changes;
- A family support group system that provides both practical and emotional support for spouses of deployed soldiers;
- The Military OneSource program, which serves as a clearinghouse to steer soldiers and families to resources to support them;
- The Building Strong and Ready Families program, a two-day program that helps couples develop better communication skills, reinforced by a weekend retreat;
- The Strong Bonds marriage education program, which focuses specifically on issues that affect Reserve and National Guard couples; and
- The P.I.C.K. a Partner program (Premarital Interpersonal Choices and Knowledge), which helps single soldiers make wise decisions when they choose mates.
Soldiers and their families are tapping into these offerings. During 2006 alone, 10,000 soldiers are projected to attend the Building Strong and Ready Families and P.I.C.K. a Partner programs, Bloomstrom said. It's a number he said the Army would like to see increase even more, particularly because 54 percent of soldiers are married.
Battle Mind, an Army program to help troops adjust to peacetime after returning from a combat deployment, also is incorporating relationship issues into the curriculum, Bloomstrom said. During the program, a mental health professional or chaplain meets with small groups of soldiers to talk about the importance of relationships in dealing with combat stress, he said.
By helping couples understand the issues they face, improve the way they communicate and learn how to deal with conflict, these programs are providing critical tools that will help marriages and families endure, the chaplains said.
The programs' contribution can't be measured simply by monitoring divorce rates, Frederich said.
"The real success story is not so much told in numbers as in Private and Mrs. Jones who love each other (and) will be there for each other," he said. "She knows he is in her court, (and) he knows she is going to back him up and take care of things while he is at war. That is the real story.
"And I really believe in my heart of hearts that what we are doing for thousands of our couples is making that a more likely prospect," he said.
The Army is not alone in offering programs to help its families survive the rigors of deployments and strengthen their relationships in the process.
The Marine Corps' Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program is a two-day workshop that teaches couples how to manage conflict, solve problems, communicate effectively and preserve and enhance their commitment and friendship, Marine officials said. Participants begin the program by taking a marriage survey, developed by a retired Navy chaplain, to help them evaluate their relationship and identify problems before they become serious. The four top problems generally involve communication, children and parenting, money and sexual intimacy, a Navy chaplain involved in the program said.
The Marine program focuses on what the chaplain calls "the mother lode of all issues" that can affect marriages: communication. "If you don't have good communication skills, you can't talk about the rest of the issues," he said.
The Navy has a similar program in its Marriage Enrichment Retreat. This weekend getaway is designed to give Navy couples the tools they need to help strengthen their marriages, a Navy spokeswoman said. Participants begin the weekend session by getting a profile of their personalities, then attending sessions on marital communication, personality and family dynamics, and problems associated with military separation, she said.
While the Air Force does not have servicewide marital support programs, Air Force officials said individual bases offer a wide variety of programs to support military families and help them through separations, deployments and the stresses relating to them.
Bloomstrom said he's optimistic about the emphasis the military services are putting on programs for married servicemembers. The goal, he said, is to help couples recognize and address danger signs before they escalate.