Until Death Do Us Part?

By Captain E. T. Gomulka, Chaplain Corps, U.S. Navy

The disparity in pay and benefits between married and single personnel continues to encourage more first-term troops to marry. For example, 25% of fiscal year 1985 U.S. Marine Corps accessions were married by September 1987, within two years of their enlistment. In comparison, for fiscal year 1993 Marine Corps accessions, 31% were married by September 1995, and 55% were married by September 1997.

Along with this rising marriage rate, there has been a concomitant increase in the military divorce rate. The reasons are numerous. In addition to the stress that results from multiple and lengthy deployments, there is the fact that military personnel marry at younger ages. Unlike their civilian counterparts, who wait until their mid- to late-twenties to tie the knot, many military personnel wed before they turn 25. An individual's potential for change is far greater between 20 and 25 than it is between 25 and 30. It is no wonder that many military couples look at one another and say, "You are not the same person I married."

In 1993, when the Marine Corps attempted to introduce policies to improve family life and reduce its high divorce rate, it amassed a considerable amount of research. One report showed that married first-term Marines were "twice as likely to receive personality-disorder discharges, three times more likely to receive a hardship discharge, and five times more likely to have made a suicide attempt or gesture than unmarried first-term Marines." What this and the other data indicated is that a large number of young Marines are not prepared for marriage.

The Marine Corps' efforts were supported by the Department of Defense study, "Family Status and Initial Term Service," but the naval services have yet to implement many of the proposals contained in the report. For example, one major recommendation was to offer credible and relevant premarital education programs within each service. Five years later, however, most sailors and Marines still marry without any required premarital instruction. Some chaplains and Family Service Centers offer optional programs, but they touch only a very small percentage of military personnel. Consequently, the vast majority of those who marry, many before completing their first term, do so without any formal preparation.

The effects of divorce in the military often go unreported, but research from the National Institute for Healthcare reveals that divorce has broad economic and public health consequences. They include:

  • The hospital admission rate is 2,100% higher for divorced or separated men than for married men.
  • Divorce is the number one factor linked with suicide rates in large U.S. cities, outstripping other important social and economic predictors.
  • Children whose parents divorced during their teenage years were more likely to be involved in substance abuse than adolescents from intact families.
  • Children who have experienced divorce often score worse on measures of self-esteem, psychological adjustment, and emotional and behavioral problems than do children living with intact families or even children living with single mothers who have never been married.
  • Children from disrupted families are more likely to drop out of high school. Those who do graduate are less likely to go on to college. This lack of educational achievement may predispose them to long-term underemployment and even unemployment.

Obviously, these problems affect military families, but what can be done?

The naval services will not reduce their divorce rate by recruiting only single men and women. The issue of married recruits is not—and never was—an important element of the problem. This is true because relatively few recruits are married when they enter service. By the end of their first terms, however, about half of male enlisted personnel are married.

If they are to reduce divorce rates, the sea services must begin by developing mandatory premarital preparation programs, as recommended in the 1993 Department of Defense report. The chances for successful marriage are significantly higher among couples who participate in these types of programs. Basic training in such areas as communication, finances, and conflict resolution will help couples avoid becoming part of the divorce body count.

The cost to implement such a program would be very low, when you consider that the expertise already exists and is in place at most commands. Staff personnel at Family Service Centers and base chaplains are qualified to offer marriage preparation, and working together with legal, medical, and other resources they could offer two or three-day programs that cover a full range of marriage preparation topics. What is needed is for military leaders to make premarital training required.

Religious groups that require marriage preparation report that approximately 20% of those who participate in such programs decide not to marry. Once couples are helped to realize that marriage is far more complicated and involved than it might sometimes appear, some have second thoughts. This may be a disappointment to one or both of the parties, but it almost always is better to separate before rather than after the wedding. Mandatory marriage preparation for military personnel could have similar results, reducing the number of marriages prone to divorce and even decreasing the number of unhappily married military couples whose inability to communicate and resolve conflicts deprive them of better relationships.

If sea service personnel are required to participate in premarital training, instruction should be offered at intervals that will not unduly delay their marriage plans, yet at the same time, will afford them an opportunity to reflect on the seriousness and obligations of a lifelong commitment. If the training were offered semiannually, couples could, in some cases, wait up to six months before marrying. There is merit in this idea. Many religious groups require a six-month waiting period because, again, 10-20% of couples change their minds when they are asked to wait. Over the course of six months, they may meet someone else, or they may discover things about each other that cause them to cancel or postpone their wedding plans. With deployments and operational commitments, however, this semiannual schedule could mean much longer postponements for military personnel.

To avoid unreasonable delays, while at the same time discouraging impulsive decisions that may be regretted later, I propose that premarital training be offered tri-annually. Such a schedule would mean that couples would have to wait, at the most, four months before completing the training. Most couples need at least that much time to prepare for their weddings.

By reducing instances of divorce and marital discord, premarital training also could decrease the amount of time affected personnel, their chains of command, and various support staff (e.g., chaplains, Family Service Center personnel, and legal assistance officers) spend on non-mission matters. As an example, U.S. Naval Legal Service Office Europe & Southwest Asia Detachment Sigonella reported that one-third (455) of its legal assistance appointments in fiscal year 1997 involved divorce or divorce-related issues. This is on a base with an active duty population of fewer than 3,000 persons, all of whom "screened" with their families for overseas duty. The Chaplain Department and the Family Service Center reported that more than half of their counseling and professional services involve assisting married couples or those involved in relationships. In most of these cases, the active duty member is taking time off from work for counseling and to take care of "personal matters" related to early return of dependents, separation, and divorce. In many cases, chains of command become involved in processing early return of dependents and resolving disputes about support of dependents. Frequently these cases involve family advocacy matters, which take additional time away from mission focus.

Waivers for premarital training could be authorized in special circumstances by the Chief of Naval Personnel or a designated second-echelon commander, with favorable endorsements from the member's commanding officer and other appropriate advisors (e.g., chaplain, Family Service Center, or staff judge advocate). Waivers should be the exception and generally should be discouraged, to avoid undermining the program. Couples enamored with deadlines, such as deployment or transfer, always will argue that their situation is special.

What, for example, about the hypothetical sailor who impregnates the girl next door and wants to marry quickly? Premarital training could delay the wedding—though tri-annual intervals would make it possible for the marriage still to occur prior to the child's birth—but such "shotgun" marriages are the kind most likely to fail and therefore are the type most likely to benefit from this program. Waiting and completing the premarital education may move some couples to realize that, although they share a child, they are not ready to share a life as husband and wife. The service member still is required to support the child, regardless of whether they marry.

Could a couple substitute outside marriage preparation classes for military premarital training? No. Most civilian programs do an excellent job covering communication, conflict resolution, and so on, but few deal with the unique challenges military couples face—multiple, long term separations, frequent moves, overseas duty at remote sites, and the stress of routinely going into harm's way. In light of these issues, military personnel still should be required to undergo the more specialized training offered by the services.

We often say our people are our most important assets. If this is more than just a catchy slogan, we need to take steps to prevent them from becoming divorce statistics, and from experiencing the problems of suicide, early death, substance abuse, low academic achievement, and unemployment that often come with it. The first step should be for our senior naval leadership to implement the recommendation of the 1993 Defense family study and make premarital training mandatory.

Captain Gomulka is the Command Chaplain at Naval Air Station, Sigonella, Sicily. With Lieutenant General M.T. Cooper, USMC (Ret.), he coauthored the core values adopted by the Marine Corps and later embraced by the Navy. His previous assignments include Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps; the U.S. Naval Academy; the Navy Chief of Chaplains’ Office; U.S. Sixth Fleet; 2d Marine Division; the USS Wisconsin (BB-64); and Naval Amphibious Base, Coronado.



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