“Because of the stressors that have been on the military and military families, particularly in the last decade, it’s easy to focus on the difficulty and dysfunction of their marriages,” said Jared Anderson, assistant professor of family studies and human services at K-State. “But I think one of the things that this study does is look at what makes these families resilient in the midst of ongoing stress.”
K-State researchers in family studies and human services studied the marital quality of military couples and identified factors that relate to relationship distress. Their findings showed that the vast majority of people in the sample were non-distressed in their relationship. The researchers include Anderson; Matthew Johnson, graduate student in marriage and family therapy, Manhattan; and Laura Cline, senior in family studies and human services, Overland Park, and a 2006 graduate of Blue Valley High School, Stilwell.
Anderson studies how couples develop and maintain strong marriages, and conversely, the factors that contribute to relationship problems. By understanding factors associated with distress, he said interventions could be developed to target at-risk marriages.
“I think it’s just as important, or more important, to learn factors of non-distressed marriages because that gives us a picture into what we can actually do to replicate that for other families,” Anderson said.
He said there is much information about successful civilian marriages, which can be partly applied to military marriages, though there are differences. The researchers said it is important to understand marital quality in military couples because it’s associated with marital stability and personal well-being. Additionally, the quality of a soldier’s marriage has potential implications for soldier retention and readiness.
The study used data collected in spring 2008 and included a sample of 700 U.S. Army soldiers and 390 spouses of soldiers at Fort Riley. Participants completed a survey that included demographic and quality of life questions, including measures for marital satisfaction.
After analyzing the data, the researchers found that the majority of the participants fell in the non-distressed range of their marital satisfaction. The findings showed that 81 percent of soldiers and 85 percent of spouses were categorized as relationally non-distressed.
The researchers also looked at factors that differentiated the participants categorized as distressed and non-distressed in their relationship. Overall, soldiers were 1.7 times more likely to be relationally distressed than the spouses of soldiers in the sample. While no factors were associated with distress or non-distress for the partners of spouses of soldiers, there were several variables linked to relational distress for soldiers.
A greater likelihood of being relationally distressed was associated with soldiers whose families did not accompany them to their current duty station and soldiers with newer marriages, who were dating or engaged versus being married and who were lower in rank.
The study also looked for an association between the number of deployments and relational distress. Almost all of the soldiers in the study sample had been deployed at least once, and one-third of the soldiers had been deployed two or more times.
“Deployment didn’t factor into distress,” Anderson said. “It’s interesting, but within context it makes sense.”
He said one reason for the finding is that literature shows that deployment is not the variable that affects being distressed or non-distressed, but instead combat exposure is the key factor.
As an undergraduate student, Cline wanted research experience in preparation for applying to graduate schools. She said researching military couples is an interesting niche that will help prepare her for graduate studies in marriage and family therapy.
“I have a real passion for military families as a whole,” Cline said. “I’m fascinated by them and the way they’ve chosen to live and the challenges they’ve chosen to face — knowing how hard marriage is already.”
Anderson said the study has limitations, since the sample came from a single Army post and might not be representative of all Army soldiers and spouses. Further studies are planned on marital satisfaction in military couples, including research on recently engaged or married military couples.
Several people at K-State contributed to the study, including Brianna Nelson Goff, professor of family studies and human services; Sarah Lyon, graduate student in human ecology, Wellington; and Holly Gurss, spring 2009 magna cum laude graduate in psychology and family studies and human services, and a 2004 graduate of Louisburg High School. The research paper is under review for publication. Funding for the project was provided by ACA Fort Riley.