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Military Marriage Rates Look Like The 1950s

A new study challenges conventional views for why marriage rates are so high in the military by looking at family-formation policies rather than income incentives alone.

Compared to civilians, the marriage rate in the military is astoundingly high, and most sociologists point to the deinstitutionalization of marriage as the culprit for the steady decline in marriage rates among the civilian population. For the military, on the other hand, marriage has been reinstitutionalized, but the process by which this has occurred has not been especially clear to researchers.

Part of the reason for high military marriage rates is certainly due to financial benefits. While low-ranking enlistees have to live in military barracks, upon marriage, they’re allowed their own private housing with subsidized rent, which allows for more privacy.

“While previous explanations for high military marriage rates have focused primarily on the incentives provided by housing benefits for married couples, housing benefits are but a small piece of the puzzle,” sociologist Jennifer Lundquist, the author of the study, said.

Lundquist and co-researcher Zhun Xu from Renmin University of China found that while income incentives certainly form part of the motivation, structural conditions, such as war deployment and frequent relocation, are made far more bearable when military personnel are married.

After the Korean War, the Pentagon realized that the best way to boost retention rates would be to adopt family-friendly policies: day care, school, housing, and more. Previously military service was thought to delay the transition to adulthood, but the introduction of those policies in the post-1973 era led to a complete reversal. The transition to adulthood is now able to occur faster in the military, which is markedly different than in the civilian sphere where education delays family-formation.

“The military is innately structured to encourage early marriage among its recruits so that it can function efficiently,” Lundquist added.

Stable employment and generous benefits for family-formation, in addition to the psychological benefits conferred by marriage, all work together to create a marriage rate matching the 1950s. Since the military frequently requires relocation, spouses are often unable to accumulate career experience and so fall into more traditional homemaker roles, meaning that benefits provided by the military have to increase to make the traditional, sole-breadwinner arrangement possible. Another study in 2012 found that military marriages display a certain resiliency not found in civilian marriages, and researchers cited the military’s positive stance on traditionalism as a possible motivating factor.

“My sense is that she’s right on the money. She’s saying that the military does a lot of things that make marriage a viable option for service members in a way that it might not be for comparable civilians,” RAND Corp researcher Benjamin Karney told Military.com. “Given the military’s policy of including families in military moves but not unmarried families, well, then it makes all the sense in the world that service members will enter into the [marriage] institution so they can get the support they need.”

Over a period of 11 months, Lundquist and Zhun Xu conducted in-depth interviews with Army couples in Germany before writing up their findings in the Journal of Marriage and the Family. The average age of the interviewees was 22.

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