A consistent theme in the limited research and resources devoted to male military spouses is the feeling that this population is frequently overlooked and underserved. In 2016, CDP published a blog by Dr. Marjorie Weinstock on male military spouses, aptly titled "'Invisible' Family Members?" In her blog, Dr. Weinstock presented information from a 2016 mixed-methods study reviewing the demographics of military families and considering the perspectives of civilian male military spouses (Southwell & McDermid, 2016). Despite the fact that this study represented one of the most comprehensive sources of information about male military spouses at the time, the stated focus of the study was not the male spouse, but rather the female Service member.
Reading Dr. Weinstock’s blog recently, I began to wonder whether any progress had been made in the intervening years to better understand the experience of male military spouses. Specifically, had researchers made advances in the area of better understanding the unique perspectives and needs of male military spouses through research focused on that population? The short answer is yes, there is. But, as with the population itself, the larger answer is more nuanced. Continue reading to learn more about what we have learned since 2016.
Male Military Spouse Demographics
Thanks to changes in how demographic data are reported in the annual Demographics Profile of the Military Community, we can now report specific numbers for male military spouses. In 2018, there were 605,677 military spouses of active duty Service members, 52,941 of which were male spouses (8.7%). The Air Force had the highest proportion of male spouses (12.2%) and the Marines had the lowest (3.0%). While this information is helpful and represents an advance in the reporting of spouse demographics, the annual report still does not report spouse data broken out by gender for other important categories (i.e., gender of Service member spouse, age, employment status) making it difficult to develop a better picture of the male spouse population.
Male Military Spouse Research
We can fill in some of the demographic blanks through more recent research and literature. I was pleased to find at least two post-2016 studies that specifically reported study designs and outcomes focused on the male spouses of Service members. The first study (Lufkin, 2017) was an exploratory study of marital and quality of life ratings in male spouses that included a nice review of military family life research with a focus on the male perspective. Researchers surveyed civilian male spouses, with half of the respondents reporting being unemployed and half of those unemployed reporting a desire to find full time work. Study participants reported low levels of depression and medium to high levels of life and marital satisfaction, health, and independence. There were limitations to this study population, though. Not only was the study sample very small (n=34 male military spouses), but it also was not a good representation of the larger population demographically (e.g., higher incomes, better-educated, few spouses of enlisted Service members).
The second study (Smith, Brown, Varnado, & Stewart-Spencer, 2017) examined the relationship between deployments and marital satisfaction in 139 civilian male spouses. Contrary to the findings of medium to high levels of marital satisfaction in the Lufkin study, the researchers found that the majority of the respondents (78%) reported low marital satisfaction as measured using the Marital Adjustment Test (MAT). They also found that the length of a spouse’s deployment was a significant predictor of marital satisfaction with longer deployments associated with lower satisfaction scores. Despite the benefit of a larger sample for this study, demographic information about the participants was sparse, making it difficult to interpret or generalize the study outcomes.
Although not research per se, information about male military spouses was also included in some sections of the 2017 Blue Star Families Military Family Life Survey, specifically with regard to spousal employment. Blue Star Families reported that male military spouses were nearly twice as likely as female spouses to be employed (49% versus 27%) and more than twice as likely to earn $50K or more per year (44% versus 19%). Males were also less likely to cite family obligations and the cost of childcare as major obstacles to having a career. Finally, male military spouses were more likely than female military spouses to report conversing with civilians in the past month (69% versus 40%), suggesting different patterns of engagement across the two groups.
While there has been additional information reporting and research about male military spouses since Dr. Weinstock’s 2016 blog, our understanding of this population’s experience and perspective is still limited by methodological concerns and conflicting results. While the argument can be made that the male military spouse is no longer completely “invisible”, larger studies and more inclusive data collection/reporting methods are needed to further develop the picture and design support/resources for this population.
The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.
Jennifer M. Phillips, Ph.D., is the Assistant Director for Research and Evaluation for the Center for Deployment Psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences at Bethesda, Maryland. She joined the CDP as the Program Evaluator in 2013.
Blue Star Families (2018). 2017 Blue Star Families military families lifestyle survey. Retrieved from: https://bluestarfam.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/MFLS-ComprehensiveReport17-FINAL.pdf
Lufkin, K. P. (2017). An exploratory study of marital and quality of life ratings among male spouses of military members. Contemporary Family Therapy, 39(3), 162-171.
Smith, B. M., Brown, A. R., Varnado, T., & Stewart-Spencer, S. E. (2017). Deployments and marital satisfaction of civilian male spouses. Military and Government Counseling, 5(1), 70-85.
Southwell, K.H. & MacDermid Wadsworth, S.M. (2016). The many faces of military families: Unique features of the lives of female service members. Military Medicine, 18(1), 70-79.
Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Military Community & Family Policy. (2014). 2013 demographics profile of the military community. Retrieved from: https://download.militaryonesource.mil/12038/MOS/Reports/2018-demographics-report.pdf