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Staff Perspective: Male Military Spouses -“Invisible” Family Members?

Staff Perspective: Male Military Spouses -“Invisible” Family Members?

Recently there was a big discussion in a military spouse Facebook group that I am a member of over a new series in the Military Times called the “Mom-to-Mom Guide for Military Families,” which is a collection of Q&A contributions from military moms.  I haven’t read the entire series, but the first entry incudes a spouse’s answers to questions about the challenges of maintaining her career as a military spouse, her children’s educational experiences, and the challenges of moving her children into new schools during a PCS move … none of which are experiences that are limited to military moms.  One of the few male spouses who is a part of the group expressed his frustration at the title of the series, noting that it is just one example of how male military spouses are often marginalized and can be invisible to many within the military community.

This got me thinking about the experiences of male military spouses, a population which we know is a small subset of the overall military spouse population.  The 2013 Demographics Profile of the Military Community does not break out the number/percentage of male military spouses, but we do know that of the 756,767 married active duty Service members, 88% are male and 12% are female … and since this data was collected prior to same-sex spouses being legally recognized by the military, we can assume that approximately 12% of spouses (90,733 spouses) are male.

An article posted on Military OneSource entitled Life as a Male Military Spouse describes some of the potential challenges associated with being a male military spouse:

  • Others may assume they’re the Service member – many people, both within and outside of the military, will automatically assume that the active duty member in a military couple is the male.  Thus, male military spouses may find themselves constantly having to explain that they’re the civilian, while their wife is, in fact, the military member.
  • Role/identity clash – a male military spouse’s role in the marriage may clash with their identity as a male (this can be particularly true if male spouses are unemployed or the primary caregivers for children).  While this type of role reversal can also be difficult in civilian settings, it can be particularly challenging in the military environment, which often emphasizes traditional ideas of masculinity.
  • Isolation – given the low number of male military spouses, they may feel isolated, particularly when PCS’ing to a new area and away from family and/or friends.  Male military spouses also may find that they have little in common both with other military spouses (who are probably women) and the other men in the military community (who are likely Service members).
  • Less likely to seek support – men are generally less likely to seek out support from installation or community programs and less likely to turn to other military spouses (who are predominantly female) as a resource for information and/or source of support.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there is very little research looking specifically at the experiences of male military spouses.  Most of what we know about military families comes from studies of families with male Service members (families of female Service members are often excluded from these studies due to their low numbers).  A recent article published in the January supplemental issue of Military Medicine, The Many Faces of Military Families: Unique Features of the Lives of Female Service Members authored by K. Southwell and S. MacDermid Wadsworth, takes a look at this issue.  The authors conducted a mixed-methods study that aimed to a) review the similarities and differences in the demographic characteristics of the families of male and female Service members, and b) gain an increased understanding of the perspective of civilian husbands regarding the challenges and benefits related to their wives’ military service.

Study 1 (review of demographic data)

There is evidence showing that female Service members are more likely to divorce than their male counterparts (Karney & Crown, 2007; Negrusa et al. 2014).  Negrusa et al. also found that those who are in dual-military marriages are also at increased risk of marital dissolution, which is salient as there are significantly more females in dual-military marriages than males (active duty female Service members are almost 7 times as likely to be part of a dual-military family than their male counterparts).  Demographic data also suggest that active duty females are more likely to be single parents than their male counterparts (11.8% vs. 4.1%).

The authors also presented findings from a secondary analysis of data from the 2010 wave of the Military Family Life Project (MLFP), the first large-scale, representative, DoD-wide survey of military families that was designed to increase understanding of the impact of military life events on active duty families.  The sample consisted of 28,552 male and female spouses of active duty Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force Service members.  Analyses indicated statistically significant differences in male and female Service members’ step-family structures.

  • Female Service members were more likely to be in step-families than male Service members
  • Families of female Service members were more than twice as likely to include children from Service members’ prior relationships
  • Male Service members were more likely to be part of families that include children from the non-military spouses’ previous relationship

I found this information about step-families to be of particular interest, as this type of data is not generally included in the annual demographics report published by the DoD.

Analyses were also conducted to examine the experiences and perceptions of military spouses, and some differences were noted.  Relative to wives (married to a male active duty Service member), husbands (married to a female active duty Service member) reported:

  • Experiencing significantly fewer deployments
  • Working significantly more hours per week
  • Needing more weeks to find a job following a PCS move
  • Experiencing somewhat better financial condition and less depression
  • Experiencing lower marital satisfaction and significantly less social support
  • Feeling less satisfied with the military lifestyle
  • Being less likely to indicate that their spouse should remain in military service

Study 2 (perspective of civilian husbands)

Data from the second study came from a larger study of civilian husbands of active duty Servicewomen.  In-depth telephone interviews were conducted with 20 civilian husbands from 11 different states.  Husbands had to have been married for at least 3 years in order to be eligible to participate, and those in dual-military marriages were excluded.  Participants were asked questions about both the major challenges and benefits they experienced in the relationship as a result of their wives’ military service.

Qualitative analyses showed that while in some ways civilian husbands’ responses were similar to the perceptions of female spouses, they differed in others.  Themes that were noted regarding the perceptions of benefits gained from wives’ service included:

  • Resources and financial benefits
  • A sense of pride and mission
  • Strengthened relationships with children and spouses

Themes that were noted regarding perceptions of challenges experienced from wives’ service included:

  • Wives’ work demands
  • Integration in the military community
  • Internal conflict with performing nontraditional gender roles

Husbands’ perceptions of benefits were generally similar to those that have previously been reported by wives of male Service members, but they diverged from those of wives regarding the challenges of being married to someone in the military.  While husbands’ perceptions that military work demands interfere with family life is similar to findings from previous research on military wives, the other key themes that were noted were more unique.  The civilian husbands in this study noted difficulties “fitting in” to the military community because of their non-traditional roles and their minority status as male spouses.  Additionally, those who held traditional gender ideologies reported challenges achieving satisfaction with the not-traditional roles of “homemaker” and/or “non-primary breadwinner.”

While this study is only a preliminary attempt at understanding the lives of female Service members (and their civilian husbands), I am excited to see this issue being addressed in the military psychology literature.

Marjorie Weinstock, Ph.D. is the Lead, Military Families & CBT for Depression at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.

References:

Karney, B. R. & Crown, J. S. (2007). Families under stress: An assessment of data, theory, and research on marriage and divorce in the military (RAND Document No. MG-599-OSD). Santa Monica, CA: The RAND Corporation.

Military OneSource (n.d.). Life as a male military spouse. Retrieved September 24, 2015 from http://www.militaryonesource.mil/health-wellness/marriage?content_id=274612

Negrusa, S., Negrusa, B., & Hosek, J. (2014). Gone to war: Have deployments increased divorces? Journal of Population Economics, 27(2), 473-496. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/S00148-013-0485-5

Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Military Community & Family Policy. (2014). 2013 demographics profile of the military community. Retrieved from: http://www.militaryonesource.mil/12038/MOS/Reports/2013-Demographics-Rep...

Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Military Community & Family Policy. (2015). Military family life project: Active duty spouse study: Project report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense. Retrieved from http://www.militaryonesource.mil/12038/MOS/Reports/MFLP-Longitudinal-Ana...

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, 181:1, 70-79. http://dx.doi.org/10.7205/MILMED-D-15-00193

Staff Perspective: Male Military Spouses -“Invisible” Family Members? | Center for Deployment Psychology

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