There has been a lot of discussion in the last few weeks about the declining marriage rates among young adults in the United States. According to a recent Pew Research report, a record number of adults in the United States—1 in five adults age 25 and older—have never been married. Harry Benson has argued on this blog that the trends are much the same in the U.K. Philip Cohen has argued that the downward trend is, in fact, global.
But there does seem to be at least one group of young adults who are bucking the trend: The U.S. military is still characterized by high—and early—marriage rates. According to one study, military men are slightly more likely to be married than civilian men and junior enlistees are “nearly twice as likely to be married as civilians aged eighteen to twenty-four years.” Comparing the military sample of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY79) with selected women from civilian samples from 1979 to 1984, Jennifer Lundquist and Herbert Smith found that young female enlistees continually had higher marriage rates than their civilian counterparts.
What accounts for the difference?
According to a recently published narrative study by Jennifer Lundquist and Zhun Xu, there are three structural elements of military life that act as marriage catalysts: War-zone deployment, relocation assignments, and the institutional support and socioeconomic stability of the military.
War Zone Deployment
In their interviews Lundquist and Xu found that “military marriages sometimes occur in response to imminent war separation.” Respondents described marriage in a deployment situation as providing a layer of security and stability. Marriage gives soldiers someone to come home to and a way to remain emotionally connected to their partners. It gave spouses at home the security of knowing their family would be taken care of should their partner die on deployment. As one respondent explained, “It was the best option to take care of my daughter and myself.”
The most common marriage catalyst, Lundquist and Xu found, was a permanent change of station (PCS). Service members can face relocation every 2–3 years. “Whether married, single, or a dependent,” the researchers write, “relocation loomed large as an anticipated event in the lives of each of the interviewees. It was described as a distinct turning point in the life course of a romantic relationship when couples were forced to make a decision.” If a couple marries, the military will pay the relocation cost for the spouse and other family members. If a couple chooses not to wed, they face permanent separation. PCS effectively stamps a “sell by” date on romantic relationships. As one respondent said: “[Marriage] is a way to save their relationship . . . because, no matter what [Military Occupational Specialty] or position, it’s impossible to have a stable relationship.”
Socioeconomic Stability and Institutional Support
Lundquist and Xu found that the servicemen and women they interviewed favorably compared their own socioeconomic situation to that of their civilian peers. The military provides a steady income, good benefits, and job training. Economic stability “emerged as a major undercurrent” in each of their interviews.
Marriage, Lundquist and Xu argue, has also been made “deliberately compatible” with military life. As noted, the military will pay the full relocation cost for each member of a service member’s family. Doing so provides a “crucial way for the military to ensure a portable support system for its employees.” The military also provides “family health coverage, housing, day care services, [and] schooling systems,” plus direct support for married couples. As one respondent explained:
Once a month, there’s a marriage retreat . . . You have to go through counseling, but you get free lodging at the Army resort, get to see the Alps. It’s like a free vacation. . . . Outside the military, you have to pay for that stuff, to go see a counselor. . . . The military has a lot of things in place for it.
This institutional support for marriage is not disinterested. As Lundquist and Xu note, the family members of servicemen and women are also enlisted in service: They provide emotional support and caretaking labor that the military would be hard-pressed to supply, they help reintegrate servicemen and women into civilian life, and they provide care for injured veterans. (In the United States 5.5 million individuals provide unpaid care for family members who are current or former military employees.)
Comparing marriage in the military to marriage in civilian life may seem like comparing apples to oranges. As Lundquist and Xu note, “our main application to civilian trends is one of contrast, not similarity. In the highly individualistic, market-driven policy context of the United States, the transition to adulthood has been very weakly supported by the state.”
But I think Lundquist and Xu’s interviews bring out an important point about marriage in general: The military men and women they interviewed, for the most part, did not choose to marry for the sake of the benefits the military would provide them for doing so. Rather, marriage, the respondents reported, provided benefits the military could not supply: emotional support, personal care, something to live for, constancy in a life that is constant change. Marriage seems to be a unique good. But the material benefits and support network that the military provided made it possible for the respondents to choose this unique good.