Capital News Service
When Army Capt. Stuart Hobbs joined the military two years ago, he and his wife Vanessa Hobbs worried about the strain of moving, the possibility of long separations and whether she would be able to find work.
Not at the front of their minds—fears of infidelity, an issue highlighted by Gen. David Petraeus’ extramarital affair.
But Stuart Hobbs said that the Petraeus case still highlights the pressures that military couples face.
“It definitely does say something about how tough it can be to maintain a relationship especially when you’re deployed like that,” said Hobbs, who lives in Rockville and is one of 153,000 military personnel stationed in the Washington, Maryland and Virginia area, according to 2009 U.S. Department of Defense statistics.
“But to an extent, it does stereotype [military families] because I don’t think [infidelity is] as common as that would imply.”
Instead of infidelity, members of the military and their spouses said in interviews that they are more concerned about the difficulties of keeping up their careers when their partners' assignments lead to moves every few years and family issues such as dealing with temporary single parenthood.
Military couples on average spend long periods of time apart, often with limited communication. Petraeus is an extreme example of this, as he spent more time than most military personnel overseas and away from his wife of 38 years, Holly, during his long military career.
But infidelity in the military is probably not as prevalent as people think, said Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University.
“My sense is that within military families there is a lot of worry about infidelity,” she said. “And, outside of military families I think there are a lot of stereotypes about military families [and infidelity]. And one high profile case doesn’t help to fix either of those things.”
While it is hard to find solid research on military infidelity rates, recent studies on the military divorce rate show it’s similar to the average U.S. divorce rate.
A 2012 Journal of Family Issues study found that “despite the fact that divorce rates have been rising within the military in recent years, service members are still no more likely to be divorced than comparable civilians.” Recent RAND Corporation studies also backed up this finding.
While military families said they don’t relate as much to the Petraeus infidelity issue, they do relate to anxiety over being separated.
Vanessa Hobbs said fear of potential deployments was one of the first things that came to her mind when her husband first talked of joining the Army. It turned out that as a biochemist who does research at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Capt. Hobbs is low on Army deployment lists.
Tara N. Gaston’s Navy submariner husband regularly spends long periods of time out to sea, and Gaston sometimes doesn’t hear from him for weeks. But she said a military marriage must come down to trust and communication.
“You can go to your day job and spend 10 hours there and still be unfaithful to your partner,” Gaston pointed out. “Yes, being away for six months does make it slightly easier, but if the person’s going to do it, they’re going to do it.”
“I don’t think anyone is going to be unfaithful to their spouse in the military that wouldn’t be unfaithful otherwise,” she added.
Jan Brady, a seasoned Army wife whose retired brigadier general husband spent 30 years in the service, said she thinks extramarital affairs are just as common with civilians as with military members.
She gave as an example on the same day Petraeus stepped down.
“The military is a microcosm of the United States of America,” she said. “[Infidelity] is a shame but it happens. You know why? Because the military is headed by human beings.”
Military life is comparable in some ways to the dangers faced by police officers and first responders or the long separations required of fishermen and long haul truckers, said MacDermid Wadsworth.
“What’s unique about military families is that [their experiences] combine all these things at once: danger, separation, difficult physical work and also sometimes not knowing what’s going on with the service member, not knowing what they’re doing,” she said.
MacDermid Wadsworth said that civilians also tend to think that military families are broken or damaged.
“I think it’s always very important to point out that military families in general are resilient, many feel a strong sense of calling to serve their country and they do so at considerable sacrifice,” she said.
Military families face different challenges than civilian families, she said.
“When other people your age are owning homes and working in the same place, you’re picking up and moving every three years,” said Vanessa Hobbs of the military life that’s moved her from Tennessee to Maryland.
One of the TV shows that Hobbs watched before her husband joined the Army was Lifetime’s soap opera-esque drama “Army Wives.”
But she said that unlike the show, her Army-related experience has not involved multiple deployments, base terrorist attacks, deaths, post-traumatic stress disorder, adultery or health crises.
“I haven’t really seen a lot of that drama in my husband’s work or in dealing with other military spouses,” Hobbs said.
Instead she is juggling adjunct lecturing in anatomy and physiology at Montgomery College and taking care of her 15-month-old daughter, Audrey.
Remaining a practicing lawyer is a continuing struggle for Navy wife Gaston.
She’s a licensed attorney but said she has become a “glorified paralegal” due to the difficulties of getting bar certifications in the various states the Navy has stationed her husband. Gaston said groups like the Military Spouse JD Network are trying to change state laws to help military spouses waive bar examination requirements, especially when the exams are given only a few times a year.
Another Navy wife, Leslie Rodriguez, finds it’s a challenge to look for good schools for her two kids and help them make new friends with each move.
“You take on a lot of burdens without them,” Rodriguez said of how military spouse absences affect the spouse at home.
Rodriguez’s lieutenant husband currently teaches history at the Naval Academy in Annapolis and is a prior enlisted service member who has been in the Navy for 15 years.
“I think marriage in general is hard; I think being a military wife is even harder,” Rodriguez said. “But I think it’s definitely doable. I know a lot more couples staying together than I do getting divorced.”