Doomed to Cheat?


My good friend Stephanie Himel-Nelson leads a weekly live chat session on military issues at The Washington’s Post website. This week’s topic? Infidelity in the military. Stephanie called on Andrew London, one of the authors of a recent study that found a higher prevalence of infidelity among veterans than among those who had never served, and had him respond to questions during the chat session. You can read the report on the study here.

In fact, the lead sentence of the report reads: “Veterans were significantly more likely to have ever engaged in extramarital sex and ever gotten divorced than people who were never in the military.” Significantly. Ouch. Later the report says this: “However, even though the reported rates of infidelity were significantly (there’s that word again- RS)  higher for veterans than non-veterans, extramarital sex was only reported by one-third of ever-married veteran respondents.” Only one-third? Only?! So, think of your two best mil-couple friends, if it’s not them cheating then it’s you. That stings even more.

Granted, the study was based on 1992 data and a whole lot has changed in two decades. But has it changed for the better? I doubt it. Factor in 10 years of long deployments, a greater number of men and women serving together on those long deployments, more spouses left at home and lonely, and an ever-weakening societal attitude towards infidelity (Remember: The data for this survey was PRE Clinton-Lewinsky)  and I suspect the cheating problem has only grown worse, not better. And, before you ask, the report doesn’t offer any theories as to why veterans are more likely to cheat and it doesn’t distinguish between service veterans and combat veterans. In the chat session on the Washington Post site, London does address the “why” question this way:

“This is a great question.  In our research, we can document an association between veteran status and extramarital sex, but we don’t know whether the extramarital sex occurred prior to the period of active duty, during it, or after it.  Certainly, deployment-related separations may be a factor, but that may not be the only factor.  For example, if veterans are more likely to be in occupations that involve travel away from home, then they may have more opportunity to engage in extramarital relationships.  This would be one mechanism that could contribute to the association we observe.  We need new data to examine possibilities.”

A fairly unsatisfactory answer, if you ask me. If long and frequent separations are the primary reason for infidelity, I’d love to see a follow up study comparing the rate of infidelity among veterans with that of say, airline personnel and business travelers.

London’s study raises an interesting and alarming point but raises even more questions. I’d like to see similar studies with more recent data released as this seems to be a very real problem in our community. And I’d love to see studies that also look at the rate of mental health problems and suicide in the military community compared with the infidelity studies. My suspicion is that there is a very strong link between infidelity, depression and suicide and that if we truly want to fix the mental health of our military families, we need to first fix the families.