11/10/2012 02:58 am ET Updated Jan 09, 2013

Will Marriages Be a Casualty of Post-9/11 Conflicts, Too?

You've been waiting for your husband to come home from serving in the military overseas.
You're not sure what to expect, but all your favorite women's magazines and websites, advice columnists and TV relationships experts are telling you that the fate of your marriage rests in your hands.

Would you question Oprah if she advised you to "accustom yourself, in deadly earnest, that he won't seem so wonderful when he returns as he did when he went away. Make up your mind that he will come back less than you expected, but that in the meanwhile you will make every effort to greet him with more than he expected. If you can do that, then any surprise is likely to be a pleasant one instead of a shocking one."

Or Dr. Phil if he suggested that you'd better prepare yourself because "marriage with a veteran is a job and not a simple realization of fantasies"?

What wife isn't going to get the message loud and clear: Only you can keep your marriage from ending in divorce.

It seems incredibly unfair that marital experts would seemingly conspire to make the success of a marriage solely a wife's responsibility. But that's basically what happened to World War II brides, or so historian Kristin Celello details in her intriguing book, Making Marriage Work, which examines how Americans came to see marriage as "work" and that it was a job to keep marriages together.

Of course, the above quotes aren't from Oprah and Dr. Phil; the former quote is from Paul Popenoe, a botanist-tuned-marriage counselor and creator of the long-running "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" column, and the latter is from psychoanalyst Therese Benedek; both were among the marital experts in the 1940s who set the stage for what was to only to intensify in the decades that followed -- the idea "that a failed marriage was strong evidence of individual shortcomings, primarily on the part of the wife," Celello writes. "In the ensuing years, the ability to hold a marriage together, for better or for worse, became the very definition of marital and wifely success."

Who knows if that's why World War II veterans had a much easier time transitioning back to civilian life than today's vets. But being married certainly isn't helping post-9/11 veterans readjust; in fact, "post-9/11 veterans who were married while they served had a significantly more difficult time readjusting than did married veterans of past eras or single people regardless of when they served... being married while serving reduces the chances of an easy re-entry from 63% to 48%," according to the Pew Research Centers.


Deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, the longest combat operations since Vietnam, added huge stress on many vets' marriages:

"Nearly half (48%) say the impact was negative, and this group is significantly more likely than other veterans to have had family problems after they were discharged (77% vs. 34%) and to say they had a difficult re-entry. Among those married while they were in the service, about six-in-ten (61%) post-9/11 veterans who had experienced marital problems while deployed also had a difficult re-entry. In contrast, about four-in-ten veterans (39%) who reported that deployments had a positive or no impact on their marriage say they had problems re-entering civilian life."

Perhaps it isn't such a bad idea for spouses awaiting their return of their husbands and wives from Afghanistan in a few years to prepare themselves, as the war brides were instructed, although few are getting the help they need.

Veterans are returning with a host of problems, everything from sexual dysfunction to post-traumatic stress. According to Pew, almost half of all vets (46 percent) say they're living with post-traumatic stress (PTS); the Veterans Administration puts the number between 10 percent and 18 percent and the Institute of Medicine says 13 percent to 20 percent have symptoms of PTS. Many more go undiagnosed.

There's no way to know what that may mean down the road for the married vets with PTSD, but if it's anything like the experience of veterans who returned from Vietnam, we may see a huge jump in the divorce rate in the next few years. According to the VA, about 38 percent of Vietnam veteran's marriages ended within six months of their return. Vietnam veterans with PTSD divorced two times more than veterans without PTSD, and they were three times more likely to divorce two or more times.

Of course, PTSD isn't the only challenge facing post 9/11 vets -- some 40,000 have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury (TBI) from combat (and tens of thousands more from non-combat). Brain injury brings with it its own complications, including drastic personality changes, all of which can challenge a marriage. Recent studies indicate that about 25 percent of those who have TBI end up divorced or separated.

It's clear that some marriages may be yet another casualty of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

This time, however, it's unlikely wives single-handedly will be able to fix things.

A version of this story appeared on Vicki Larson's personal blog, OMG Chronicles.