Vulnerability, autonomy, power, and resilience: a socio-legal examination of the issues faced by military wives post-LASPO

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: School of Law


This research will examine the experiences of women previously married to serving members of the Armed Forces, by exploring issues of vulnerability (Fineman, 2008), resilience (Riggs & Riggs, 2011), power (Pyke, 1994), and autonomy (Barlow, 2015; Fineman, 2008). Military families face a unique combination of challenges: lengthy deployments; frequent relocations; unpredictable schedules; long hours; as well as relatively low pay and benefits (Karney, Loughran, & Pollard, 2012; Martin, Rosen, & Sparacino, 2000). Anecdotally, it appears that military wives have limited opportunities to either possess or command resources, and thus, as Fineman (2008) argues, may be particularly vulnerable postdivorce. As an example, whilst the serving members continue to have access to support services from the military (welfare services, housing, etc.), regardless of their official status on the Joint Personnel Administration (JPA), wives and children are given an eviction notice, and given 93 days to vacate from Service Families Accommodation (SFA) as soon as their spouses change their status to 'separated'. Further, upon vacating SFA, military families no longer have access to the social support networks (e.g from other military wives), nor are they able to access military
welfare services. Thus, the institution itself may serve to further exacerbate vulnerability in the case of military wives. With current family law adopting a liberal ideology, which favours autonomy, self-sufficiency and personal responsibility (Fineman, 2008), such an approach appears to be problematic when applied to military families.

A mixed methods approach will be used by conducting i) 3 focus groups with family lawyers, and ii) 30 interviews with military wives post-separation. This exploratory qualitative study will allow a nuanced understanding of the needs of separated military families, as well as a case study of the key theoretical concepts within family law of autonomy and resilience and how they operate in this specific context.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
1927749 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 31/03/2021 Donna Crowe-Urbaniak
Description This work examines civilian women's experiences of being married to, and divorced from, servicemen in the British military and theorises vulnerability and dependancy in this context. Drawing on qualitative research of 32 semi-structured interviews with recently divorced military wives, I argue that the socio-spatial boundaries between the public and private peculiar to military family life, and the institutional incorporation of wives within the military context, entrench women's dependancy during marriage, and compound vulnerability post-divorce.
Military commitments limit the ability of serving members to contribute to the demands of family life; the effect being that many military wives become 'pseudo single parents'; bearing the burden of domestic responsibilities. As such, opportunities for education, and career development are significantly curtailed. Whilst a marriage remains intact, such decisions are perceived as being in the best interests of the family, however, upon divorce, such decisions may significantly disadvantage one of the parties.
This study illustrates that military wives' outcomes post-divorce continue to be framed, and limited by, this incorporation, compounding the disadvantage experienced in their post-divorce lives. The findings indicate that military wives' participation in the labour market is limited by their 'pseudo-single-parenthood' as a result of their husbands' military service; indeed, the expectation that wives will perform, and the military's reliance on such labour is communicated through official documents and institutional welfare services which lead to compulsory dependancy for wives. As a consequence, military wives' ability to become financial independent during marriage is significantly curtailed. Upon divorce, and as a consequence of this imposed compulsory dependance, military wives continue to have their post-divorce lives limited by the legacy of military life.
Exploitation Route 1. Contribution to the field:
Little is known about the 'no-order' population, i.e. couples who negotiate and conclude their divorce settlements without a financial order. The findings of this research shed light on how couples make decisions regarding financial settlements and childcare arrangements in the absence of legal advice. The research found that couples rely on legal 'myths' to determine what was fair to them, with limited knowledge and understanding of the legal principles guiding such settlements.
2. Government Policy:
The research finding have implications for policy, particularly with regards to reform of financial provision. A private members' bill, Divorce (Financial Provision) HL Bill (2019-2020), has been introduced, proposing a modernisation of the statutory approach. The findings of this research highlight the needs of the no-order population, and determines that the bill will offer no protections, nor clear guidance for such couples.
3. Military Policy:
This research highlights the vulnerable position of civilian women who divorce their military husbands. Whilst transition preparation is available to serving members and their families upon leaving service, women who transition as a result of divorce are offered no formal support. This research highlights gaps in support, and offers suggestions for reform.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice

Description Armed Forces Families Federation Engagement Activities 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Supporters
Results and Impact Throughout the research project, I have worked closely with the Armed Forces Families Federations (the AFF, RAFFF, and RNFF), to understand their perspective on the needs of separating military families, and in particular, the experiences of military wives. We have met throughout the project to receive their input on the form the project took (e.g. asking the 'right' questions), reporting initial findings, and presenting recommendations for policy change. They are committed to using the findings of research to present evidence-based needs to the Ministry of Defence in order to develop policy that better meets the needs of military families.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018,2019