Spotlight on Research

Relationship between Marine Corps wives' stress and perceived social support

Social support plays a critical role in family well-being among military personnel, but is it enough?

By Jennifer Woodworth, PsyD, Gerardo Canul, PhD, and Eric Morrison, PhD

The following article describes research conducted to understand the role that social support plays in buffering feelings of stress among wives of Marine Corps personnel. The research described in this column examined a number of factors related to perceived stress, as well as social support. Ultimately, the research illustrated that levels of stress were high among the participants, no matter whether husbands were currently deployed or not. Implications for future research are discussed. This research is important given the critical role that family well-being plays in the performance of military personnel.

— Krista Ratwani, PhD, Editor, Spotlight on Research

Research Overview

The perception of social support has buffered perceptions of stress in military wives. However, due to current deployment schedules with an increase in frequency and length, stress may not be able to be buffered by social support. This study explored the relationship between stress faced by a sample of 119 Marine Corps wives in Camp Pendleton, California, and their perception of social support and well-being. Results indicate that overall perceived stress of these wives is high, independent of their husbands' deployment status. Further research directed toward military spouse stressors is necessary to better understand what support systems would be most beneficial to reduce or manage the stress.

Problem to Solve

Much research in the area of social support and military wives occurred in the late 1980s, when studies of social support increased, and the early 1990s, which focused on the effects of the Persian Gulf War (Rosen, Teitelbaum, & Westhuis, 1993). Since 2001, there has been an increase in family separation, with more than a quarter of families experiencing a deployed service member for 37–48 months (Greentree et al., 2010). This has led to an increased need for additional mental health support for the families of military members. Overall, the studies about military wives have shown a relationship between social support and stress (Orthner & Bowen, 1990; Orthner & Rose, 2003; Padden, Connors, & Agazio, 2011 ; Rosen & Moghadam, 1988). Rosen and Moghadam (1988) found that wives who perceived more stress, perceived an increased level of social support when they requested the support. Additional research is needed to understand how to increase the perception of support among military wives and, ultimately, reduce stress levels.

Solution and Approach

Limited studies, beginning in the 1970s, have shown that social support, or the perception of it, has the ability to mediate the stress related to the military lifestyle (e.g., Cobb, 1976; Klein, Tatone, & Lindsay, 1989; Rosen & Moghadam, 1990). Studies of military wives have shown that those who perceive to have supportive family and friends have an easier time adjusting to military life and maintaining family satisfaction (Klein et al., 1989; Orthner & Rose, 2005, 2009). Social support has been shown to have positive benefits that affect parenting (Posada, Longoria, Cocker, & Lu, 2011), which, in turn, increase family resilience, as children are better able to adapt to stressful situations (Abaied & Rudolph, 2010; Chandra et al., 2010). Social support can help lift the burden of psychological stressors relating to deployments and everyday living challenges surrounding the military lifestyle for Marines Corps wives.

The buffering hypothesis of social support asserts that the “resources of one's support system must match the coping requirements of the situation in order to provide an effective buffer” (Cohen & McKay, 1984, p. 263). To whom and when the social support is provided can be just as crucial as to what the actual support is. The buffering of stress may come about in different ways: First, by having social support, the intensity level of a stressful event may be reduced; and second, after a stressful event occurs, social support can minimize the effect of the stressor by providing alternative or encouraging beneficial coping mechanisms to the stressor (Cohen & Wills, 1985). This research aimed to test the buffering hypothesis.

Method

This study was cross-sectional in design, participation was voluntary, and all data were anonymous and aggregated. The following hypotheses were made:

  • Hypothesis 1: A higher rating of perceived stress increases the perception of social support.
  • Hypothesis 2: A higher rating of perceived social support positively relates to well-being.
  • Hypothesis 3: Having children increases the perception of social support as more resources are needed.
  • Hypothesis 4: Participants currently experiencing a deployment have increased perceptions of stress.
Procedure

The participants of this study consisted of 119 wives of full-time active-duty Marine Corps personnel stationed at Camp Pendleton, California. One hundred twenty-five surveys were completed; however, six data sets were eliminated due to outlier data points. Participants were recruited through e-mail and advertisements in the housing areas on Camp Pendleton. The participants' age ranged between an 18- to 20-year category and a 40-plus category, with 60% between the ages of 25 and 34. The large majority of the participants ( n = 93) were European American/White, one African American, 11 Hispanic/Latino, four Asian/Pacific Islander, nine multiracial/ethnic, and one “other.” In regard to education of the participants, 43.7% ( n = 52) had an undergraduate degree or higher. Nineteen percent of the participants ( n = 23) were married to the service member for 10 years or more, 50% ( n = 60) were married for 4–10 years, and 31% ( n = 36) were married for 0–3 years. Twenty wives were currently experiencing a deployment (16.7%), and 84 (70.6%) had at least one child living in their home.

Measures

A demographic section was completed by the participants, including age, ethnicity, education level, occupation, length of marriage, husband's rank and time in service, number of children (if any), residence on base or off base, and deployment status.

The following instruments were used: the Multidimensional Scale of Perceived Social Support (MSPSS), the Inventory of Socially Supportive Behaviors (ISSB), the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS-14), and the Psychological General Well-Being Index–Revised (PGWBI–R).

The MSPSS is a 12-item self-report measure (Zimet, Dahlem, Zimet, & Farley, 1988) that utilizes a 7-point Likert-type scale (1 = very strongly disagree , 7 = very strongly agree ). The items divide into three factor groups relating to the source of the social support: family, friends, and significant other (spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend, fiancée).

The ISSB is a 40-item questionnaire utilizing a 5-point Likert-type scale ranging from 1 = not at all to 5 = about every day . It measures the rate at which the participants report the occurrence of a particular behavior in the past 4 weeks. The ISSB has been shown to possess adequate test–retest reliability and high internal consistency ( r = .93), and has been found to be significantly correlated with network size and perceived social support from one's family (Barrera, Sandler, & Ramsey, 1981).

Stress was measured by the total score on the PSS-14, a 14-item questionnaire with a possible range of scores from 0 to 40 (Cohen & Williamson, 1988). Higher overall mean scores indicate greater levels of stress as perceived by the individual. The PSS determines the current levels of experienced stress in terms of how each participant finds her life unpredictable, uncontrollable, and overloaded. Participants rate how often they felt a certain way in the past 4 weeks on a 5-point Likert-type scale with the following responses: never (0 points), almost never (1 point), sometimes (2 points), fairly often (3 points), very often (4 points). The scale demonstrated good internal consistency (a = .90).

Well-being of the participant was assessed with the PGWBI–R. This scale utilized 22 items that measure six affective states: anxiety, depressed mood, positive well-being, self-control, general health, and vitality (Revicki, Leidy, & Howland, 1996). The PGWBI-R uses a 6-point Likert scale (0–5) with 13 items scored in reverse order, to evaluate the frequency of each aspect of well-being, with scores ranging from 0 to 110. Internal consistency was good (a = .93–.95).

Findings

Hypothesis 1 examined whether perceptions of stress (total score on the PSS) are related to perceptions of social support in Marine Corps wives (MSPSS and ISSB totals compared separately). A Pearson's correlation ( r ) was calculated on the total survey score of the PSS and the total survey score of the MSPSS to determine the relationship between the scales. A Pearson's correlation was also calculated on the total survey score of the PSS and the total survey score of the ISSB to determine whether there is a relationship between these two scales. The analysis showed no correlation between PSS and MSPSS or PSS and ISSB; perceived stress is not correlated with perceived social support with the Marine Corps wives surveyed (see Table 1).

Hypothesis 2 examined whether a higher rating of perceived social support positively correlated with well-being (total score on PGWBI). Pearson's correlation was computed on the total survey score of the ISSB and the total survey score of the PGWBI. The results of this analysis were not significant. A significant relationship was found, however, between the total survey score of the MSPSS and the total survey score of the PGWBI ( r = .316, p = .01; see Table 1).

Hypothesis 3 examined whether having children increases the perception of social support. Pearson's correlation was calculated on whether children are a part of the family, and on the total survey score of the ISSB as well as the total survey score of the MSPSS. There was no correlation between children in the household and perceived social support (see Table 1).

Hypothesis 4 examined whether Marine Corps wives who are currently experiencing a deployment have increased perceptions of stress. There was no relationship between perceived stress and whether the active-duty marine is currently deployed. The average total of the PSS-14 for wives who were experiencing a deployment was 37.6, and the average total of the PSS-14 for wives not currently experiencing a deployment was 34.71.

Table 1

Correlation Results with Social Support Scales

Measure MSPSS ISSB

PSS

r -.090 .007
p (two-tailed) .331 .941

PGWBI

r .316 a .125
p (two-tailed) .000 .174

Children in home (yes/no)

r -.001 .034
p (two-tailed) .989 .712

___________________________________________________________________________

Note. MSPSS = Multidimensional Scale of Perceived Social Support; ISSB = Inventory of Socially Supportive Behaviors; PSS = Perceived Stress Scale; PGWBI = Psychological General Well-Being Index–Revised. a Correlation is significant at the .01 level (two-tailed).

Additional Findings

Post hoc analysis revealed a significant negative correlation between perceived stress and general well-being ( r = –.217, p = .05). This finding indicates that an increase in perceived stress is correlated with a decrease in general well-being.

Assumptions and Limitations in Method

A limitation in the method is the inability to verify the information and data collected due to the self-report and anonymity of the participants. It is assumed that the participants who responded to the survey met the inclusion criteria and are being honest in their responses. The information collected may also be unique to Camp Pendleton and the deployment cycles of the units associated with the wives who responded to the survey.

Implications

The analyses of the data did not support previous research that found that a higher perception of social support buffered perceived stress in Marine Corps wives (Orthner & Rose, 2003; Padden et al., 2011; Rosen & Moghadam, 1988).

The first hypothesis, that a higher rating of perceived stress increases the perception of social support, was not supported by the data. Hypothesis 2 stated that a higher rating of perceived social support correlates with a higher rating of well-being. A significant relationship was found between the total survey score of the MSPSS and the total survey score of the PGWBI using Pearson's correlation. This result indicates that thoughts and feelings about social support, as measured by the MSPSS, were a better predictor of general well-being than behaviors of support (as measured by the ISSB), and therefore even when supportive behaviors are occurring, emotional support or understanding may be perceived as more encouraging for military wives. The test of Hypothesis 3 revealed no impact of children on the perception of social support. Finally, Hypothesis 4 demonstrated no relationship between perceived stress and whether the active-duty marine is currently deployed.

The post hoc analysis demonstrates that an increase in perceived stress is correlated with a decrease in general well-being. Therefore, this research illustrates that the Marine Corps wives with a higher perception of stress tend to feel worse overall and may need extra support. The intensity of perceived stress may be affecting multiple areas of their lives including their relationship with their husband, children, and friends; the ability to ask for help; and general functioning in the community.

The results of this study contradict previous research and did not support the buffering of stress through social support for the Marine Corps wives who completed the survey. This may be due to the heightened level of stress that Marine Corps wives experience in their everyday life, with social support doing little to relieve the impact of the stressors.

Upon reflection of the analysis, stress for Marine Corps wives may be a function of increased training during the predeployment phase, increased frequency and duration of deployments, decreased time between deployments, and increased risk of physical and psychological injury due to deployments to active-duty war zones. The result of similar high stress ratings of Marine Corps wives with deployed husbands and Marine Corps wives whose husbands are not deployed demonstrate how the constant training, time away from home, late nights at work, inconsistent schedules, and inability to anticipate last-minute schedule changes for active-duty Marines create as much perceived stress as having their husbands deployed to a war zone. Another possibility is that the continuous training and challenging environment could be creating an inoculation against the increased stress a deployment creates on Marine Corps' wives, and increases awareness and ability related to coping strategies, even while deployments are not occurring.

Tools are available at Camp Pendleton for families to acquire psychoeducation and information regarding deployment, stressors, and resources (e.g., FOCUS, CREDO, LINKS, New Parent Support Program, dstress.com, operationhomefront.com); however, the percentage of families using these programs and the perceptions and effectiveness of the programs related to decreasing perceived stress have not been available to research. There are also specific readiness and deployment support services (http://mccscp.com/readiness-deployment-support) available and accessible; however, research has not focused on whether these services do decrease perceived stress of the marine wife, increase well-being, or increase perception of social support.

Overall, deployment was not shown to be a factor in Marine Corps wives' perception of stress. Marine Corps wives at Camp Pendleton may be experiencing a high level of stress overall, whether or not the marine is deployed. Between long hours, last-minute changes in schedule, and multiple trainings away from home, deployments themselves may not contribute to an increase in Marine Corps wives' perceived stress. In the post hoc analysis, even though stress and social support were not correlated, stress and general well-being were negatively correlated, which is supportive of previous research findings. These findings could mean that when Marine Corps wives perceive higher stress, social support is not enough to buffer a general sense of lower well-being. Additional research is needed to understand the other factors that may contribute to lowering perceived stress levels and increase well-being among wives of military personnel.

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Author Note

For further information, contact Jennifer Woodworth, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.