Fraternization, dating, and sex in your unit: How close is too close?

As many Service Members know, relationships with your teammates are a key measure of military performance. Close relationships defined by loyalty and shared values (often called “cohesion”) help teams communicate, stay motivated, and perform well.

But relationships that are “too close”—including any that are prioritized over the mission—can have a negative impact on morale and overall performance. Any relationship that jeopardizes readiness or safety can be problematic as well. While “too close” relationships can occur anytime, deployed Service Members might be at even greater risk, especially if they’re living in close quarters or isolated areas.

So, how close is too close? It’s a good question, and the answer might depend on your branch policy. Take a look at some different scenarios that help explore the issue.

Fraternization

As it’s described in the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) under Article 134 of the Manual for Courts-Martial (MCM), “fraternization” is a relationship that either compromises the chain of command, results in favoritism or impartiality, or undermines order and morale. Typically, it applies to unprofessional relationships between officers and enlisted Service Members, and it can potentially extend beyond that.

Fraternization is often considered in the context of romantic relationships across the officer-enlisted divide, but the policy includes much more than that. Fraternization can apply to close friendships, business relationships, or even certain financial exchanges between Service Members of different ranks, regardless of gender.

Since the context of the relationship is so important, it sometimes can be difficult to know if fraternization is occurring. It’s important to remember fraternization isn’t about whether a personal relationship exists between two people or between an officer and enlisted. It’s ultimately about maintaining order and whether or not your relationship disrupts the standards for military functioning.

Dating

Even if you’re the same rank and not violating DoD regulations, romantic relationships with fellow Service Members can be tricky. Working with someone you’re romantically involved with can distract you from your duties. You could end up spending less time developing your relationships with other teammates as you focus on your love life, which can impact team cohesion. Your relationship also can negatively affect the morale of those around you, especially those who are likely separated from their loved ones during deployment. And there’s always a risk that your relationship can end on bad terms, which can impact your ability to effectively work together afterwards.

Sexual relationships

Another consideration is the effect of having a sexual relationship with someone in your unit or even at your installation. While consensual sex in theater isn’t prohibited, it can lead to potentially negative effects on readiness or morale. Adultery, wrongful cohabitation, and sexual misconduct are all potentially serious offenses outlined in Article 134 of the MCM as well. In some cases, these types of relationships among unit members have the potential to “sexualize” the work environment, making it difficult to stay mission-focused.

Finally, it’s important to consider the effect of pregnancy on readiness. The rate of unintended pregnancy among active-duty females is almost 50% greater than their civilian counterparts. In addition, once a woman becomes pregnant, she must be immediately evacuated from theater and remain non-deployable for the duration of her pregnancy plus a minimum of 6 months after it ends. A teammate’s absence can affect unit readiness and even morale.

Bottom line

A close bond with your unit members can build cohesion, make your team stronger, and optimize your performance. It’s also natural that Service Members working closely together might develop personal or even romantic connections. But when those connections (or their consequences) start to affect order and readiness, they might need to be reevaluated.

Learn more about the different branch policies:

Resources

Ahronson, A., & Cameron, J. E. (2007). The nature and consequences of group cohesion in a military sample. Military Psychology, 19(1), 9–25. doi:10.1080/08995600701323277

Harrell, M. C., & Miller, L. L. (1997). New Opportunities for Military Women: Effects Upon Readiness, Cohesion, and Morale. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

Rabie, N. Z., & Magann, E. F. (2013). Unintended pregnancies among US active-duty women. Women's Health, 9(3), 229–231. doi:10.2217/whe.13.21

Wise, S. (2014). Can a team have too much cohesion? The dark side to network density. European Management Journal, 32(5), 703–711. doi:10.1016/j.emj.2013.12.005

Cox, W. T., III. (2007). Consensual sex crimes in the armed forces: A primer for the uninformed. Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy, 14(2), 791–813.