Ever since I started studying single life, there is a name that has been tossed at me with some regularity: Emile Durkheim. He was the French sociologist who in 1897 said that unmarried people kill themselves more often than married people do. Marriage, he believed, provided a measure of social integration in a society that single people lacked. Getting divorced disrupts your life and plunges you into anomie, so that also increases your risk of committing suicide.
Matrimaniacs love this stuff, and they claim that Durkheim’s conclusions from the late 1800s are still true today. They even have studies to point to in supposed support of their boasts. The authors of The Case for Marriage, who got so much wrong that I could have devoted every chapter of Singled Out to a critique instead of just one, said that “both widowed and divorced persons were about three times as likely to commit suicide as the married were” and that “never-married” people also kill themselves more often than married people do.
You know where I’m going with this. I actually studied the studies!
It is even more difficult to determine the implications of getting married for suicide than for other experiences such as health or happiness. With something like happiness, you can follow people over the course of their adult lives as they stay single or get married or get divorced or widowed, and see how their happiness changes. But suicide is a one-time event. So we are stuck with comparing people of different marital statuses, who are all different people. People of different marital statuses differ in many ways other than their marital status. That means we can never know for sure whether any differences in suicide really are due to marital status, or to some other way that people of different marital statuses differ.
What researchers try to do to get around this problem is to think up other factors that might be the true explanations for any apparent marital status differences, and control for them. In the study the Case for Marriage authors cited, only one alternative explanation, age, was included in the statistical analyses.
Currently married people, though, differ from single and divorced and widowed people in other ways that could also be important to the suicide equation. Income, education, race, and region of the country are among the additional factors that sociologist Augustine Kposowa considered in his analysis of data from a large nationally representative study of Americans 15 and older.
In 1979, data were available from the National Longitudinal Mortality Study on the marital status of nearly a half-million Americans. Records of suicides between 1979 and 1989 were also available.
Overall rates of suicide in the U.S. are typically about 1 in 10,000 per year. That small base rate is important to keep in mind when you hear claims about a certain group committing suicide twice or even three times as often as another group.
Kposowa found that among the women, there were no significant differences in rates of suicide among those who, at the outset of the study, were currently married vs. divorced vs. widowed vs. always-single. In fact, the always-single women were actually slightly (though not significantly) less likely to commit suicide than the married women.
Among the men, those who had always been single and those who were widowed did not differ from the currently-married in their rates of suicide. The divorced men were about twice as likely as the married men to commit suicide over the course of the decade.
The lack of any significant difference in suicide rates between the always-single and the currently married, for women or for men, is especially telling. As always, the comparison is not a fair one. People who got married, hated it, and got divorced are not included in the married group. Even so, those left in the married group were no less likely to commit suicide than the people who had always been single.
Divorce did matter in a negative way, but only for men. What seems important about divorce is not that the men end up unmarried. Remember that the men who had always been single were no more likely to kill themselves than the men who were currently married. Instead, having once been married and then getting divorced seems to be the risk – again, only for the men.
I wonder whether, in time, even that difference will disappear. A study of mortality from all causes offered some data consistent with the possibility that divorce these days just does not have the grim implications that it did in the past. The definitive research has yet to be done. I’ll be looking for it.