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Marital Status And The Family

Marital status has a strong association with rates of completed suicide. Suicide rates are higher in the divorced and widowed than in single people, who in turn have higher suicide rates than married people. This protective effect of marriage on suicide is stronger for men than for women, although it is found for both men and women (Gove 1972).

The strong association of divorce with suicide is found at the societal level as well as at the individual level. For example, nations with higher divorce rates have higher suicide rates, U.S. states with higher divorce rates have higher suicide rates and, within nations, years with higher divorce rates have higher suicide rates. This association is probably the most robust association found in suicidology. The associations between marriage rates and suicide rates and between birth rates and suicide rates are not as consistent, although they do tend to be negative associations more often than positive associations.

These associations fit well with the classic sociological theory of suicide proposed by Emile Durkheim (1897). Durkheim proposed that suicide would be common where the level of social integration—the extent to which the members of a society are bound together in social networks—was high (leading to altruistic suicide) or low (leading to egoistic suicide), and where the level of social regulation—the extent to which the behaviors and desires of the members of the society conform to social rules and norms—was high (leading to fatalistic suicide) or low (leading to anomic suicide).

Modern sociologists have argued that altruistic and fatalistic suicide are rare in modern societies and that it is hard to measure social integration separately from social regulation ( Johnson 1965). Thus, they propose that suicide varies inversely with the level of social integration/regulation.

The association between divorce rates and suicide rates has two interpretations. Composition theory argues that because suicide rates are higher in divorced individuals, societies with a greater proportion of divorced people will necessarily have a higher suicide rate.

However, looking at the United States, divorce rates are strongly associated over the states with interstate migration rates, alcohol consumption, and low church attendance. Thus, these variables form a cluster of related social indicators, and they perhaps tap some broad, abstract quality of society: perhaps social disorganization is an appropriate term. This broad social characteristic has an effect on all of the members of the society, not just the divorced, the alcohol abusers, or the migrants.

Christopher Cantor and Penelope Slater (1995) found that the suicide rate in Queensland, Australia, was highest for men who were separated, as opposed to men who were single, married, divorced, or widowed. For women, the divorced had the highest suicide rate. The increase in the suicide rate in separated men was greater in those who were younger (age 15–19) than in those who were older (over the age of 55). These results suggest that the time during the breakdown in the marriage may be more stressful for men than for women, whereas the state of divorce may be stressful for both men and women.

The higher rate of suicide in widows as compared to those married of the same may be because bereavement increases the risk of suicide or because widows and widowers who are prone to suicide are less likely to get remarried. Some old data from Brian MacMahon and Thomas Pugh (1965) indicate that it is bereavement—and not differential remarriage rates—that is the factor responsible. However, research (for example, a study by Arne Mastekaasa [1993] in Norway) also indicates that, once age is taken into account, the higher suicide rate in the widowed as compared to the divorced is no longer found.

Even though those who are married have lower suicide rates than those in other marital statuses, Walter Gove (1972) has documented that marriage is more beneficial for men than for women, in that the reduction in the suicide rate (and also in rates of psychiatric disturbance) is greater for married men than for married women.

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Social IssuesSuicide - The Epidemiology Of Suicide, Theories Of Suicide, Marital Status And The Family, The Protective Effect Of Children