Suicide Fact-Check: What Does Marital Status Have to Do with It?
We’ve been led to believe that marrying protects us from wanting to take our own lives. I looked at the data.
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 die by suicide 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 decreases social integration, so that also increases your risk of taking your own life.
Matrimaniacs believe these kinds of things, 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 die by suicide 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…