Who needs marriage?

When it comes to suicide, at least, the answer is: “men.”

Jessie Bernard famously argued that every marriage is really two marriages, his and hers – and his was more beneficial than hers. We know, for example, that both men and women have more family income when they’re married, but that’s mostly because men earn more than women, and married men earn more than single men. We know that women often depend on marriage for their health insurance, because men’s jobs are much more likely to provide coverage. The recent debate about women’s reportedly-declining happiness highlights the slipperiness of subjective indicators of wellbeing.

Sociologists have always considered suicide to be the gold standard measure of psychological wellbeing. And marriage has historically been a key indicator of social integration, the source of belongingness that makes suicide less likely. Although Bernard believed that, with regard to suicide, marriage is more protective of men than of women, recent research has been more equivocal. Now, however, we have a good long-term study with a large U.S. sample that tests this, and finds that, as suspected, marriage protects men more than women from themselves.

Suicide Risk by Marital Status

Source: My figure from Table 2 in Richard Rogers, Patrick Krueger and Tim Wadsworth, “Adult Suicide Mortality in the United States: Marital Status, Family Size, Socioeconomic Status, and Differences by Sex,” Social Science Quarterly, 2009 (90[5]:1167-85).

Controlling for race, age and the number of people in the family, those in marriage relationships have the lowest risk of suicide from 1986 through 2002 (these are called hazard ratios). But the pattern is only statistically significant for men, and it’s much more pronounced. The authors offer reasonable explanations for this:

Marital status—particularly widowhood—is significantly associated with the risk of suicide among males but not among females. These findings are compatible with prior research that suggests that marriage confers greater health benefits for men than for women, potentially because women invest more time and energy than other household members caring for the health and well-being of children, husbands, and older family members. In turn, men are especially vulnerable to the risk of suicide when they lose that social support due to widowhood.

10 thoughts on “Who needs marriage?

  1. At first glance, this information seems unsurprising. Without access to the original study, I cannot ascertain if it included lifepartnerships among same sex couples under the category of “marriage”. Without this information, it remains unclear that the determining factor in suicide vulnerability is gender, rather than “access to services” such as care-taking, housekeeping, child-raising, cat-herding , …etc. which may be performed by members of either sex in a relationship or a community.


  2. Good point. Unfortunately, the study did not include same-sex couples among “married”, so we can’t answer that. It’s a nearly-universal problem in this kind of research. We also don’t know if the benefits of marriage are from its legal status or social status, rather than the caring relationship even among man-woman couples, because unmarried couples are hiding in the single population of the sample. This has been shown to reduce the observed benefit of marriage for men on wages, since some of the “single” people are actually getting some of the benefits. I’ve discussed this elsewhere about studies of same-sex parents, too (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/philip-n-cohen/same-sex-marriage-and-chi_b_184761.html).


    1. Thanks, I agree. We usually treat suicide like mortality in general – figuring it’s well measured, because virtually all deaths are counted. But maybe there is a suicide continuum that is not so well measured, ranging from knowingly engaging in unhealthy behavior, to reckless behavior, to suicide attempts, to successful suicides. Put that way it seems unlike to be well measured.


  3. replying to Philip Cohen: Actually, I remember having seen statistics that show men to be much more successful than women when they attempt suicide. So the results in your chart should be disentangled somehow from that separate trend.


    1. Right, though we only know the success rate if we really know the number of attempts (the denominator or the rate). Not to worry in this case – the analysis was within-gender: risk ratios between married and unmarried within each group.


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