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Marriage May Calm a Criminal Impulse in Men

Likewise, divorce can send past offenders back into lives of crime.


Over the July 4th weekend I was on a trip with some friends, a trip that included a long drive down a series of long, one-lane country roads. At one point in the drive, a very aggressive driver in a pick-up truck sped up behind us and then recklessly passed us, going over the double-yellow line in the process. We hadn’t been going slow, but I guess it was too slow for that guy.

As he raced and weaved away into the distance, my friend who was driving commented that every time she encounters a driver like that, she likes to tell herself that “they must be going through a messy divorce.” I told her I really like that tactic: it helps you to not take things personally, and it’s probably more effective in diffusing your irritation than yelling curses out the window.

In a roundabout way, though, my safe-driving and healthy-perspective-having friend may have put her finger on an interesting point. Divorce is upsetting and disruptive by nature, of course; as it turns out, this is especially true in the lives of criminals.

Divorce is upsetting and disruptive by nature, of course; as it turns out, this is especially true in the lives of criminals.

A report out now in the journal Psychology, Crime & Law measured the impact of divorce on male offenders, by looking at their criminal activity both before and after a marital breakdown. The two co-authors, psychologists Delphine Theobald of the Institute of Psychiatry in the U.K. and David P. Farrington of the University of Cambridge, studied data involving 400 London men from over 50 years. In the U.K., following worldwide trends, divorce is on the rise—currently at 45 percent, according to the Office of National Statistics there.

This study found that a healthy marriage may decrease a man’s propensity to commit crimes. Emphasis on healthy: if the female partner happens to also be bent on a life of crime, those benefits are lessened (all of the men in this particular study are heterosexual).

First, the authors refer back to a similar, often-cited study that Farrington had co-authored in 1995 with psychologist Donald West. That research had previously found that getting a divorce relatively early in life (before the age of 26) significantly increased a man’s likelihood of being convicted for a crime in the next five years of his life.

That could indicate correlation rather than causation, however; the same problem factors that increase the likelihood of criminal behavior (like substance abuse and underlying psychological issues) could also potentially make it difficult for a person to sustain a long-term relationship. But another statistic from the same study is more telling: “In within-individual analyses, where each individual acted as his own control ... offending rates increased by 44 percent during periods when the man were separated compared with periods when they were married.”

As an extension of this previous research, Farrington and Theobald returned to the very same group of males, all born around 1953 in South London, whom psychologists have now been following for over 40 years. Now that the men are all about 60 years old, there is much more data to be mined there. The researchers were able to look at marriages and divorces later in life and the impact they had on criminal behavior. So this study looked at how many times the men have been convicted of crimes both five years before and five years after the break-up of a substantial (at least three-year-long) marriage. It ignored misdemeanors but included crimes like burglary, grand theft auto, fraud, assault, sex offenses, drugs, and vandalism.

The results supported the original hypothesis: the men who divorced from their wives had an increase of 18 percent in their conviction rate from before the divorce, and the men who stayed married had a decrease of 80 percent in their conviction rate. In trying to explain why this might be true, the authors offer this bleak scene:

Men whose offending reduced following marriage may find that experiencing a marital breakdown rekindles deep-seated vulnerabilities. If their coping mechanisms are not good and they lose access to their children, and/or have continued conflict with their ex-partner and suffer financial stress, they may resume behaviors that they had stopped or reduced when they were married. If they are not engaged in family life and the routine activities associated with marriage ... they will also have more time to connect with undesirable friends and/or become embroiled in heavy drinking and drug use. Such men no longer have anything to lose.

So, all of this is to say—my erratic-truck-driver example aside—it is not necessarily the case that divorce simply causes crime. Rather, it is to suggest that healthy marriages can help to mellow an otherwise unstable life, and after that stabilizing force is gone, that turmoil and the crime that can accompany it will often flood back in.