Love and marriage, as someone once crooned, may go together like a horse and carriage. But if the horse goes one way and the carriage another, the danger of suicide increases.
That’s the key finding in “Marital Discord and Suicidal Outcomes in a National Sample of Married Individuals,” an article by four University of Colorado Boulder researchers published in the most recent issue of Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, the journal of the American Association of Suicidology.
“Across the U.S. there is a very strong association between marital discord, being unhappy in a marriage, and suicidal ideation and attempts,” says lead author Briana Robustelli, a PhD student in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, who co-authored the paper with Professor Mark A. Whisman and fellow students Anne Trytko and Angela Li.
The analysis was based on the responses of nearly 1,400 married Americans to a national survey given to nearly 10,000 adults in 2004. The researchers controlled for such factors as mood, anxiety and substance abuse disorders and concluded that marital discord “may be important to target in preventing and treating suicide.”
This doesn’t mean that unhappy marriages result in large numbers of suicides, just that discordant couples have a higher rate of suicidal ideation and attempts than happy couples.
“These events are still rare, happening in a low percentage of the population,” Robustelli says.
The researchers used as one starting point an “interpersonal theory of suicide” developed by researchers in 2010, which considers, among other things, such factors as “thwarted belongingness” and “perceived burdensomeness” in suicide.
“Those are two very poetic constructs,” says Robustelli, who has also been researching how gratitude can affect life satisfaction, “that seem to be especially important in predicting and explaining suicidal behavior.”
The first term has to do with feeling disconnected from others, while the second is the idea that one is a burden on others, both of which can contribute to suicidal thoughts and actions. Both can increase with marital discord.
Numerous studies have shown that unmarried people are more likely to consider or attempt suicide. Others have found that people who had been divorced, widowed or married in the preceding five years were at higher risk of committing suicide relative to those who had no change in marital status over the same time period.
And of course, satisfying marriages—researchers have actually defined that using a variety of markers including a 5-to-1 ratio of positive to negative interactions between spouses, Robustelli says—are generally beneficial, though studies have found that to be more the case for men than women.
This research indicates that an unhappy marriage may be more than just miserable, in some cases; it may be deadly.
“Some studies have found it’s better to be divorced or separated than stay in an unhappy marriage, that you may live longer if you get out,” Robustelli says.
Clay Evans is a free-lance writer in Boulder.