Divorce Is a Risk Factor for Suicide, Especially for Men

Divorced men are more likely than divorced women to die by suicide

Posted Jun 30, 2019

The link between divorce and suicide has been known since the pioneering sociological studies of Emile Durkheim. In the United States, the rate of suicide among persons who are divorced or separated is usually reported as about 2.4 times greater than the suicide rate for married persons. A successful marriage, it seems, can be a protective factor against death by suicide. Conversely, separation and divorce seems to raise suicide risk.

Kposowa (2003) made an extremely important point about the "married versus divorced" suicide divide. Dr. Kposowa noted that there were huge differences between the suicide rates among divorced men, as compared to divorced women. In fact, the data showed that, compared to divorced women, divorced men were nine times more likely to die by suicide. Put another way, for every one divorced woman who dies by suicide, there are nine divorced men who do so.

This 9-to-1 ratio dwarves the 3.5-to-1 male "advantage" we typically see in suicide deaths. In 2017, for example, 36,782 American men died by suicide, versus 10,391 American women. Clearly, the disparity in deaths among divorced males is not simply the result of men being generally "more suicidal than women." Therefore, something more than the typical explanations for the male-female imbalance in suicide death (e.g., men choose more lethal means, men are more likely to abuse substances, men are more aggressive, etc.) is at work.

Dr. Kposowa, a sociologist at the University of California–Riverside, suggested that society has undervalued the strength of paternal-child bonds, and thus underestimated the traumatic effect of severing those bonds through our typical custody arrangements. Further, we fail to appreciate the catastrophic financial impact of divorce on men, and the anger and resentment engendered by losses of both property and status in the wake of a divorce settlement. 

I suspect that something else is afoot. Couldn't it be that the personality and social factors that contributed to the failure of the marriage also contribute to excess suicide risk afterward? Couldn't the risk factors for divorce in men be related to the risk factors for suicide in divorced men? Female dissatisfaction with the marriage is a stable predictor of an eventual divorce. Perhaps we should consider marital behaviors that might lead to such dissatisfaction.

Suppose that a certain married man spends more than he makes, runs up marital debts, makes poor financial decisions, drinks too much, eats too much, shoots his mouth off at people who could make him pay for it, and makes sexual advances toward women who are not his wife. In other words, we observed a marked pattern of impulsiveness, poor decision making, poor self-discipline, and poor inhibition. We might label this category of behaviors as poor frontal lobe functioning, or low conscientiousness. After the eventual divorce, when contemplating his situation, might this person also be at higher risk of making yet another ill-advised decision, this time in the direction of self-inflicted death?

Now suppose a second man who throws himself into his work, to the detriment of his social relationships. His friendships gradually fall away. His wife and children feel ignored or worse that they are regarded by him as inconveniences. He works late at night and on the weekends, drawing a quiet satisfaction from his steady advancement and his growing purchasing power (not that he encourages the "waste" of his hard-earned money on vacations or entertainment). At some point, he is genuinely surprised to be handed divorce papers by his wife or by a sheriff's deputy hired to do the deed. Hadn't he given her everything a woman could want? Never mind that he had not so much as touched her or looked into her eyes for a matter of years.

After a divorce, such a man is bereft. There are no friends to offer solace; there are only co-workers (and they are seen mostly as competitors or as means to an end). Trying at this late date to build a relationship with his now distant children is futile; they are strangers to him. He is wary of dating other women, convinced as he now is that women just intend to rob him of his property through means of the family court. Isolated, friendless, without a single companion — surely this is a fertile ground for suicidal planning and execution.

Our third man also has few friends but for a different reason: He is a nasty piece of work. He uses sarcasm and insults to belittle other people and to keep others at a safe distance from him. He was not above using the threat of physical violence on his wife in order to "keep her in line." He would hit his kids too, when he suspected that they were smirking at him and that fact that the had not yet achieved the success and recognition that he knows is due to him. He gets into arguments at work; he yells and swears and honks his horn at people in traffic. 

As a newly divorced person, this angry and aggressive man is left alone to nurse and nourish his resentments. He enjoys some fantasies of revenge, on his ex-wife, on the kids who "testified against me" during the hearing, on the judge and his "no good lawyer." He drinks and uses drugs in order to stir up a little excitement ("it's boring in this studio apartment by myself"). He picks up one of his handguns, and he puts it into his mouth, "just to see what it feels like."

Our last hypothetical divorcee wasn't surprised at all that his wife wanted to divorce him; it was a bit puzzling to him all along why she ever married him. He spent most of their marriage feeling low, and not really having the energy or motivation to improve his situation. He was his own worse enemy, he knew, and he would spend hours a day, reminding himself of what a "loser" and "failure" he was. This, of course, made him feel even worse about himself. His wife begged him once to get some kind of help, but what would be the point of that? He was a hopeless case and he knew it. The divorce just proved the point he had been making to himself all along. He was just a burden to everyone around him. People would be better off without him around.

The great American suicidologist Edwin Shneidman observed that consistency is one of the common features of all suicides; that is, people's deaths tend to reflect their lives — if we look closely enough a pattern can be discerned that traces the elements of a person's life to the dynamics surrounding their death. It is always important to remember that we lose individual human beings to suicide, each in his or her own way, for reasons peculiar to him or her. When we make simplistic claims like "divorce causes suicide," we risk losing sight of the individual tragedies involved.