Last June, the progressive blogosphere erupted in outrage over an article I published in the Washington Post on marriage and domestic violence. Much of the outrage was understandable, as the first headline the Post ran was inflammatory, inaccurate, and unapproved by me:
But some of the outrage directed towards the article focused on the conclusion that Robin Fretwell Wilson and I drew about the connection between family structure and the safety of women and children. We pointed out the data show that women and children are much less likely to be the victims of violence when they are living in an intact marriage: “Married women are notably safer than their unmarried peers, and girls raised in a home with their married father are markedly less likely to be abused or assaulted than children living without their own father.”
This conclusion, and the substance of our article, raised the ire of Mona Chalabi at FiveThirtyEight, who wrote that we “misused the data on violence against women.” Our sins? We reported a Department of Justice study showing that married women are markedly less likely to be the victims of intimate partner violence than are single women and women living in “other household” arrangements, and another DOJ study that found that never-married women are almost four times more likely to be victims of violent crime, compared to married women.
The problem with featuring this research, according to Chalabi, was that we did not qualify it by acknowledging that other factors such as “education, income and race could also partly explain trends in intimate violence” and even confound the link between marriage and women’s safety. Forget, for a second, that reportage and commentary on bivariate relationships is now a staple of explanatory journalism (e.g., Vox’s recent report on racial disparities in police shootings). Let’s just take Chalabi’s critique at face value: Is it possible that dramatic differences in domestic violence associated with marital status are really just a consequence of underlying socioeconomic differences between married women and unmarried women—for instance, that married women tend to be better educated and better off than their unmarried peers?
Data Indicates Marriage Itself Makes a Major Difference
Not likely, judging by an article posted yesterday at Family Studies by Nicholas Zill, a psychologist and the founding executive director of Child Trends. Using data from the 2011-12 National Survey of Children’s Health, which surveyed more than 90,000 parents of children aged 17 and under, Zill reports that domestic violence is much lower in families headed by intact, married parents. The figure below shows differences, by family structure, in the odds that parents reported that their child had ever seen or heard “any parents, guardians, or any other adults in the home slap, hit, kick, punch, or beat each other up,” after adjusting for differences in the sex, age, and race or ethnicity of the child, as well as family income, poverty status, and parent education.
So, even after controlling for Chalabi’s pet variables—“education, income and race”—Zill finds that homes headed by never-married, separated, or divorced mothers are about five times more likely to expose children to domestic violence, compared to homes headed by married, biological parents. What’s more: family structure outweighs education, income, and race in predicting the odds that children witness domestic violence in the home.
To be sure, Zill’s new analysis does not cover childless women, and the question posed in this survey does not specifically focus on violence against women in the home. But Zill’s article tells us that American mothers and children are much more likely to live in violence-free homes when the mother is married to the father of her children. This relationship holds even after taking into account the confounding variables Chalabi was most concerned about. So, at least judging by what’s happening in American families, this new study provides yet more empirical evidence in support of the thesis that married homes are safer.
Marriage Even Matters More than Money
The close correlation between marital status and violence in the American family does not prove that marriage makes families safer. As Wilson and I noted in The Washington Post: “part of the story is about what social scientists call a “selection effect,” namely, women in healthy, safe relationships are more likely to select into marriage, and women in unhealthy, unsafe relationships often lack the power to demand marriage or the desire to marry. Of course, women in high conflict marriages are more likely to select into divorce.” In other words, high-quality relationships are more likely to turn into marriages and steer clear of divorce court.
But it’s also likely that at least part of the story here is causal. That’s because, as we also pointed out in the Post: “men tend to settle down after they marry, to be more attentive to the expectations of friends and kin, to be more faithful, and to be more committed to their partners—factors that minimize the risk of violence.” It’s also the case that the family instability and low commitment associated with forming families outside of marriage—often, now, in a cohabiting relationship—generates its own conflictual dynamics. Research from the University of Chicago has found, for instance, that jealousy and violence are more common among cohabiting couples than married couples in the United States.
The bottom line: this new study provides yet more evidence that violence against women (not to mention their intimates and children) is markedly rarer in families headed by married parents regardless of how well-off or well- educated mom is. We can speculate about the precise mechanisms—is it the commitment, the stability, the mutual support, the kinship ties, or the sexual fidelity marriage fosters more than its alternatives?—that accounts for this empirical link. But what should be clear to analysts willing to follow the data wherever it leads is this: a healthy marriage seems to matter more than money when it comes to minimizing the scourge of domestic violence in American families.