More than half of all murders in Australia involve family members. The majority of them are committed by men who kill their partners. Here, as in many other countries, violence in the home is a major social problem. So it may come as a surprise to learn that marriage and other adult family relationships can actually help reduce crime.
Reducing marijuana use
In a new study I wrote with Carter Hay, we found that young marijuana users who went on to marry were less likely to have continued using the drug than those who remained single.
Other researchers have observed similar findings across a range of offences. The simple fact is that married people are less likely to commit crime than single people.
And, offenders who marry are less likely to reoffend, even if they have had long criminal careers.
Marriage may help reduce crime because married people feel they have more to lose.
Men and women also tend to think about how their wives and husbands might react when deciding how to act.
They are also more likely to avoid situations that might lead to crime or to spend time in the company of friends who encourage them to misbehave.
But we offer a different explanation. We show that marriage helps men and women abandon crime by enabling them to develop self-control.
The importance of self-control
Self-control is one of the most important differences between people who avoid crime and those who do not.
For over twenty years, research has shown that people who avoid taking risks, can easily defer gratification, and have little trouble controlling their impulses are much less likely to commit a variety of offences.
In our study, we found that improvements in a person’s level of self-control were related to changes in their use of marijuana over time.
And marriage was one of the most important sources of those improvements.
In fact, once we accounted for the changes in self-control following marriage, the effect of marriage on the chances of continuing to use marijuana declined.
This implies that getting married helps people develop greater self-control, which in turn, reduces the likelihood that they will keep using marijuana. It’s a virtuous circle.
Given that self-control influences people’s involvement in lots of different crimes, we think these patterns apply to other offences as well, including assault, robbery, or theft.
Self-control in marriage
So, how might marriage promote the development of self-control?
To begin, it often brings new expectations and standards of behaviour. Those standards may vary, but in most cases husbands and wives probably expect one another to be attentive, considerate, compromising, calm, persistent, responsible, and reliable.
Marriage may also give offenders a new interest in self-regulation. Most newly-married people expect their marriages to last and to provide many long-term benefits.
All else being equal, this should encourage people to more closely regulate their conduct to avoid acts that undermine the long-term benefits of marriage.
Finally, it may help by providing opportunities to practice self-regulation.
Practice makes perfect
There is some evidence that participating in self-control exercises, such as maintaining good posture, can lead to improvements in discipline.
We think that, in much the same way, marriage can provide people with repeated practice in using self-control in dealing with others, in providing for a family, or in maintaining a household.
Declining marriage figures
Given the correspondence between marriage and crime, you might expect that the declining rate of marriage in the community might cause the crime rate to rise. But there’s little evidence that offenders these days are taking longer to “go straight” than the criminals of previous generations.
This could suggest, as some criminologists have argued, that the relationship between marriage and crime is spurious. But I think it more likely reflects the fact that other important life events can provide some of the same benefits as marriage.
The most important of these is cohabitation. So living together, whether you’re married or not, may help to reduce crime.