The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Deadly Divorce

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Back in the 1970s, when progressive activists pushed for permissive divorce laws, many of them argued that new laws would reduce the likelihood of spousal violence. If couples can separate easily, the theory presumed, spouses will not then harm each other. However, a study of spousal homicide in Canada (where no-fault divorce has been the law since 1968) makes this reasoning look dubious.

Published in Violence Against Women by researchers from the University of Guelph and the Nova Scotia Department of Justice, this study establishes a clear relationship between divorce and spousal homicide. In data for homicides committed in Canada between 1976 and 2001, the researchers limn a consistent pattern: “There is a positive relationship between divorce rates and male spousal homicide rates such that when divorce rates increase (or decrease) by 1%, there is a corresponding increase (or decrease) of about 0.88% in male spousal homicide rates.” A parallel pattern emerges for female spousal homicide rates: “Divorce rates were also significantly associated with female rates of spousal homicide. When divorce rates vary by 1%, female spousal homicide rates will vary by about 0.33% in the same direction.”

The authors recognize that their results are “consistent with other research” and that “the positive relationship between divorce rates and homicide rates has been a consistent finding in virtually all aggregated homicide studies.” Nonetheless, the researchers—fully aware of its politically incorrect implications—acknowledge that “our finding that divorce is positively associated with female and male spousal homicide roles seems to contradict . . . [the understanding of] divorce as a nonviolent mechanism for exiting a threatening relationship.” In other words, this finding ill accords with the view that divorce provides “a safety valve, reducing lethal violence between intimates.”

In proffering “one explanation for this association [between divorce and spousal homicide],” the researchers suggest that “divorce . . . [serves as] an indicator of social disintegration in society.” The researchers reason that “as social disintegration increases in society and social controls break down, rates of crime, including violence, also increase.”

Though few readers will quarrel with this plausible logic, many will find more helpful the researchers’ argument for a “substitution effect” to account for the linkage between higher divorce rates and higher spousal-homicide rates. Noting that men and women who divorce often then seek out other living arrangements, the researchers argue that “high divorce rates lead to increases in other types of intimate relationships such as common-law or extended dating relationships that may be violent.”

To support this line of logic, they note that “recent figures in Canada . . . [indicate] an increase in less formal, cohabiting or common-law relationships” and that “the increasing number of common-law relationships and/or separations are at least in part because of the rise in divorce.” Because Canadian officials have lumped together under the heading of “intimate-partner homicide” killings involving cohabiting partners, many homicides that the authors label “spousal homicide” may not involve spouses at all but rather previously divorced individuals now living in brittle and tempestuous non-marital relationships. “Thus,” the researchers conclude, “higher divorce rates indirectly lead to higher rates of spousal homicide through the resulting increase in relationships that have a high risk of lethal violence.”

Let no American suppose the post-divorce pathology teased out in this study sheds light only on problems north of the border: “Many of the patterns documented in the United States with respect to intimate partner homicide are paralleled in spousal homicide in Canada.”

(Myrna Dawson et al., “National Trends in Intimate Partner Homicides: Explaining Declines in Canada, 1976 to 2001,”Violence Against Women 15.3 [2009]: 276–306.)