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The “Marriage Effect” -- How Romantic Relationships Reduce Crime

Posted by Neil Shouse | Feb 08, 2017 | 0 Comments

We've all heard of couples who go on crime sprees together. There is even a scientific name for it: hybristophilia, popularly known as “Bonnie and Clyde syndrome.” Sexologists – yes, they exist – describe hybristophilia as a condition in which someone derives arousal and pleasure from having a sexual partner who is known to have “committed an outrage or crime, such as rape, murder, or armed robbery.”

couple imitating bonnie and clyde

Yet while hybristophiles and their partners get all the headlines, research shows that people involved in high-quality marriages or other committed relationships actually commit less crime than their single counterparts. This is part of what's known more generally as the “marriage effect” or “good marriage effect.”

Research suggests the effect holds true across most variables -- including race, IQ, immigration status, sexuality and income level. The only variables in which the marriage effect seems more or less pronounced seem to be gender and the age at which the relationship was entered into. The effect is stronger on men than women, and strongest in men who get married during young adulthood.

How the “marriage effect” reduces crime

Sociologists are still not entirely clear on why marriage often results in "criminal desistance," but they have some working hypotheses. For the sake of convenience, we will continue to use the word marriage, but keep in mind the marriage effect applies to any serious, long-term romantic relationship.

Relationships provide structure and supervision

A romantic relationship can be a source of material aid, such as money or housing. This is particularly important for people just getting out of jail, who may not otherwise be able to support themselves.

A partner is also a source of emotional support in the form of listening and sympathy. And while popular culture takes aim at women who “nag” their husbands, it turns out that being reminded to do the right thing often has a positive effect when it comes to staying free from crime.

Criminal activity jeopardizes the relationship

Once someone is married, the consequences of crime no longer affect just the person committing it, but the entire family unit. So for married people, criminal activity can lead not just to incarceration, fines and lawyer's fees, but to the loss of their partner's approval and possibly the relationship itself.

Additionally, people in a relationship often try to live up to their partner's positive expectations. Married people often expect their spouses to hold down a legitimate job, contribute income, support the household, and avoid activities that might threaten the family's economic stability.

Marriage offers new social networks

Another way in which marriage keeps people from crime is that the relationship “severs” the past and creates new social networks centered on family life.  As a result, people may spend less time away from the bad influences in their lives and the kinds of situations that lead to crime.

Marriage can also change the way people see themselves. In effect, it creates a new identify. People are no longer just individuals, but rather one-half of a couple. This can create a desire to conform to conventional norms that govern behavior, such as being a family's provider. Another way to think of this is that, for many people, marriage represents the final step to becoming an adult.

The negative side of the “marriage effect”

couple in bedroom, having problems

While marriage is generally beneficial for reducing crime, it can work the opposite way. “Street-oriented” partners may be more likely to accept, or even share, negative behaviors. In addition, people with a history of substance abuse are more likely to seek relief from stress through alcohol and/or drugs. For many people with a criminal past, staying drug-free is the key to staying out of jail.

Sociologists have found that this is a particular problem for women. Women, it seems, are more likely to become romantically involved with partners who share their interest in crime or substance abuse.

But they are not alone. Having a non-supportive partner creates a strong risk of recidivism for men who have just gotten out of prison. Many of them have no regular or lucrative form of income. For some, relying on a woman for financial support runs afoul of traditional gender norms that require men to be the breadwinner. This can create stress in relationship, especially if their partner is pressuring them to do better.

This doesn't mean that these partnerships always result in a return to crime or substance abuse, particularly if the partners are dedicated to staying sober and law-abiding. But the risk of relapse is higher than in relationships where one partner is sober.

How to make the marriage effect work for you

It goes without saying that the key to making the marriage effect work is a strong and positive relationship. It may also help to make a commitment to each other to remaining sober and law-abiding and to stay away from friends who are not also so committed.

But in case you should fail, it doesn't hurt to have the phone number of a good lawyer. Our caring California criminal defense lawyers understand how difficult overcoming substance abuse or a criminal past can be.

As Valentine's Day approaches, we you a safe and happy holiday, whether you're married or single. And in the unfortunate event that find yourself in trouble, we'll be here to help.

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About the Author

Neil Shouse

Southern California DUI Defense attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT).

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