SB 242: It Is Important to Know Marital Status with Regard to Domestic Violence

Do unmarried-partner households account for the lion's share of domestic violence? I think so, but it's hard to know for sure. There don't seem to be many statistics tabulated on the subject. Hopefully in Utah, with Senate Bill 242, that is about to change.

In 2000, there were just over 54 million households in the United States that contained married couples, and there were about 5,500,000 households in where there were unmarried partners. The percentage of unmarried-partner households in 2000, then, was about 9 percent.

About 7 or 8 years ago, after a presentation on domestic violence, I asked the police officer who had given the presentation what percentage of domestic violence occurred in unmarried-partner households. He told me that they didn't keep those kind of statistics, but that if he had to estimate based on his experience, 70% of domestic violence occurs in unmarried-partner households. If that's true, it definitely pays to make a marriage commitment.

I suspect that the police officer is about right. But it's hard to know for sure. Is it because we're afraid of what we'll find if we start keeping those stats? So what? It's high time we start tracking. I may be wrong, but I would not be surprised at all if unmarried-partner households account for a far higher proportion of domestic violence than their proportion of the US population. Married-partner households are by no means immune from domestic violence, but I'll wager that the public commitment called marriage has a generally very positive effect on the domestic lives of those who choose that commitment.

I did some searching on the internet for comparative statistics on domestic violence. I found stuff like
Domestic violence is a learned pattern of behaviors used by one person in a relationship to control the other person. The partners may be married or not married, gay or lesbian, living together, separated or dating.
That's true, but I think it's very misleading. By the way, I couldn't find actual married vs. unmarried statistics on domestic violence.

That's why I support Utah Senate Bill 242, Law Enforcement Tracking of Domestic Violence Statistics. This bill would require law enforcement to report, among other things, the "marital status of the parties involved". So far, this bill appears to be very uncontroversial, having passed the Senate by a vote of 27 - 0 - 2.

If we keep such statistics, I think we'll find that unmarried-partner households do commit a very disproportional amount of domestic violence. Domestic violence should never occur, but I suspect that one of the greatest curbs to domestic violence is marriage itself. I'd like to know if I'm right, and these statistics will help.

Either way, such statistics should be kept. If I'm wrong about my hunch, then it will be good to know. But if I'm right, it will be an indication of another very good reason for government to foster healthy families, especially including the encouragement of the most important individual commitment to society--marriage.


  1. I agree that it would be interesting to see the statistical numbers on abuse between married/non-married couples. I also agree that we probably would see a huge imbalance in these numbers. But, the larger question is how do we interpret these results? Does it really mean more abuse happens in non-married relationships or just more abuse is reported? How to be determine non-married? Would couples who are dating but non cohabitating be grouped with couples who are committed and living together?

    I would hypothesize that the gap isn't as large as the numbers will tell. Those who are married might be less likely to report abuse because they are "locked" in the relationship. Finances are more likely to be tied together and the one being abused may not have the financial stability or sense of independence to leave the relationship.

    Those are just a few of my initial thoughts/questions in reaction to this data collection. I would like to see solid numbers, bu I worry that the data will be mis-used at the expense of innocent folks because they 'why' question will not be asked.

    For the record, I am in a non-married relationship. We have been living together for 7 years and never once have we even had a yelling match. That is more than I can say for many of our married (LDS and non-LDS) counterparts.

  2. Heather,

    You make some very helpful and compelling comments. I especially can agree and extend your example to that of an LDS wife who sees herself as very active in her Church would be averse to publicizing that her spouse abuses her.

    Also the financial intertwining might likely cause an abused spouse to "just live with it" instead of leaving.

    I hope, in a sincere effort to get to the fundamental reasons for abuse, that we will honestly answer all the questions you have posed and more.

  3. Frank, I agree that any kind of information we can gather around domestic violence incidence rates is helpful. Speaking as somebody who spent 18 months trying (fairly unsuccessfully) to document domestic violence incidence rates in SE Asia, I'm a big believer that more knowledge in these types of areas is never a bad thing.

    However, I worry that you're confusing correlation w/causation.

    There are a lot of paradigms that clinicians use for viewing domestic violence. I always found one of the most compelling was the pathology paradigm.

    Domestic violence often isn't linked to an absence of love or good intentions. Rather, it's viewed as a pathology that sits on top of that love. It lives within an otherwise healthy relationship the same way a common cold lives within an otherwise healthy human being.

    If you buy into that view of domestic violence, institutional sanctions (or lack thereof) won't likely have a very profound impact on domestic violence incidence rates.

  4. There has actually been quite a bit of research done in this arena already, but not specifically in Utah.

    It is known, for example, that serial cohabitation produces domestic violence rates several orders of magnitude higher than long-term cohabitation (whether the partners are married or not). It is also known that as many as 60% of single mothers that are welfare recipients have been victims of domestic violence. We also know that black women, in particular, face a dramatically increased chance of being a homicide victim if they use resources aimed at helping victims of domestic violence.

    The U.S. HHS Dept has documented a higher rate of domestic violence among unmarried partners than among married partners. But researchers were unable to discover whether marriage was a determining factor. Other factors such as joblessness and low income were likewise indicated, but researchers could not say for certain whether these were symptoms, causes, or both.

    Is it possible, for example, that people that are prone to abuse gravitate to unmarried cohabitation and/or serial cohabitation? Maybe we have a chicken-before-the-egg question here.

    It would be nice to get a lot more data on this phenomenon. But we need to make sure that we gather sufficient of the right kinds of data to help answer questions that past studies have left unanswered.

  5. Anonymous,

    My hypothesis is that failure to commit to a relationship in the sense of getting married is an indicator that domestic violence will be more likely in that relationship.

    I think that's causation, but it might be correlation.

    I would have to know more about the "pathology paradigm" to determine whether I agree with it.


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