Understanding the Marriage Effect: Changes in Criminal Offending Around the Time of Marriage

This article could be elaborated thanks to the financial support from the Norwegian Research Council (grant number 167302/V10) and Statistics Norway which is gratefully acknowledged. Also we would like to thank Jukka Savolainen, Willy Pedersen, TuridNoack, Terje Skjerpen and seminar participants for useful comments on this work. A version of this article was published in the Journal of Research in Crime and Deliquency, January 21, 2013. It was first published by the GEMASS in December 2011 as GeWoP-2.

This paper is published by the Groupe d’étude des méthodes de l’Analyse sociologique de la Sorbonne (GEMASS - CNRS, Paris Sorbonne, FMSH) in Paris, under the cover of the Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme’s collection of working papers.

Social bonding theories argue that marriage has a restraining effect on criminal offending. Given what is known about marriage and union formation in contemporary Western societies, it is realistic to assume that the social and emotional bonding between married partners predates the actual date of marriage. In consequence, if these processes influence criminal behavior, we should expect significant reductions in offending several years prior to marriage. Independently of the social bonding theory, it is possible to treat marriage as an outcome of rather than a causal agent in the process of criminal desistance. An individual who has “cleaned up his act” may be more attractive in the market; marriages may be unlikely to occur at elevated points of the criminal trajectory for this reason. These issues have received limited attention in prior research. In this study we examine criminal offending trajectories using a within-individual design and population-wide register data on Norwegian men who entered marital unions in the years 1995-2001 (N=120,821). Our results show a gradual and substantial decrease in offending levels during the five years prior to marriage, followed by a small but a non-trivial increase after the formalization of the relationship. Overall, the decade around the marital event is  characterized by major strides towards criminal desistance. However, the effect of marital event is negligible relative to the amount of desistance that takes place prior to marriage. Earlier research may have overstated the importance of marriage as a discrete life course event as a causal factor in criminal desistance.